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Eating…or Cheating?

It’s December, and I’ve been doing a lot of eating lately.

How many of you tiptoed in here today with a guilty glance at that slab of leftover pumpkin pie on the plate beside you? Relax! I’m not talking about dieting. At least not our own. This is all about the characters who inhabit our books. It’s seems we, as writers, have put them on a starvation diet.

I was watching an episode of the Walking Dead a week or two ago that made me think. The characters were eating, of all things. And no, the zombies weren’t the ones chowing down, but the living people. As I watched, aghast, I realized there was so much you could tell about the characters as they sat around the table sharing a meal. The uneasy silence, broken only by the clink of knife and fork as they scaped against the plates…the furtive glances from one of the characters who was guarding a secret. The distance between the two “clans” of survivors. And the young lovers who passed a note back and forth under the table.

Huh? I thought eating was cheating, according to those in the know. No meals. No sitting down to talk over a cup of coffee. That’s boring stuff. So I watched some of my other favorite shows and made some interesting observations.

There’s a whole lot of eating going on. And I think it might just be okay. Here’s my evidence:

  • In the Big Bang Theory, how many episodes have you seen where the four friends haven’t gathered in Sheldon and Leonard’s apartment eating from takout containers while discussing life’s mysteries? Or where they didn’t sit together in the university cafeteria and chow down? Not many.
  • One of Patrick Jane’s signature moves is to ask for a cup of tea. In fact, in the season finale, he is in the mall sipping his customary tea when he comes face to face with his arch nemesis. It’s a pivotal moment.
  • In the Walking Dead, the two groups are shown preparing food, one inside a house with modern equipment and the other outside near their encampment under much more primitive conditions.
  • Bugs Bunny is shown more often than not munching down on a…wait for it…a carrot.
  • In Friends, the coffee shop plays a central role in the characters’ interactions.
  • The family in The Waltons gathered around the table on a regular basis.
  • Terra Nova portrays a strange new world. Some of this is done by introducing foods that were previously unknown.

So, is eating really cheating? It can be. If your characters have nothing better to do, and you find yourself merely filling pages as you move from one plot point to another, then yes, eating can be cheating.

But when is eating okay?

  • When it forces a type of intimacy. Think of two character who couldn’t share the same space at one point, and who suddenly find themselves thrown together, whether nibbling crudités at a wedding reception or huddled around a campfire gnawing charred hunks of meat off a stick.
  • When eating sets a mood. It can be romantic, uncomfortable, light-hearted, or fearful. It’s not the eating itself that accomplishes this, but the way the characters eat. One example would be the Walking Dead episode I mentioned earlier, where the meal highlighted the distance and wariness between the two groups. The two young lovers were the only ones reaching out to one another, and they were forced do so in a sneaky fashion. No open fraternization allowed.
  • When you need to share important information with your readers. Eating provides a way to get crucial details across while keeping the background noise, well,  in the background. What’s more mundane than munching fried chicken and slurping a milkshake? There are times when you don’t want what the characters are doing to overshadow what they’re saying.
  • When it creates a contrast. Sometimes the contrast of sitting down to eat while running for your life can be interesting for readers. In one of my manuscripts, the characters are trekking through a jungle (fleeing terrorists) and come across a snake. Well, you can guess what happens next. They have to take their meals when and where they come. I think Patrick Jane’s tea drinking habit provides an interesting contrast. It’s such an innocuous act, and yet it disarms those around him. Suspects then underestimate what he’s capable of. His boyish smile (often flashed at inappropriate times) does the same thing.

So, I no longer think of eating as the Great Taboo of writing. I think I’m ready to let my characters tiptoe across that line I’d drawn in the sand and let them enjoy an occasional slice of pumpkin pie.

What about you? Do your characters eat? If so, how do you keep it interesting? I’d love to hear your ideas and views!

38 responses to “Eating…or Cheating?”

  1. Elisa Beatty says:

    Absolutely! People reveal so much of themselves around the table.

    Especially in historicals, meals (particularly those eaten in Society) were times of great intrigue and jockeying for status. You can have lots of drama–flirtations, political dealmaking, devastating etiquette mistakes, the skewering of reputations–over that lobster bisque….

    Yum! Let them eat cake, and pretty much anything else you can think of!

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    • I love that, Elisa. I can see how historicals would have a lot going on around the table. Those meals weren’t something whipped up in a flash and then scarfed down on the way out the door. So glad to hear that others have dining scenes in their books!

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  2. Mmm, pumpkin pie!

    Excellent post, Tina. I have a dining scene in every one of my books, come to think of it! Maybe it’s because I love food and I’m always thinking about my next meal. You can learn a lot about a character and what’s important to them by the way they approach food. Do they hoover up food in two minutes or do they savour every bite? What does that tell you about their personality?

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    • Me, too, Vanessa. In all my later manuscripts I have some kind of scene where the characters are shown eating. But you know what? When I first started writing, I remember hearing a “rule” that those were boring, so I avoided having my characters chow down for ages! Now, I just try to make sure the eating is not gratuitous. 😉

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  3. Rita Henuber says:

    I agree with Elisa people do reveal a lot about themselves when they eat. Also what they eat and how they eat. I have a character who was a monster as a child, her words. She used food to get back at her family. Either not eating or coming up with bizarre food combinations to upset her family. She ate them for so long she began to like them. One of the carryovers she has an adult is a thick deli slice of bologna smeared with peanut butter wrapped around a pickle spear. Ewwww! She also has a very high metabolism and can eat more than most men and still remain very thin. I think there is a reason why dates are generally at a meal. The dinner table used to be the place where families came together to discuss the day’s events and things that happened and it was an intimate time and intimate feeling. Too bad that is an event that’s on the decline.

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    • Rita, great point about dates normally happening over a meal. I think the public-with-an-intimate-feel of dinner at a restaurant provides the best of both worlds when real-life couples are getting to know each other.

      I laughed at the peanut butter/bologna/pickle spear combo. Love that character detail!

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  4. I have to agree w/Vanessa – I have a dinner scene in all of my books. But in each one, very important plot details are revealed – it isn’t just idle chit chat. I also use it to showcase setting (i.e. picnic on the beach, or uber-glamorous cruise ship dining room), and have the characters react to it. The caution of no eating/drinking is a good one for new writers, who might be tempted to infodump at a kitchen table, but once you know your way around a plot, it can be a very useful device.

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    • I think you’re right, Christi. Maybe that’s why I tiptoed so carefully around those scenes when I was a newer writer. And I do think you have to have a valid reason for the dinner scene–as you do for any scene. It’s way too easy to let your characters veer off course and start talking about the weather.

      I love what you added about using a meal to showcase your setting. Great point!

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  5. What a great post, Tina!

    I tend to avoid dinner scenes, although INTRUSION has one. When the hero sits down to eat and sees peas on his plate, it becomes a real struggle for him to remain indifferent. They bring back bad memories of his father’s treatment of him, so Cam starts shoveling the peas in his mouth just to get rid of them. It was a good spot for the heroine to see that Cam had his own demons.

    Your post made me see that I don’t need to shy away from having my characters sit down for a meal. Sometimes it works! 🙂

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    • Cynthia, I think you’ve shown the perfect example of a dinner scene done right. Revealing something profound about your character (like equating peas to something in his past) defintely moves your story forward. Can’t wait to read Intrusion (fantastic title, by the way)!

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  6. Umm, looking forward to that snake scene in your upcoming book, Tina!I sometimes have my characters eat to reveal something, and I even use it a bit with the horses, to show their personalities as well. I think as long as we have something to move along the story, it’s fine. Nice post!

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    • Lol, Bev. The snake scene is from The Surrogate (my 2009 GH finaling book), so it’s not in the book that’s coming out in January. My heroine’s reaction, though, is probably what my own would be–shudder.

      I love that you reveal your horses’ personalities through the way they eat. Very cute! And I agree with you completely, eating should be used for a reason–it can’t just be a way to mark time.

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  7. Kelly Fitzpatrick says:

    I love feeding my characters. There are so many sensations to eating, sight, smell, taste and sound. I think where they eat, what they eat and why they eat is very telling. So, writers, feed your characters. Fun post, Tina.

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  8. I read that rule in a particular, highly praised book on writing, and I may have closed it on the spot. There’d already been plenty of indications that the author didn’t respect romance — or at least wasn’t thinking about romance when writing his book — but that one sealed the deal for me. I felt that following his advice would turn every book into a thriller, and subtlety would vanish from the shelves.

    I love the dance of a meal, whether it’s intellectual foreplay (as a romance might be), or awkward (as in The Walking Dead). But every scene in a novel must advance the plot and force the characters to grow in some way. I don’t see why meals should be singled out. I’ve read plenty of boring chase scenes!

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  9. Vivi Andrews says:

    I never knew eating was supposedly cheating. In Ocean’s Eleven, Brad Pitt is eating in nearly every scene he’s in, but that (like the shows you listed above) is a visual media example. Is it just body business? Something for the actor to do with his hands?

    In my current manuscript, my hero brings my heroine food constantly (she get sucked into her work and forgets to eat without his prodding). But it’s never JUST them eating. I guess my litmus test would be to ask myself, would I describe this in a synopsis as “H/h eat” or “H/h call a truce” – if it’s the former, it’s gotta go. Eating is a scene setting, not a plot point… unless someone chokes on a chicken bone and keels over.

    Very interesting, Tina. I’ve never really thought about how starved characters must be in some books. Never allowed to eat! 🙂

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  10. Hope Ramsay says:

    Oh absolutely my characters eat. And they have so many places in which to do it:

    1) The Kountry Kitchen — the only cafe in Last Chance, where Stone gets free coffee every morning from the pretty waitress who is sweet on him. There have been any number of scenes I’ve set at the Kountry Kitchen, where skinny Yankees shriek in horror at the calorie and fat laden offerings. And where history was made back in 1968 (but I can’t tell you about that — you’ll have to read the books.)

    2) The Red Hot Pig Place — outside of town, where you can get Carolina Barbecue. That’s the kind that’s made with vinegar and pepper, not tomato sauce. Fights have been known to break out at the Red Hot Pig Place where dashing Englishman protect the honor of the fairer sex against drunken good ol’ boys.

    3) Ruby Rhodes’ dining table where okra is served to unsuspecting Yankee women as a kind of test.

    4) In kitchens and living rooms whenever someone in Last Chance is born or dies. When that happens, the casserole brigade (otherwise known as the Christ Church Ladies Auxiliary) shows up. Jenny Carpenter’s pies are to die for.

    We also have a watermelon festival where funnel cake and corn dogs are consumed in great quantities, not to mention the annual barbecue down at the country club.

    Oh yeah, my characters are eating all the time. This is how I get to enjoy hush puppies without actually consuming the calories. 🙂

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  11. liz talley says:

    Wonderful post!

    My characters eat. A lot. Maybe because I’m Southern and everything revolves around food in Louisiana. That’s why we’re one of the fattest states. Going fishing? Pack a picnic lunch. Have to run to the store? Ooh, let’s get ice cream first. People coming by? Oh, God, let me make a pound cake. I don’t think I’ve ever been to an event that was just the event.

    BUT, I think everyone has to be careful with mundane scenes – eating can be one, but so can a lot of things. The litmus test is how does it advance the plot or your characters’ growth. If eating cereal does that, then by all means, your character should slurp down his fruity-ohs.

    Loved thinking about this!

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    • I definitely agree, Liz, that those types of everyday activities shouldn’t take over our books. Every scene has to work hard in order to make the grade and stay when revisions roll around. Otherwise…out it goes. Eating, included.

      With all this talk of food, I’m starting to get hungry, lol.

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  12. Diane kelly says:

    Eating is always fun!!!

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  13. Jeannie Lin says:

    Hmm..I didn’t know eating was cheating. I thought it was an essential way for characters to connect. On the other hand, I have read through a couple of manuscripts where the eating was all about the, well, food and such and I can see where it’s a potential pitfall.

    Great points about what can be revealed through food. I was mentoring someone earlier this year and she had an eating scene with lavish food descriptions, but when I pointed out the scene could be milked to highlight class differences as well as some context about the characters’ past relationship, the revised scene really took off.

    And you reminded me that I’ve had no pumpkin pie this year. I LOVE pumpkin pie. *sniffles*

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    • Hi, Jeannie! No pumpkin pie? I feel your pain!

      I love what your had your mentoree(is that even a word?) do to make her food scene work harder. What a great idea! I bet it turned out fantastic.

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  14. laurie kellogg says:

    No eating? I’ve never heard that guideline. In fact, I was once told by a romance editor that female readers LIKE descriptions of characters’ clothing and meals, assuming they’re interesting.

    I write family relationship stories, so my characters eat and cook ALL THE TIME. That’s one of the main things families do together. And since my stories aren’t action-based and are more character-driven, my family scenes tend to revolve around the heart of the home.

    I love to cook, so I naturally enjoy getting descriptive with the aromas and flavors. My heroes are nearly as enchanted with my heroines’ talents in the kitchen as they are in the bedroom. And some of my heroes are Bobby Flay wannabees.

    I can see that in an action/adventure/suspense plot, eating might be a bit mundane and slow the plot down. So I suspect this whole ‘no eating’ taboo would depend a lot on the sub-genre of the book.

    No contest judges have ever cited my meal scenes as problematic or boring. Still . . . could this be why I’ve never sold? Maybe editors think my characters eat too damn much! 🙂

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    • You could be right about the sub-genre having something to do with it. I started out writing romantic suspense, but I’ve heard that piece of advice more than once.

      Food is a big part of our lives (and to some extent, who we are as individuals). So many of our celebrations center around a meal or food, so cutting it out of my manuscripts felt unnatural. I did try, though. For quite a long time!

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  15. My characters eat a lot, as in times, not quanity! LOL

    I’ve heard not to have eating scenes because they’re boring, but if they’re done right, with a reason behind the eating, then why not?

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    • D’Ann, my characters eat quite a bit now too (and yep…number of times, and not quantity).

      I do think we can have the best of both worlds. As long as we make those food scenes count, they’re in!

      Thanks!

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  16. I loved your post. In A Run For Love, my characters, Tori and Jesse, had several scenes where they eat. I put those in not because I didn’t want them to starve, but because Jesse has a habit of lining up the salt, pepper, and sugar bowl in a row while he talks. Does it throughout the book. Just a fun little thing that identifies him.

    Callie Hutton

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    • Ooh, Callie! I love this little detail. My mind is already at work trying to figure out what’s behind this quirky habit. So many interesting possibilities!

      I checked out your website, love your tagline!

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  17. My cp’s always tease me about all the eating in my stories, but I use it as a way to force my characters to interact face to face, as well as to show character and sometimes conflict by food choices. I worry when I read books and the characters never seem to eat. . .

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    • Hi Unsinkable sister! Definitely. I use food in the exact same way. In my last book, my heroine fixes a dish with a creamy horseradish sauce (an ingredient the hero insisted he didn’t like because of its heat). When he likes it (and is shocked to learn what that secret ingredient is), the heroine makes the comment that maybe he should think about expanding his horizons…something they BOTH needed to do–in areas that had nothign to do with food. So, I do think eating can be used to get across a point.

      As a side benefit, I’ve learned some interesting new recipes in the process, too.

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  18. What a GREAT post, Tina! Sorry, I’m late, but this is just a fantastic post. I’ve kind of been wondering about this. I have my main characters eat quite a bit because my books are set in such a short span of time, usually 3-5 days, and it just seems natural that they would stop for a bite to eat every once in a while. And it allows for some great interactions.

    I love this!

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    • Thanks, Darynda! I’m amazed you have time to stop in anywhere nowadays (with those crazy deadlines you’ve got going on).

      And you definitely need to feed those characters, so they can keep their strength up. They’ve got a lot of readers counting on them to live long and prosperous lives–me included!

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