Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Slimming Down the Prose

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!)


Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Plot above setting, action above food.

Love it, Hannah. It's quotable!


Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Oh, Hannah, muchas gracias! In my last MS, so many people told me , "Enough with the tea already!" that I finally listened and tossed most of it (the tea, not the talking).

Do you mind if I print this out. Now that I'm beginning book #3, I know I'll need this reminder. Especially since one of my main characters likes to cook!

Lisa said...

This is interesting because I realize that I've only "fed" my characters one meal up through chapter 11. On the other hand, they drink and smoke ALL the time (it was the 80's). I'll have to look more closely at everything I have them shoving in their mouths and see how relevant it is. Thanks for pointing out something I hadn't thought about before.

Anonymous said...

I do find my characters tend to grip a lot of mugs of coffee. And I always wondered what the name was of that thing that happens after funerals. Funeral reception. I've got on in my story. My character gets drunk. I had another character retreat to the woods, then realized she'd starve to death because she doesn't hunt. She came back in a couple of days. Hungry.

Larramie said...

Hannah, like Lisa, I've never thought or noticed this eating habit in my reading. Hmm, wonder why?

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Food is such a major element in life, why doesn't it translate as is onto the page? Funny that it does come up again and again, the tea, the mugs. It was only after the group commented on how much eating was going on that I started to pay attention. It took me a while, once I'd had the epiphany, to realize that their comments came when the food as setting came before the plot; they didn't seem to mind or notice a bit when there was actual plot motion forward. Which, of course, confirmed the lightbulb moment. After all, how can anyone not have read MFK Fisher, right? Food, food, food... and always more than that, as well!

Anonymous said...

Hi Hannah,
I'm a writer new to your blog and loved your post! Maybe we put much food in our writing b/c we do it without thought, the same we enjoy food daily without thought? (Except for the guilty pleasure of chocolate!) I'm querying a ms now and one of my chars does always have a snack at hand, but it's part of a personality quirk that defines. Any thoughts on this? Anyways, always enjoy your blog and today's is an interesting point to keep my writing eye on!

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Glad you enjoy the blog, and welcome to the chat! I think that as long as it's setting and not plot, which was my failing, you're fine. I'd have my characters hit two points over six pages of juicy burgers with fries and that beer, oh, and then... well, nevermind, you get the idea. Now I analyze whether I need the scene to include food, and whether I can make sure the plot operates at a higher level than the digestion. I do agree that if a character does something too repetitively, it gets annoying. I remember one book where the character kept smoking, and I got the point far earlier than the author let me get out of the cloud of smoke, if you know what I mean. Just because there could have been fewer cigarettes showing up didn't mean I assumed the character had cut back. Same for the coffee in my book now, and so forth. Funny, but I didn't know whether this post would strike a chord; so glad it has!


Anonymous said...

See what happens when you give us "food for thought?" ;)


Shauna Roberts said...

I enjoy reading about food. I also enjoy other setting details like descriptions of landscaping, architecture, furniture, clothes, and jewelry. I guess I'm out of tune with the times.

A good cautionary post because I tend to put in my books what I like to read.

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