My characters own homes and in those homes I like to describe the several different rooms in which my characters dwell. In the living room, I enjoy describing how they watch TV, one engulfed in the football game while drinking a beer while another is falling asleep in their favorite chair. The kitchen is where the cooking happens or where recipes are burned beyond saving so they decide to order a pizza. Then, we all know what happens in the bedroom…sleep! Get your minds out of the gutter. The one area I resist in all my stories is a trap I have seen several writers fall in to.
The dining room. Where characters gather to eat and, more often than not, talk. However, the casual conversations that take place around the dinner table may seem interesting to our characters but are not interesting to the reader.
Hence, the dining dilemma.During my short break from my blog, I’ve decided to catch on my reading. Some of these readings involve work from my fellow writers who are trying to get their foot into the publishing world. Sadly, many of these stories include a conversation between a family around, you guessed it, the dinner table. While some of these conversations have the potential to be interesting, tension filled with subtle hints of shade being thrown by grandma every time she makes an offhanded comment, other times they are filled with filler about what each of the characters is up to, to drive the point the author is trying to make in the story or because in the previous scene, the characters made a meal so of course they have to eat it!
Many of the conversations go like this:
Dad: So, how was your day?
Kid: Fine, I guess.
Dad: What do you mean fine?
Mom: She was just answering your question.
Dad: I don’t need the attitude.
Mom: She wasn’t giving you attitude.
Dad: You promised you would back me up if this happened again.
Kid: Can we just drop it?
Dad: Not until you learn to respect..
Mom: Don’t raise your voice at her.
Dad: Who is raising their voice? I’m just trying to have a conversation.
Mom: Maybe she doesn’t feel like talking.
Dad: She never feels like talking.
Kid: School was fine! I had a pop quiz I think I failed, my best friend started flirting with the guy I have a crush on, I’m having really bad cramps, slammed my finger in the locker and I have a pretty bad burn on the inside of my thighs from sliding down the rope in gym class today.
Dad: Sounds like school wasn’t so fine then.
-kid grumbles and leaves-
Mom: Nice job, way to diffuse the situation.
Dad: Probably best we didn’t tell her you ran over her dog this morning.
Okay, so maybe not with the horrible ending but what all these dinner table conversations have in common is that they are just lines and lines and lines of endless dialogue. Don’t get me wrong, pages of just dialogue sometimes work really well but I tend to skim over them, more interested in what the details hidden in the action can offer rather than what the characters are trying to convey as they eat. What really pulls me out of these dinner table conversations is that nothing really happens in these moments of dialogue, just the characters stating what the reader already witnessed. If I flashed earlier in the story, my reader would have seen the scene where the mother runs over the dog and the girls day at school so there really is no need for the characters to have such an in depth discussion about events the reader already knows about.
So why do writers rely on the dining dilemma? What makes us consider writing scenes in which our characters sit around the table and talk about things our readers already know? I know I second guess my readers all the time, never giving them or myself enough credit for a well written scene that portrays everything I want. I can remember several long winded scenes, filled with dialogue that did nothing to move the plot forward because I was afraid that my reader missed an important detail. If I can’t convey the proper message, why not let my characters do it?
Because its boring to have your characters restate the obvious. I wish I had Hans Solo waving his fork at me every time I tried to have my characters explain something.
Now, I’m not saying that writers should avoid dinner conversations all together. Just have something new happening in them so the story doesn’t stop in order for your characters to explain what just happened during the 20 pages the reader just read. I love a dining room filled with characters that have secrets, either about themselves or something they can use against another character in the room. To witness them avoiding eye contact, being passive aggressive, desperate attempts to draw the attention away from a certain subject or dropping/spilling something by “accident” really gets me excited for these family gatherings around the dinner table.
The dining room, if my characters are fortunate enough to have one, is meant for family gatherings. A time for food to be shared and chewed nervously. Where the occasional drink may be thrown should someone say the wrong thing. Where the person at the head of the table cuts into their meat pretending they are cutting the fingers off the one family member who showed up at the front door just moments before and invited themselves to dinner. To the elder at the table stealing food from their neighbor, the drunk leaning on the hind legs of their chair and the person who prepared the meal, smirking and pushing peas around in circles.
This character knows that soon all the dinner guests will be dead soon.
Now that is a dilemma!