Friday, November 14, 2014

Eating During Dialog

Last time, we discussed the need for a character’s actions during dialog to be meaningful—to demonstrate something about their state of mind or to be part of a task that they are trying to carry out, rather than simply being inserted to create the necessary ebb and flow in the conversation.

One task I often see characters performing during dialog is eating. It is usually a good method for achieving the goals we discussed last time: it gives you plenty of distinct actions to fill in the gaps of the conversation; it can be used to reveal a character’s personality or state of mind (for example, a character who eats in the middle of an important conversation could seem flippant or disinterested, while a polite character might be very careful about chewing with their mouth closed and always swallowing before they speak); and it is a realistic task that people often carry out while they eat (especially if the conversation takes place at a meal or if the character is played by Brad Pitt).

The Story Polisher: Writing Tips from an Editor
He is having a conversation in every one of these scenes. (Image from

So if you want to have a character eat during a conversation, go for it! Just be sure to look out for these common pitfalls:

Food that doesn’t affect the conversation

     Brad took another bite of his sandwich. “You should have just killed him when you had the chance.”

So . . . is Brad speaking with his mouth full, or are we supposed to assume that he chewed and swallowed before speaking? If he is speaking with his mouth full, how are the other characters reacting to that? Is it disgusting to see? Are they having trouble understanding his words? Or, if he’s waiting before he speaks, how are the other characters reacting to that awkward pause?

This is a little problem that becomes increasingly incongruous the longer the conversation goes on. We all know that a conversation with someone who is eating doesn’t usually flow quite the same way that speaking with someone normally does; and if you fail to acknowledge that reality in your story, it can make the conversation seem subtly unrealistic to your readers.

Now, fixing this problem can also be a little tricky. You don’t want to have to clarify whether or not the character is speaking with their mouth full or not every time they take a bite—it would clutter up the conversation very quickly.  A better option would be to simply describe the character’s combined eating/speaking habits at the beginning of the conversation and only briefly allude to them once or twice later on. You can also try to rearrange the prose so that it raises fewer questions about how the food is affecting the character’s speech (i.e. having them take bites after they speak instead of before). So, our previous example could be reworked in this manner:

     “You should have just killed him when you had the chance,” Brad said. He took another bite of his sandwich.

Simultaneous biting and speaking

     “You should have just killed him when you had the chance,” Brad said, taking another bite of his sandwich.

Remember what we discussed about “ing” verbs in this post? The above construction implies that Brad is speaking at the same time that he takes a bite of his sandwich. Go try to take a bite of something while you speak. It doesn’t work, does it? Your mouth can’t handle both tasks at once—even Brad Pitt has to eat before or after he speaks a line. People can chew and talk at the same time, but they can’t take a bite and talk at the same time.

Too much attention to the minutiae of eating

     Brad took another bite of his sandwich. “You should have just killed him when you had the chance,” he said around the mouthful.
     I don’t even want to kill him now,” Jose replied.
     Brad swallowed and brushed crumbs from his chin. “Seriously? He sure seems to want to kill us.” He took another bite of his food.
     “That doesn’t mean we can’t find a peaceful resolution to all this.”
     Brad swallowed again and took another bite. “Death is peaceful.”
     “Dying isn’t.” Jose shook his head. “There’s got to be another way.”
      “So we kill him in his sleep.” Brad shrugged, swallowed, and finished off his sandwich. “Peacefully.”

This happens quite a lot in the manuscripts I edit. Your audience doesn’t need a blow-by-blow account of every single bite, chew, swallow, and face-wipe. We understand how eating works. Focus instead on the less usual parts of eating—if you need a beat in the conversation, have the character drop a fork, or get something stuck in their teeth and try to get it out, or bite their tongue. They could spill mustard on their shirt or choke and cough up a disgusting spray of crumbs and spittle. Any of that would be more interesting than bite, chew, swallow, repeat. And if you don’t want the meal to take any of those particular turns, that’s fine—just space out the biting, chewing, and swallowing enough that they don’t grow tiresome and intersperse them other actions and information.

To close, here’s an example of all of this done well from Charlie Holmberg’s The Paper Magician.

     [Mg. Thane] stabbed his fork into two pieces of pasta and raised them to his lips. He tasted them, chewing, and his eyes brightened just a bit more. “I’d say, Ceony,” he said after swallowing, “had I not been present for the lessons, I’d think you’d found a way to enchant pasta.”
     Ceony smiled. “You like it?”
     He nodded, scooping up another bite. “It tastes just as good as it smells. That’s a sign of a well-rounded person. I should congratulate you.”
     “On my person or my pasta?”
     Light danced in his eyes. He didn’t answer.
     Ceony tasted her chicken, relieved it wasn’t too dry. Three bites into her own dinner, Mg. Thane said, “Oldest of four.”
     “Two sisters, one brother,” Ceony replied. “Do you have a large family? You seem like someone who suffered through a great deal of sisters.”
     “I’ve suffered through a great many people, but none of them sisters. I’m an only child.”
     That explains a few things, Ceony thought.
     A few seconds of silence passed between chewing bites. Not wanting the time to grow long, Ceony asked, “When do you get groceries?”
     He glanced at her. “When I run out, I suppose. Groceries are my most dreaded chore.”
     He lowered his fork and leaned his chin onto his hand, elbow on the table edge.
     “They require going to the city,” he stated. “And it’s hot out, besides.”
     Ceony paused as she cut into the next morel of chicken. “Do you freckle?”
     He laughed. “Now there’s a conversation turn—”
    “I mean,” Ceony began, “I could understand not going outside if you freckle.” She glanced to her hands, spotted with freckles of her own. They had a tendency to cover any bit of skin exposed to the sun between March and October.
     “I don’t freckle,” he said. She must have been frowning at her hands, for he added, “And there’s nothing wrong with freckles, Ceony. Heaven forbid you look like everyone else in this place.”
     Ceony smiled and shoved some pasta in her mouth to keep the grin contained.
     “And since you have so much extra time,” Mg. Thane said, “your first quiz will be tomorrow morning.”

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