Here’s the world’s biggest non-secret: I love to eat. Food culture in fiction? Cannot get enough of it. And probably, if you ask most other living people, you’ll find that this isn’t uncommon. Food is good, books are good, combine it and you should get something good.
So why are scenes in which characters eat delicious food, described in loving detail, usually kind of boring? Or why do people give you advice about not having sit-down meals in your manuscript? Is this something to be avoided entirely (like the dread First Chapter Mirror Moment) or can you get away with feasts, breakfasts, and family meals if you’re careful?
Here’s what I came up with.
Stakes Before Steaks. What’s the end goal of every chapter? To move the story forward and convince you to keep reading. What do we need for that? Conflict. A story is not built on things going well. And as great as eating with other people is, it’s also not typically a conflict-ridden situation– people tend to be more invested in eating rather than fighting.
It also points to a possible antidote for a dull meal scene: add a dash of tension! If your society gala or royal feast is all small talk and no political legerdemain, then chances are we’re not going to be particularly invested in whether or not everyone has a good time. It’s also hard to advance a we-need-to-save-the-world plot at the table, but you might find that you can drive a little more on emotional or internal arcs during these scenes.
For example, in one of C.S. Pacat’s CAPTIVE PRINCE books, Damen and Laurent share a meal at an inn while concealing their identities. That scene isn’t driving the main plot as aggressively as others (Damen isn’t trying to escape back to Akelios or kill Laurent), but no one would say it fails to increase tension between the two characters (it’s arguably one of the first times Laurent shows weakness around Damen) and is an important moment in their romance arc.
What’s often missing when meals feel boring is a sense of what matters in that scene/what we have to lose. Probably the main character’s food isn’t going to be snatched from them, so what else are they worrying about in that moment? Is their meal poisoned? Are they going to learn something about one of their tablemates that harms one of their relationships?
A Sit-down Kind of Place. Part of why meal scenes are difficult to make compelling are because there’s often just not a lot to do besides eat. If everyone is sitting, then they’re probably mostly communicating with their faces, which is going to feel repetitive and a little boring the fourth time someone communicates disappointment with a sigh.
One possible way out of this is to have your characters use physical cues that aren’t facial expressions to communicate their feelings. And certainly you can get characters to engage with their environment more by getting lunch to go, walking and eating, or having ice cream cones by an interesting spot like the ocean.
But there are also many ways to make sitting down at a table dramatic– just watch any Regency TV show. Hone in on those tiny ways we communicate with our actions while dining: a fork pausing after a tasteless comment, someone spilling a glass, griping a cup too hard, eating to avoid having to answer, the habits of careless eaters, careful eaters, engulfing food versus savoring it, etc. You can clue us into a character by how they eat.
Ripe for Info-Dumping. Meal scenes often struggle because, being a lull in the action, it’s really tempting to work in overly ambitious amounts of worldbuilding while people take a breather and savor their food. How many fantasy cookfires have you sat around where the main character(s) know they’re safe and there’s pages of exposition on how magic works or why the ~great cataclysm~ happened?
What’s the fix? Maybe some of that information does get conveyed over a meal– especially when you’re working in a world that takes a long amount of time to build, sometimes you do need to slow down and just tell people what’s going on. It doesn’t have to be pulse-pounding action-action-action all the time, but see what other arcs you can tug on while you’re layering that information in. Maybe the wizard’s familiar is pulling on the ranger’s hair while they’re trying to explain what happened to their village, maybe someone’s overcooked the stew and one of the party members walks out in a huff mid-prep to catch a fish that they can cook properly this time, or whatever.
Maybe there’s another solution entirely where you don’t have to use an eating scene to explain it! Maybe we see the village being destroyed on the page, or maybe there’s a battle and the characters demonstrate their powers and abilities that way.
If you’re relying on a dinner scene to give us a breather from the action and also to explain things, chances are there’s probably an opportunity to show rather than tell earlier in the manuscript. Your instincts are probably still right about the reader needing a release of tension, though, so you might need to find another way to accomplish that, with or without food.
This falls under the Yuschik School of “it pulls double or treble its weight or it gets the yeet.” If you’re feeding them because you need downtime to explain stuff, you’re taking up valuable page real estate with a scene that’s doing only one thing.
Above All, Savor the Meal. If showcasing the food and dishes important to the cultures of your characters isn’t important to you, then ask yourself: must this be a food scene?
Specifically, what I’m saying is: you have a very limited amount of space in a book. It doesn’t seem that way when you’re writing it all the time, but what you choose to include says a lot about the feeling of the setting and how we imagine it. In THE SCORPIO RACES, food isn’t central to the plot at all, but we know what people on Thisby eat and how meals look different when you have money or you don’t. It’s part of the beauty of Maggie Stiefvater’s worldbuilding that we instantly think Malvern’s a weirdo and kind of gross, all from the way he adds butter in his tea.
There’s apple cake, meat for water horses, and all this is before we even get to the famous November cakes. It’s the small touches that give us an idea of what daily life is like on the island and builds the world.
How many feast scenes have you read where all these kings and noble dudes are just waving nondescript turkey legs around (and enjoying, presumably, whatever else pairs well with turkey legs)? Contrast that with the specificity above– we’re not in Anyshire, Fantasy Realm or even Anytown, UK: this is a place with its own distinct flavor.
(Sorry, I had to do it.)
So in short, my feelings are: there’s nothing wrong with a scene where people are eating as long as it’s not being used as a crutch. Done well, banquet scenes can be the most fascinating in a book (I’m looking at Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive books, which all open with a different POV character’s perspective on a seminal, disastrous feast).
What are some of your favorite feasts in fiction? Least favorite? Drop ’em in the comments– I’m always up for new recs.
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Now get out there and make stuff.