by Hannah Roveto
For those accused of putting too much food in your scenes, this post is for you. For those of you who keep your characters thin, well, feel free to nibble as well. I have been accused, rightfully so, of overfeeding my readers. "Too much food." "They're eating again?" "He drinks too much coffee. Didn't he just have a cup?"
In real life, much happens around food, doesn't it? People who would never be caught together, for any reason, meet over food. Reunions and ruckuses ensue. Major issues are raised -- tentatively, forcefully -- as we are trapped between a salad and the main course. Our best sides and our worst arise as we gather with the ones we love, the ones we are trying to like, and the ones we, well, would rather never see again. And we show our best sides to the latter, the worst to the former. I read once that Sarah Jessica Parker said she and Matthew Broderick talk some evenings about how lovely their first cup of coffee will be in the morning. That one detail changed her from someone I knew existed to a soul sister.
Even my memories of funerals have food details. I remember only two things about my grandmother's funeral: it was open casket, and at the reception afterward, two women were talking about the lemon chiffon pie brought by my grandparents' housecleaner (and friend and possibly an earthly saint). The conversation quickly went from how wonderful the pie was, to the fact that it was made with fresh eggs, which made all the difference, to a comment on how its baker kept chickens, said in a tone of voice that implied a great deal about social status.
Oh, but am I talking too much about food? Apologies. You see, I discovered how to cut down on food, at least in my writing, at a funeral reception my protagonist had to attend. How to get him through socializing with a hundred people, moving through rooms with tables of food, drinking coffee and perhaps sneaking something stronger, without talking about food?
I pulled him aside, or rather, had him pull his sister and a friend aside for a key conversation. I kept the scene focused on what I needed to convey, and left the food literally in the background. He didn't even bring a cookie to munch. When he returned to the group, he shook hands, accepted sympathies, closed out the scene.
Plot above setting, action above food. Chew is not an action verb. I'd finally gotten it.
Scanning back through the manuscript, I was able to mark every sip, every bite, and decide whether it was necessary. At times, yes, I allowed them to indulge. After all, the fact that someone drinks a lot of coffee can be useful, as long as the reader doesn't get the jitters, too. I did allow my protagonist a sausage sub at a baseball game, and indeed, a juicy burger at a bar. But for a reason. This is a man whose peers eat lamb chops and drink Grey Goose vodka. That he would prefer a sausage sub and a burger with a draught beer means something, as long as the reader doesn't have to dab at the grease while listening to conversations and watching the events that are the real action.
So, yes, it is possible to move characters through the day without making sure they have every beverage and snack, every mouthful of their three squares recorded for posterity. I am living proof. Focus on the comment about keeping chickens; keep the pie to a single reference. Focus on the interaction between the man with sub and the woman with the diet soda, their relationship falling apart with each word, not each bite. Don't track every meal; the reader will assume they ate. Pull characters aside and let them act and react with something other than food. Even the heartiest of writers will find it is possible to trim down the prose and let the proof of a story be in the pudding. (Sorry!)
Wednesday, April 02, 2008
by Hannah Roveto