There are two things I like writing more than violence, and that’s Cooking and Arguments! so much can be gained for character development in these kinds of scenes, and it really stretches your ability as a writer to ask you characters “How would they act right now?”
You may not know this but I spent six months working in a fancy hotel, working my way into the highest position I could under the main chef, a woman I still admire today. In that environment I was pushed to get out big meals, sometimes five meals a day, for up two 60 people! I had my share of meltdowns, and a couple days when I had to cook for 30 people alone. But I use that experience, not just for my ability to cook now, but in examining how people act in cooking situations.
So much goes down in the kitchen. Gossip, stress, disasters, banter, and more than a few daubs of whipped cream on some noses. It’s a joyful multitask to keep in mind all the things that need to be finished as well as hold a conversation and applying that to characters in any genre is a good addition to your ensemble of character development scenes.
Let’s start with an example:
The two of them finally left the kitchen and Mark stirred his oatmeal to keep it from burning, before he started on the Bryghts eggs. Turning around he looked to the egg carton he had taken out, which he knew had not been opened, and yet it was now sitting open, and one egg was missing.
Mark puzzled a moment, looking for a tear in the carton and an egg on the floor in case it had fallen out. There was no evidence of it. Thinking a moment, Mark denied that Gabby and Gabe could have gotten it while he was standing right there. Jet might be interested in an egg to eat, or Ohara, but that didn’t make any sense.
Mark heard a startled cry then a shriek of, “MARK!!!” and Mark closed his eyes as he realized immediately what had happened.
Quickly he threw out the meat packaging, and closed the egg carton, keeping a hand on it to close it. “Drama, drama, drama,” Mark muttered to himself. It took a little longer than Mark expected but eventually he watched Irwin hobble into the kitchen slowly but angrily. Irwin supported most of the weight meant for his left leg onto a cane and he walked very slowly with a limp, but Mark could tell he was pushing himself as much as he could. Slamming the kitchen door behind him, Irwin glared at Mark with runny egg yolk dripping down his nose.
“That telekinetic little brat just threw an egg at me!” Irwin yelled as he quickly supported himself on the table in the middle of the kitchen, “what did you do to piss off Gabby this time?!” he shrieked into Mark’s face. Mark opened his mouth to respond but Irwin cut him off, “Every time you say something she doesn’t like she takes it out on me!”
Mark was used to this by now and he poised a hand on his hip, “It was your idea to teach her English, and she knows that even though I’m the one who teaches her most of the time, you’re the one who enforces it.” Quickly, he grabbed Irwin a paper towel and as he reached out to grab it, Irwin dropped his cane which frustrated him even more.
Sighing, Mark pitied his brother and came around the table to pick it up so Irwin didn’t have to bend down. Irwin was healing fast but Mark could yell at him all day and still not convince Irwin he wasn’t ready to be walking this much. Nothing could convince Irwin that he would be able to get around easier in a wheelchair either. Reluctantly, Irwin took the cane and stared at Mark trying to continue to be angry but failing.
Gently, Mark took the paper towel from Irwin and tried to help him clean off the egg from his face and hair, but this made Irwin even more miserable. Irwin had broken his legs in the Nova Realm, and even as the Overseer his body healed them fast, he still insisted on getting out of the casts sooner than he should have, and he wouldn’t bear to be in a wheelchair so he got on his feet far sooner than he should have. In human terms, Irwin should have still been in his casts. Infusion had done a lot so the fractures were fused and he had surgery to realign the bones in his feet and ankles, but he still should not have been off his feet to fully heal them.
Mark knew from experience now, trying to convince him wouldn’t do anything, so he made Irwin even more miserable by doing things for him. Opening doors, picking things up, and keeping an “I-told-you-so” attitude whenever Irwin acted like this. Buttering up a frying pan, Mark stirred the oatmeal again and checked the timer, “You’re putting this on yourself, Irwin, if you didn’t insist to get back out there, if you hadn’t brought them here this wouldn’t be a problem.” He returned the sarcasm and received a glare from his twin brother.
Irwin deadpanned, “You’re a real jerk, you know that.”
Pouring the beaten eggs into a pan, Mark put two slices of cheese into the eggs and with the heat up he started scrambling them, “I’m the jerk who doesn’t care about anyone here, who doesn’t really do anything to fix anybody’s problems, and all I really care about is keeping you from doing anything fun!” he looked back at Irwin who was still deadpanning at him, “You’re as bad as Cælan, you know that?”
Irwin started trying to wipe the egg out of his hair some more, “Yeah, and you’ve got a big ego!” he snapped.
Mark didn’t look back as he chopped through the eggs, “You’re acting like an old man.”
Giving a sigh, Irwin tossed the paper towel at the trash can but missed, “I feel like an old man, I have to use a cane to get anywhere. Can I have another paper towel?”
Mark nodded and tore off another for him, then picked up the dirty one and threw it in the trash can just as Mikaela peeked her head into the kitchen, “Where’s our eggs?” she asked.
“Almost done!” Mark called as he returned to the stove, “if it makes you feel any better, I’ve got a load of complaints about my eye I could tell you about.”
Irwin scratched his head, his long ginger hair felt greasy now with the egg in it, “Oh yeah, I want to hear about how horrible your life is.”
Mark dumped the eggs evenly on two plates and he brought them over to the kitchen window and opened it up to yell, “Girls!” the twins were quick to pick up their food. Mark stopped in front of Irwin before going to serve up the oatmeal, “newsflash, Irwin…” he smiled a little, “That’s how I feel whenever you come complain to me.” This made Irwin shut up for a few minutes.
THE SHADOWS: Restoration Chapter II Broken Breakfast
What do we learn from this scene?
There as been a four month gap since we last saw these characters, and they have healed from the battle in the last book. But, we still haven’t learned how Irwin, the most beaten character, has taken the last four months.
- We learn that Irwin is eager to get back to work but this has made him brash.
- We get to see how Mark reacts to the stress of cooking for so many people
- We get to see Mark’s relationship with his brother, how he loves him, but he’s still annoyed.
Is breakfast important?
No, it doesn’t really matter what Mark is making, but what does matter is the actions he takes in between dialogue. In essence this is another form of Show Don’t Tell, it’s very easy to dump all this exposition after saying “Mark made breakfast for everyone while Irwin complained about how much his feet hurt” and then write four lengthy paragraphs of recap from the last book. Here you get to see how Irwin has changed, and his motivations through dialogue that is still engaging. The key is to do recap without letting the characters know this is racap.
Would the characters really talk like this?
Cooking scenes, or even dinner scenes are a great way to dump exposition through dialogue, but you have to remind yourself. Is this how my character talks? And, does my character already know this stuff? If they do, why would they go over it again?
Here’s another example.
I’m a big fan of the Alien franchise, and I love how it uses meal times to build our relationships with all the characters. We know they’re all going to die, but we have to care. Especially in the second movie Aliens. Ripley wakes up with a crew we’ve never seen before. Army Joes tend to blur together for me, but as they wake up, we spend a little time with each of them. We don’t just get one trait about them, the Robot, the Lesbian, the Coward, we learn that the Robot isn’t hiding his identity to be malicious, it’s a stigma, he prefers the term “Synthetic” and has some level of duty and emotion. The tough girl who gets ratted on by the boys actually has a strong brotherly relationship with them and some level of love. And the Coward who screams like a girl in the first scene, you’ll remember him because he delivers the best lines later, and his voice is distinct.
Alien does this all the time. Even in the new movie, Covenant, after all the carnage has had its toll, we get to see how our main characters really survived by how they act with one another. Daniels copes by cooking, whipping out something to drink, and being a homemaker. Let’s face it, she was there as a wife, not as a scientist, her husband was the one who brought her along, and she was a housewife who wanted a home. Tennessee who just lost his wife comes to visit her and when they’re all alone, they acknowledge the loss of their partners, and without any explicit romance, we can see the possibility of these two being together in the future. If they survive.
How to exercise this
I’d hope your main character needs sustenance, in which case, cooking in some form is essential! So you can easily include a cooking scene in or story or at least write one as an exercise. Ask yourself some questions about you character.
- Can they cook and do they like cooking?
- How does my character’s voice sound so I can be consistent?
- is the information I’m conveying about my plot or character come across as Show-Don’t Tell?
- What is the purpose of this cooking scene? What am I trying to convey?
I hope this exercise helps, and I’m excited to see if anyone has any cooking scenes that fall into this kind of exposition. If you do feel free to send them to me either through my contact page or firstname.lastname@example.org
I’m deep in the throes of editing Fire’s Hope and last week I started a system that has got me editing crazy fast. I need to do three chapters a week and so far I’m two chapters ahead. I have some very heavy rewrites this week, so it’s good that I’m ahead. At this point I’m looking over my chapters with a sense of “What was going through my head!” and “this is terrible!” but I recently reorganized my editing binder to remove a section that had a bunch of really pointless notes. (The main reason to only let trusted friends “edit” your book). I gave myself a clean slate for the rest of the book, so I’m really looking forward to that halfway point. I’m only two chapters away!
What should I do for Valentine’s day this year? My goal is to complete my self-edit by February 14, and I feel like I need to celebrate in some way! I’ll be launching my beta-reading group, sending out critique copies to friends, and making the jump to Professional editing for Fire’s Hope.
Have a great week!