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Food for Thought: Are Your Characters Overeating? -- by Rune Michaels

We all eat, and apparently, so do our characters. We may plough through a critique of a stubborn manuscript in progress and feel like eating is all these people ever do.

Writing about food and eating and drinking seems to come naturally to many of us. When we are fighting our way through the plot jungle and we get stuck on a particularly thorny branch, reaching for a cup of coffee or turning towards the kitchen is often an easy way out. This is what many of us do in real life, we stand up, reach for a cup of coffee or just happen to wander past the fridge or pull that chocolate bar out of our bag. And at the same time, the same thing is happening to our character. We're not quite sure what happens next, but our character sits down for a meal. She buys a donut. She ponders the benefits of butter versus coconut oil.

I have seen this so many times in my critique partner's manuscripts. I usually bring up the question: Do they really need to eat here? It is up to the writer to decide.

Sometimes they do need to eat! Descriptions of dinner, lunch, cooking and teatime often have a purpose. We may use them to slow down the pacing, to provide filler between scenes or to break up tension.

But do they serve our story?

Food is important to us. We not only survive on food, we enjoy it, we use it to comfort us and it is often the central point of our social gatherings. Some of us enjoy cooking and love sharing what we know with our reader. In fiction, you can say a lot with food -- but you can also say a lot of nothing with a description of your character working his way through dinner. Even if your character is going through a lot of metaphysical angst, do we really need to know this much about his peas and potatoes? Food descriptions are probably often one of those "parts that people skip" that Elmore Leonard once advised us to leave out.

The point is, food descriptions can become long-winded and boring. Take a good hard look at any place where your characters are eating or drinking. Are the scenes necessary? Are they relevant? Is your gorgeous description of the chocolate mousse vital to your story?

Let's take a look at these three examples from recent bestsellers in various genres:

I put in the meat and roots, swap in fresh rocks, and go find something green to spice it up a little. Before long, I discover a tuft of chives growing at the base of some rocks. Perfect. I chop them very fine and add them to the pot, switch out the rocks again, put on the lid, and let the whole thing stew. -- The Hunger Games
by Suzanne Collins, page 267

As he was sucking the meat off the bones of his quail, he asked Illyrio abou the morning's summons. The fat man shrugged. "There are troubles in the east. Astapor has fallen, and Meereen. Ghiscari slave cities that were old when the world was young." The suckling pig was carved. Illyrio reached for a piece of the crackling, dipped it in a plum sauce, and ate it with his fingers. -- A Dance with Dragons
by George R. R. Martin, page 26

Sandberg, the youngest person at the meeting, was sent out to get some food. He came back with sushi and light beer and passed both around the conference table. Gullberg felt a thrill of nostalgia. This was just the way it was in his day, when some operation went into a critical phase and they had to work around the clock. The difference, he observed, was that in his day nobody would have come up with the wild idea of ordering raw fish. He wished Sandberg had ordered Swedish meatballs with mashed potatoes and lingonberries. On the other hand, he wasn't really hungry, so he pushed the sushi aside. He ate a piece of bread and drank some mineral water. -- The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest
by Stieg Larson, page 100

It is well done (pardon the pun...), isn't it? Even from these short excerpts we can tell that the food descriptions are seamlessly worked into the story.

This is how food descriptions need to be done. If there, they need to have a purpose. They can provide information about character and setting, time and place. They can show you interaction between a character, describe how a character behaves to his dinner companion, to waiters, if he knows his way around a kitchen -- or a campfire -- or not. They can show her tastes, her habits, her moods and her state of mind. It can provide a way for dialogue to flow more smoothly.

Just make sure (warning, another pun coming up) you don't overdo it...

As an exercise, let's take a few story starters, which you can work on with your PAD if interested:

She poked the cold eggs on her plate with the wooden spoon.

Raisins. His palm was full of them, but he wouldn't be able to eat them.

"Add salt to taste, it says." I shook the cookbook. "What kind of a measurement is taste?"

"Have some more cake," I say. I tap my gun. "I insist."

Thoughts: Which images to those sentences bring to mind? What kind of a story could they belong to? Do you think the food is in some way important to a scene or are these throwaway sentences which should be edited out?

Could sentences like these be relevant to your manuscript? Try writing around them, evoking a sense of time and place and atmosphere.

Try looking through your manuscript, using a search feature. Search for keywords such as "ate" or "dinner" or "food". Take a long hard look: is the scene vital or interesting? Do you need it, do you love it? And if you love it, but reluctantly aknowledge that you don't need it, should it be cut?

Thoughts? Opinions? Do your characters tend to overeat? Do food scenes annoy you when reading? Are they parts you leave out? Am I making a shepherd's pie out of a peanut?

And now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go make myself some green tea, with a slight hint of mint, in the purple china cup from Madrid, and select a dark chocolate from that box my cousin's grandmother got me for my birthday before we had that blow-out over aunt Eileens divorce from that crazy heart surgeon.


Rune Michaels :

Posted by Rune Michaels 14 Aug 2012 at 13:44
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Responses to this blog

Sigrun (administrator) 18 Mar 2014 at 20:05  
haha I wonder if this was written with me in mind I do tend to let my characters eat a tad too much and to be a just a little bit too descriptive

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