How to Write an Eating Scene

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

In my workshops I warn students about scenes where two friends sit down for dinner orpeople-146963_1280 coffee and talk about life, the universe and the plot. The temptation is to have it all easy-peasy because, after all, they’re friends. The danger for the writer, though, is that without conflict or tension the scene takes on the dreadful patina of dullness. Which means it is the readers who lose their appetite … for reading on!

Sometimes I will hear the rejoinder that this is what we do in life. We have coffee with friends, we have dinner with pals. Why can’t we put that in our books?

Well, I say, you have fuzzy slippers in your life. Do you put them in your books? (Okay, well, if you do, put snakes inside them.)

Then I say that fiction is not a reproduction of real life. It’s a stylized rendition of life for a fictional purpose. And the most important part of that purpose is keeping readers glued to the page! A scene featuring “happy people in Happy Land” doesn’t stick.

Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t do a quiet scene with friends or allies in a Starbucks or a restaurant. The trick is to have something going on that gives off a vibration of tension. It’s not that hard to do, either. But the effect on readability is palpable.

Let’s have a look at an eating scene from Michael Connelly’s Echo Park. Harry Bosch is investigating an old murder for the Open-Unsolved unit of the LAPD. He’s asked FBI agent and profiler Rachel Walling for help. Bosch and Rachel had once been intimate, and have started up again, though they are uncertain about the wisdom of this.

In this scene, Connelly wants to give us a lot of information and theorizing about the case. That could easily make this a “talking head” scene. But Connelly knows better than that. Bosch has arranged to meet Rachel at a fancy downtown restaurant. The scene begins:

Bosch had lost track of time while in the library. He was late. Rachel was already seated and waiting for him. She was holding a large one-sheet menu that obscured the look of annoyance on her face as Bosch was led to the table by a waiter.

“Sorry,” Bosch said as he sat down.

“It’s okay,” she replied. “But I already ordered for myself. I didn’t know if you were going to show or not.”

She handed the menu across to him. He immediately handed it to the waiter.

“I’ll have what she’s having,” he said. “And just the water is fine.”

He drank from the glass already poured for him while the waiter hurried away. Rachel smiled at him, but not in a nice way.

So here’s the first tip: find some form of TENSION between the allies. In this case, Bosch is late for his meeting. Rachel is annoyed. We want to keep reading to see how this will play out.

Rachel then warns Bosch that he’s not going to like what he ordered. It was sashimi. She knows Bosch wants his fish cooked. Oops. But Bosch decides he better let it go and give Rachel the info he has.

This leads to the second tip: make the FOOD a source of discomfort. Bosch has begun his summary of the events:

It took him fifteen minutes and during that time their lunch was served. Of course it came fast. It didn’t have to be cooked! He felt lucky to be the one doing all the talking. It gave him a ready excuse not to eat the raw fish put down in front of him.

[As the scene moves on, Rachel finishes her sashimi. Bosch then pushes his own plate, which he hasn’t touched, over to her.]

“No, I’m not saying that Olivas was the killer. I am saying he was gotten to by the killer. He and O’Shea. The real killer came to them and made some sort of a deal.”

“Harry, this just sounds so …”

She didn’t finish. She pushed the sashimi on her plate around with her chopsticks but ate very little of it. The waiter used the moment to approach the table.

“You didn’t like you sashimi?” he said to her in a trembling voice.

“No, I –”

She stopped when she realized she had almost a full portion on the plate in front of her.

“I guess I wasn’t very hungry.”

“She doesn’t know what she’s missing,” Bosch said, smiling. “I thought it was great.”

Third tip: Use the servers to provide a well-timed INTERRUPTION. Here, Rachel was about to tell Harry how his theory sounded. But before she could continue, the waiter comes back to the table. This is a clever ploy, delaying the payoff, which is another way to say that Mr. Connelly knows how to make us read on.

Here is a slice from my novel Romeo’s Way. Mike Romeo is under cover in San Francisco, trying to get hired as security for a political campaign. Kat, the campaign aide he has made contact with, is interviewing him. Mike proved himself earlier that day, and now Kat takes him to dinner at Fisherman’s Wharf on the campaign’s dime.

“I can only get back so far into your past,” she said. “I get back to when you were fighting, but before that there’s virtually nothing. There was some fluff of a bio in a program once, but to be quite honest with you, it didn’t sound believable.”

“That’s because it was fiction,” I said. “They needed something, so I made something up.”

“Okay, then what’s the real story?”

“It’s not something I choose to publicize.”

“And that,” she said, “is what interests me.”

“I also believe in privacy. What I choose to keep private is nobody’s business.”

“Which means you have something to hide.”

“Everybody has something to hide,” I said. “Tell me about your sex life.”

Her cheeks flushed, obvious even in the candlelight.

“See?” I said.

“I could get really mad at this point.”

“But you won’t,” I said. “Because it’s not a good move. And my impression of you is that you make nothing but good moves.”

Before she could answer, the waiter appeared with the bottle of wine.

In this clip, I have used a fourth tip: CONFLICTING AGENDAS. Kat wants Mike’s full background. He doesn’t want to give it. They both want to test each others’ boundaries. And then the waiter interrupts.

So there you have it. Four simple ways you can turn a sitting-down-for-coffee-or-food scene into readable fiction: tension, food, interruptions, agendas.

Mix and match according to taste. Your readers will enjoy the meal.

9+

39 thoughts on “How to Write an Eating Scene

  1. Great techniques. I try to use some variation of them as often as possible. I also use the interruption technique when the character is noshing alone. It’s a great time for her to see someone she doesn’t want to see, who shouldn’t be there, whom she thought was dead, whatever. It stops too much introspection and immediately adds tension.

    • Good tip, Stephen. When a character is alone the danger is too much ongoing rumination. Using other characters to break that up is a good way to go.

  2. Great examples, both.

    When I hear the objection about “Why not write it when we do it in real life?” it always makes me think of how on TV the cop’s personal car is wrecked and magically they have enough time and money to instantly get a new car. In real life you’d be dealing with doubled insurance and figuring out what you had to do without & who you could hit up for a loan to buy a new one. Ditto for when an arsonist sets their house on fire or blows it up–next thing you know they’re in some new swanky digs, no problem. No lease agreement fines, no nothing.

    Fiction definitely doesn’t imitate life in that sense.

    • Right, BK. In law shows on TV, too, they always get to trial in the space of one commercial break. In real life, trials are delaaayyyyed for a variety of reasons … and most of the time are settled or plea bargained out before trial. But there’s little drama in that!

  3. I love how you highlight added conflict in an individual scene. Great tips. Connelly’s examples not only have conflict and humor peppered into it, but they reflect the characters’ personalities in their actions & POV.

    Server purposes for a well-timed interruption can definitely add tension or humor or add to sexual tension as in your example of Romeo’s Way. Good stuff.

  4. Perhaps the only thing you missed is that as well as conflict, etc., the scene should move the story forward in some way, even if it’s just a sub-plot (e.g., a romance sub-plot) that is moved forward.

    I try not to have eating scenes at all, although sometimes they’re necessary, e.g., if seeing the character’s kitchen is important for character development, or is symbolic or is mirroring, or is the only way the two characters would logically meet up, etc.

    • Yes, Sheryl, it really goes without saying that if a scene doesn’t move the plot or deepen the characters, or both, it shouldn’t be there at all.

      I actually like eating scenes. I use them to give the reader (and characters) some breathing space. But that does not mean the scene needs to be dull.

      And thinking of Jordan’s comment, above, I realize I like to have a little humor in there, too. In taut suspense it’s good to have some subtle, comic relief.

  5. Useful tips. Thanks.
    Reading this scene focusing on craft makes the slight head hopping POV quite evident. It’s done often by A number of great authors.
    I don’t think I noticed it years ago before I started writing. Can’t say it’s “wrong” but now it is a tiny speed bump for me when reading.
    Just an observation.
    Your scene does a lot with very few words – nice. Will check it out

    • Tom, I made a formatting mistake in the second Connelly clip. The line As the scene moves on, Rachel finishes her sashimi. Bosch pushes his own plate over to her. appeared to be part of the scene. I’ve fixed that. Which means Connelly’s POV is sound.

      My apologies Mr. C and to our early readers!

  6. I love eating, so my characters must, too. Some of them even cook, which seems to be a variation on this. But so true, it can’t be lunch for lunch’s sake–there has to be conflict and plot advancement.
    It can also be very sensual. Eating ice cream was the lead-in to the first sex scene in my first book.

  7. That’s one way of telling a story. A story like that, no matter how good, would tire me out. Though conflict is crucial for any story, a do enjoy quiet moments where the virtually nothing happens. For example: after a string of stressful events and the main character is drained and need time to recharge. Do they spend quiet time alone or do they spend time with loved ones? What things go though their head? What do they do for fun and relaxation? What encourages the characters to go and finish the plot? Moments like this is what increases readability for me. This, to me, is one important way to make characters feel real.

    • Interesting thought re: “nothing happens.” I think something should happen on every page, even if it’s simply a beat inside the character. It can be a “quiet” scene, a scene of repose. But I’d ask, repose from what? From the heart of the story, which is high stakes conflict. In which case, there’s going to be some element of worry, fear, concern in the character’s heart, even as she eats her ice cream, which she observes is melting too fast … like her love for her husband.

  8. Jim, When I first tried my hand at writing, I thought, “This will be a snap. I’ll write about baseball. I know baseball. No problem.” But when my wife–my first reader and sometimes severest critic–read the first part of the novel, she asked, “So what?” There was no tension, nothing at stake. You’ve done a great job of showing that there has to be tension, even an undercurrent without overt manifestations, throughout the book–even the eating scenes. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Thanks for all the great tips, Jim.

    I especially enjoy the “conflicting agendas.” And that’s one that does occur often in real life. I love to listen to two people talking about two different things, the conversation getting more and more divergent. The desire to interrupt and set them on the path of clear communication, is always outweighed by waiting and seeing how long it will take them to realize they’re not communicating.

    I really enjoyed Romeo’s Way.

    • Thanks, Steve, for the good word.

      If I happen to overhear a convo at Starbucks or the like, it always sounds like “real life.” Which is why I usually go right back to writing!

  10. Forgot to mention that Robert Crais (and I’m sure other authors) have fun ways to interject food and necessary daily routines while showcasing the personality of the protag. Elvis Cole is a foody and his stake outs are full of his interesting zest for food. His books make me hungry.

  11. And I find “family meals” like Thanksgiving or Easter particularly ripe for tension and conflict. And readers who can identify with different agendas, and the opportunity to air old grievances which become relevant to the story. The interruptions can come from the passing of food.

    • Maggie, you reminded me of that scene in every Blue Bloods episode where the whole family has dinner together. There’s always some form of contention somewhere. These would be good examples to study.

  12. Thank you for the great examples and the discussion. Another really helpful post. In real life I offer (threaten) to order for people who have forgotten their glasses or can’t make up their mind.

  13. Ha! This is great. I never really considered that we do, indeed, use eating scenes to such good effect. Yet looking back, I now see I do it all the time. It is a great way to use what I call a “quiet scene” wherein you have to convey info yet have something going on in the background so it’s not all talky-talk about the case or whatever. But you and others are so right that it has to do more — and in good hands, it always does. I like doing this with bar scenes as well. One of the best chapters my sister Kelly ever wrote was three cops, stranded in a snowstorm on Mackinac Island, getting smashed in a bar because they have nowhere to go. They begin talking about the case but as the whiskey flows and the night grows long, the talk slides into the men each talking about their daughters. They get stupid, maudlin and ultimately poignant.

    Am going to be attuned to this device in future when I do critiques!

    • And there’s another good tip, Kris. When the “whiskey flows” bad things can happen. So let it flow! There’s a saying somewhere about what a man reveals when he’s drunk is who he really is … something Mr. Gibson found out the hard way some years ago.

  14. Re-reading all the comments has me thinking. Eating scenes are probably nothing more than “setting” scenes. Early on in my learning the craft days, a workshop presenter told us to check where our scenes were taking place, and if your characters hadn’t moved for a bunch of chapters, you should pick up the story at a different venue–a park, a restaurant, in a car … just somewhere else. That opens the story for more character reveals, more ways to engage readers and use more of their senses. Who can walk into a Thai restaurant and not be hit by the exotic aromas? Without going back and checking, I’d say all my books have at least one “food-related” scene. In the course of my “research” I was buying beer for a table of detectives and just listening to their banter. And yes, I used it in one of my books, although I changed the venue to a breakfast meeting.

    • Well, I’m not sure I’d say “nothing more,” but their use as a way to move to a new setting is certainly another good reason. It can add some local color. Connelly (and, ahem, I) always use real L.A. eateries, which are part of the city’s vibe. The restaurant in Echo Park is Water Grill in the heart of downtown.

      • You’re right — ‘nothing’ was a poor word choice. Maybe “another” would have been better. And I have very fond memories of DuPars with my dad. I’m reluctant to use too many real eateries, since once I do, they tend to close down. I hate to be the kiss of death to a restaurant.

  15. Thanks, Jim.
    Actually i was referring to the menu obccuring her look of annoyance in the first clip(Bosch describes the “obscured”)..
    Small potatoes. Liked these examples -esp how much revealed in smooth fashion in Romeo scene.
    Bosch is brilliant per MC mastery. One of my favorites.

    • I was going to mention that, being a “Deep” or “Intimate” POV person, but Connelly’s POV handling is more shallow, or distant, so I let it pass. Glad I’m not the only one who noticed.

    • Yes, I took it to mean he could see part of her face (“obscured” meaning here to partially cover). It’s a good critique-group discussion point, though.

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