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Writing Food

Michael R. Underwood

Michael R. Underwood

Everybody eats. And in many cases, eating scenes can be a great way to liven up your fiction. It’s easy to write a conversation that becomes nothing more than a wall of text if your characters are just standing or sitting somewhere, doing nothing. In reality, very few people are ‘doing nothing’ during a conversation, but when they’re talking and eating, you get notable opportunities to enrich the scene, especially in terms of sensory description.

First off, if your characters are eating, you get to describe the food. Growing up, I was a huge fan of the Redwall books by Brian Jacques, and he had some of the best food descriptions ever, when the happy mice and friends of Redwall would lay out incredible feasts. George R. R. Martin also has some great feast descriptions, and one of the ways Martin distracts from the wholesale slaughter is with incredible sensory feasts.

A Feast of Ice and Fire (detail)When writing your food descriptions, make sure to talk about the smells, sights, and tastes. Does the food look better than it tastes? Taste better than it smells? And so on. Is the food so hot it scalds the roof of your mouth, luke-warm, or cold enough to numb your tongue? What does the POV character think of the food? Is it the first thing they’ve eaten in days, so even the worst gruel tastes like a feast? Does the food remind them of someone, some place, from their past? Smell and taste have great hooks in memory, which provides an opportunity for a well-timed reminiscence – especially if a character is eating on their own and you don’t otherwise have a way to add dialogue to the scene.

If you do have people talking while they eat, are they *literately* talking while they eat? Is one person a slob while the other is very proper, tucking a napkin into their shirt? Does one person have incredible table manners, even when dining during the zombie apocalypse? There’s tons to mine here.

And on a very basic, prose level, you can punctuate the conversation with beats for eating. Someone takes a break in a speech to drink some water. A tense silence is broken by someone asking for the ketchup/salt/etc.

One of the more fun scenes in Celebromancy was when Ree and Drake sit down for some plotting over pizza. Ree is a messy, aggressive eater, while Drake is a proper gentleman – the disjunct in their manners and in the juxtaposition of putting a proper Victorian-ish gentleman in a pizza parlor helps make the scene all the more memorable, in addition to being able to put in diet-crushing descriptions of buttery deep dish crust, juicy bites filled with spinach, cheese, and flaky crusts, and so on.

Eating is so central to our lives, and many people have very particular relationships to food – associating it with family (for good or ill), with their childhoods, and so on. When your characters sit down to break bread, the opportunities are a veritable cornucopia for a writer willing to slow down and enjoy the meal.

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One Comment

  1. The sushi scene early on in the book is a pretty fun one, too.

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