Pub Rants

The Only Time Dinner Is A Turn-Off

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STATUS: I took on a new client today. That always makes me happy!

What song is playing on the iPod right now? DEACON BLUES by Steely Dan

Funny how memories come out of the blue. Today I recalled a conversation I had with an editor several months ago (and undoubtedly over drinks) but I think it still holds true despite the fact that a glass of wine might have been involved. Of course, that glass of wine might be the culprit for why I’m only now remembering this…

We were specifically discussing novels in romance but I think it holds true for other genres (and feel free to cite those exceptions to the rules in the comments section because I know you will!).

She mentioned that she hates first chapter opening scenes that involve eating.

Breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

It’s probably the only time eating is a turn-off!

For her, it’s just impossible to make such a scene dynamic.

I have to agree.

In fact, eating scenes in general tend to lack momentum—unless the entire point of the story is somehow tied to the dinner scene. Then, I can actually see that working. This typically tends to happen more in short fiction rather than novels but I’m sure there are examples out there.

But as ways to introduce your character or show interactions, it’s do-able but hard to do really well enough to excite.

Some food for thought. Pun intended.

22 Responses

  1. Kimber An said:

    Whew! I’m good then. My opener has my heroine dangling upside from the ceiling of a domed city contemplating nailing her mother’s unwanted suitor in the back of the head with her portable scanner. Unfortunately, I also way overestimated my word count for my novel in the query letter I sent on Monday. I stated it was 80,000 words. It’s actually only just over 76,000. Oy. Well, that’s why I married a computer geek with a degree in economics!

  2. ~~Olivia said:

    Hmm… eating. I think I’ve seen those opening breakfast scenes when the newspaper comes or some visitor shows up or something like that.

    My opener has my hero crashing through a roof. Just bit more action.

  3. Cheryl Mills said:

    I signed up for the Read-It-First emails from St. Martin’s Press to keep an eye on what’s being published. I tend to use meals as a background, felt that was wrong, opened my emails and the first three openings I got from SMP were freakin’ foodies!

    I don’t care. I still think I use food too much. A critter compared one of my novels (unpublished) as something that could have been co-authored by Stephen King and Julia Child. Mmmm…sounds tasty.

  4. Annie Dean said:

    Huh. Well, I broke that rule with The Average Girl’s Guide to Getting Laid. Whether I did it successfully or not remains to be seen, although my agent didn’t say anything about the opening being boring. People are welcome check it out and share their thoughts, though, as I have the first chapter as an excerpt on my site.

  5. December Quinn said:

    I’ve never used it as an opening, (except for grocery shopping in one book, where the heroine just left her abusive husband and was asserting her freedom by buying a bunch of junk food), but my characters tend to eat a lot. They’re always snacking or having dinner.

    Now I wonder if that’s such a good thing…

  6. Sherri said:

    After reading this post, I went back and checked my WIP. My characters eat a few times in the book, but for some reason, I’ve got them eating bread. Every time. Biscuits, mostly. Wonder why that is?

  7. Ryan Field said:

    This is all so subjective, and only matters if it’s not done correctly. Sounds like this editor might have rejected the title FRIED GREEN TOMATOES AT THE WHISTLE STOP CAFE and the world would have missed out on something truly spectacular.

  8. Kimber An said:

    I think the big difference is in whether it propels the plot or not. More often than not, a dinner scene is just there for lack of a better idea. But, if it’s there because it propels the plot, like maybe the protagonist’s mother is poisened which leads to an investigation which leads to false charges which leads to… Well, then, it works.

  9. Kimber An said:

    Oh, this cracks me up! Does she dump her dinner on her dumped boyfriend and then dump her ice cream cone in his ear and the contents of her purse on his head before chucking him into the…
    Oh, nevermind, I’m getting carried away.

  10. Ann said:

    This is interesting!
    Among my pet peeves are scenes in movies where they not only eat, but the action or conversation stops while the actors sit there and slowly CHEW, like they’re on one of those diet plans where you have to chew each bite fifty times. Then they always take a drink and slowly smack their lips afterwards. Drives me absolutely nuts to watch – by the time they have swallowed, I am on the edge of my seat thinking murderous thoughts.

  11. Liane Gentry Skye said:

    I read a short story once that revolved around a man slowly consuming a dessert his wife had left in the fridge for him the day she died. I think that’s the only eating scene I’ve ever read that worked. It obviously did stick with me. But then, shorts aren’t novels.

    There was a particular movie scene that revolved around food and sex in the movie 9 1/2 weeks. Whew…I still break a sweat when I think of that one. I do think that might have made for a memorable opening scene. But then again….sex….sells!

    Now, add sex and chocolate into the same opening scene, and I’d probably be sold. 🙂

  12. pam said:

    I think this is a personal preference not a ‘don’t do’ type of thing. I LOVE books that have ANY kind of food scenes. Love it. Especially when it’s there to deepen the setting/atmosphere and if it’s done well, as in creating vivid images that make me drool.

    The types of food scenes that don’t ever work for me are when they’re mixed into dialogue, like,
    “she chewed her roll, swallowed, then took another bite.” Ick. That falls into the ‘writing every thing that happens’ story, which doesn’t work so well.

    The best food scenes are the ones that have subtext going on, where the sensual description sets the stage for romance, or when the chicken getting pounding by a heavy mallet shows the heroine’s anger.


  13. Anonymous said:

    Stephanie Plum is always eating which makes me hungry while reading about her eating all that really yummy stuff like donuts, pizza and cake.


  14. Loreth Anne White said:

    I’m with Kimber — if it propels the plot, it can work. Just think of those dinner scenes in Mr and Mrs Smith … ah, the tension. The drama. The dance. The knives *G*. And when she reflexively caught the bottle of wine, and her cover was blown? LOVED it!!!

  15. Anonymous said:

    Ever read the dinner scene in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Civil Campaign? It’s a science fiction novel. Now, that’s an awesome scene. It’s one of the climaxes of the novel. The main character is having a dinner party, but all these things go wrong. Some of the food is described, but it’s more about the character interactions.

  16. rachel said:

    Interesting take. I have a short sci/fi horror story that has an eating scene near the beginning, but it’s central to the plot and in fact the entire punchline to the story depends on that first scene, so I think I pass the litmus test in this case.

  17. Anonymous said:

    Doesn’t good writing involve all the senses? Telling writers to delete mentions of the sense of taste sounds like nonsense to me.

  18. Maggie said:

    Liane, I remember that short story! It stuck with me too.

    I think it depends on how the food scene is used. Drawn out description of every. single. forkful. is as much fun as fingernails scraping on a chalkboard.

    The scene has to be ‘tastefully’ done. : – )

  19. Ktzmom said:

    Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie has a lot of eating in it, but it’s a part of the story. If you haven’t read this book, definitely pick it up, it features Krispy Kreme donuts.

  20. Carradee said:

    I’d have to argue that any type of opening without inherent intense action would be tricky to pull off well.

    Meals and food as backdrops, though, I greatly enjoy. It’s one of the things I love about Kathy Tyers’ Firebird trilogy. It’s science fiction, and she gives you a tasteful sense of the foods that makes the scenes even more alive.

    (Like when Firebird’s carefully eating her POW meal because she’s not sure what the aftereffects are of the poison she’d taken in a failed attempt to kill herself.)

    About the “she chewed, swallowed, took another bite” etc. complaint, I think it can have purpose. Rarely. If you’re using to say something about the character. (For example, in the Return of the King movie, the Steward of Gondor was having a meal while his sole surviving son rode out to what was likely his death, and his behavior said more about his indifference to Faramir than anything else.)