table, teapot, plates, candle

Savouring the Plot: Food In Fiction

People in movies hardly ever eat. Drink, yes, eat, no. Even in a movie that’s all about food, like Babette’s Feast. Consider — it’s pretty hard to look gorgeous, sexy, or heroic while chomping on something, or with crumbs clinging to your perfectly plumped lips. Never mind the horror of a smile revealing a chewed up glob stuck to a tooth.

But in books, this doesn’t matter. Readers edit their own mind-movies, and most enjoy a meal or snack now and then.

Remember The Hobbit? Bilbo Baggins is always thinking about food, even when dealing with trolls and giant spiders. Readers relate to that, for who hasn’t suffered from hunger pangs? And when those pangs are relieved (in Beorn’s house, for example) the reader shares vicariously in the feast. Come to think of it, Tolkien created many such occasions. Both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are full of food-related scenes, from Bilbo’s birthday party at the beginning to Sam’s rabbit stew near the end.

My fictitious characters eat a lot. Or rather, many plot-propelling conversations in my novels take place at meals — dinners, lunches, impromptu snacks or afternoon teas.

But is the writer obligated to supply their characters with three squares a day, plus snacks, from page one to “The End?” In my current WIP, mealtimes are interfering with the meat of the plot. I’m getting tired of figuring out what to cook up for these folks in Luxor, Egypt, in 1962 — in a cafe, in a hotel restaurant, in the “dig house” of an archaeological team. What about a bag lunch for the trip to the mysterious wadi? Give me a break! I’ll furnish enough food for plausibility, but don’t intend to get bogged down in irrelevant culinary details.

Now I’m (finally) at the stage where dire discoveries and amazing revelations are more important than the next meal. Physiology being what it is, though, my young, healthy protagonist will get hungry even while trying to escape the clutches of the villain, and figuring out the Secret.

Well, if she survives, she might get a cup of coffee and something sweet.

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12 comments

  1. I’d say ‘food for thought’ if it wasn’t so cliche. It got me thinking, though. My characters take some lunch or dinner breaks, but it’s usually to reveal or receive important information. I don’t dwell much on the food or the eating. Maybe it’s because I stop writing when I get hungry, and when I resume, I’m not thinking of food. My guys and gals do lots of coffee-drinking, though.
    Seriously, describing the meal and dining experience is something I’ll keep in mind.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great point. Goes along with your thoughts on other bodily functions … 😉

    This made me realize that in my book, Occasional Soulmates, the characters were constantly eating. I might have overdone it … 🍗🥓🥐🥞🍕🍔🌮

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A very interesting blog post about the use of food so as a chef I thought I should say a morsel or two. I’m currently reading (very slowly) in between work & blogging The Broker by John Grisham. The main character has been given a new identity and is learning Italian and to fit it. There are quite a few food scenes where Marco is taught about the food and culture over a meal, but it never feels contrived. I guess it helps a writer if they speak a smattering of another language and knows enough about the food to sound genuine. Even though eating can be a plot device the writer needs to stay within their knowledgeable comfort zone or seek outside advice. Thanks, Audrey, for your very readable blog, I know I will be back for second helpings.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re right about what it takes to sound genuine. I’ve had a mini crash course in modern Egyptian cuisine for that purpose while writing my current novel. I think the trick is to add just enough stuff about food for atmosphere — sort of like spices in actual cooking. Thank you for reading and commenting, Kevin.

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