Every genre out there gathers around the table to chat.
No matter what kind of story you're writing, eventually the characters might sit down and enjoy a dinner table together. Table scenes are ways to get everyone in a room with one another. You can showcase power dynamics, create drama and comedy, and raise or even ease tensions. They are malleable to any genre of storytelling and work across mediums as well.
The best dinner table scenes set the audience up for the movie or TV show they're about to watch and even steep the audience in why they tuned in at all. It's where the genre truly pays off and trailer moments come into play. They can happen in any act and help you structure any kind of plant and payoff.
Today we're going to explore how you can write the best dinner table scenes and look at a few examples.
Let's dig in.
How to Write the Best Dinner Table Scenes in Movies and TV
Whether it's sitting down for a fancy meal or just around a campfire, dinner scenes bring everyone together.
What do I mean by that? As a writer, you need reasons for people to be in scenes. A meal provides a perfect meeting point to gather characters. When you have scenes with multiple points of view, you want to dig in everyone's motivation inside the scene.
Let's take the famous scene from Wedding Crashers as an example.
In the scene, our two main characters have their own motivations. Owen Wilson is trying to get to know Rachel McAdams and to flirt with her. Vince Vaughn is trying to keep their ruse alive and get out of there. Meanwhile, Bradley Cooper is trying to assert his dominance. McAdams wants to get to know Wilson but also is wary. Christopher Walken is trying to get to know them. Jane Seymour wants Wilson's attention. Isla Fisher is trying to have sex with Vaughn, which is hilarious. You have two wildcards in the grandma and brother characters. They can say and do anything at any time. So when they sit down at a table, you can see how anything can happen.
As the scene plays out, the drama comes from all the motivations interacting. Cooper will get aggro when Wilson flirts, which will annoy McAdams, who will be kind when the guys are pressed. Walken wants to know how Vaughn seduced his daughter, so he will press hard on him. Meanwhile, Vaughn will try to keep the ruse alive while also getting a handjob from Fisher. Mix in some zingers, and you have a comedy masterpiece.
Let's look at a few other examples.
The Best Dinner Table Scene Examples
Obviously, dinner scenes are used in comedy, but before we jump into more of those, I wanted to look at one from a drama to show how they can really build tension. Like the one from American Beauty. (Sorry about Kevin Spacey.) This scene involves a couple crumbling. They had a normal routine that's now falling apart.
The dynamics here are funny, but they raise tension. This couple is learning in real-time they are far apart as people and maybe need to get a divorce. It's a meltdown that allows us to see the mental state of everyone in the movie.
Another scene that I like is from Breaking Bad. I know it's not dinner, it's breakfast. But I still think it counts.
In this scene, we see how the White family interacts. They eat fake bacon, the son wants to rebel, and we see how husband and wife interact. This scene becomes a seminal one on the show that we go back to over and over again. We mark Walt's birthday in this scene, and later we'll return to it as he gets older. And we use it to mark how he changes over the course of the series.
Another important one is from E.T. The Extraterrestrial. It is a big reveal that shows the power dynamics in the family and tells us the dad left them to go on vacation with his secretary. It balances comedy and drama to give us exposition and deliver the heart of the movie.
Beetlejuice dinner table scene
Are you a fan of this movie? In this scene, we get the tone and zaniness completely solidified. This is a movie where anything can happen, and over-the-top antics should be expected.
Take a look at it here.
Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=yreHtMO2kCg
Talladega Nights dinner scene
As we said up top, these scenes thrive in comedies. This one aims to set up the family dynamics of the Bobbies. We also have to see how two friends act at the dinner table. Above all else, this is here to set the laughter. Ricky is on top of the world, and this is how he behaves.
Borat dinner party
Even in an improvised movie, people know the power of the dinner table scene. For Borat, it was setting up an elegant dinner and then pulling the rug out from other people by behaving in a way that is least expected. The payoffs here are plentiful.
Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=ALSB9P0kvM4
The Incredibles dinner scene
This one is more dramatic—we're seeing family dynamics play out in real-time. It also sets up the problem for the movie—what does a family with powers do in a world that's outlawed them?
It also answers a big question. What makes them like us? This is a relatable scene that oozes charm.
Goodfellas dinner scene
This clever take on the dinner table trope takes place after a brutal murder. It juxtaposes our expectations of what mobsters do with the reality that murder is just a long day at the office. They can still stop, be kind to their mothers, and enjoy a meal.
The Break-Up dinner scene
Comedy is all about putting people in really hard situations. In this dinner table scene, we're getting characters that should be sharing a romantic evening actually sharing something much less so. It's an offensive attack on each character, with them parrying blows and delivering their own.
Titanic dinner scene
This scene serves to show character. We see what it's like for poor people and for the rich. What's the difference on this ship between the classes of people and how they treat one another? Jack here is also surprising to people. He shows he can blend in, if not fit in. It also serves to further flirtations between Jack and Rose.
Step Brothers dinner scene
One of the best lessons in comedy is taking a scene you've seen and flipping it on its head. A scene with parents and kids learning to get along is typical, but in this the kids are replaced by grown men who cannot get along. The comedy is not just in the lines but the execution of childish behavior.
Sicario dinner scene
This is unlike anything else we talked about here. It takes a drug dealer and shows them as a peaceful family man, but it also shows that these characters have to pay for their crimes. We get a family slaughtered for what they've done, even the ones who don't deserve it.
Hook dinner scene
This scene is key for getting the audience and Peter to buy into the imagination of the story. Once we get the food appearing, we see there is real magic. And after we see the food fight, we understand Peter's place as the alpha in this story. He starts to earn the respect of the other characters here.
Mrs. Doubtfire dinner scene
Very common in sitcoms and comedies, it's the old "two dates for dinner" trope. But with Robin Willaims doing it, you know it'll be hilarious. This back and forth gets funnier every time I watch it. And here it's all about the stakes being raised every time he leaves and returns to the table.
Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=X0l2T7iF0Ro
Summing Up How to Write the Best Dinner Table Scenes in Movies and TV
Hopefully, these examples and tips help guide you on your dinner table scene writing. Remember that essentially, you are giving people different motives and having them clash all at once. So when you start in, pick who is in the scenes and what they need. From there, pick who is going to win and fail. Sometimes no one wins. But make sure you stick to the tone of your story and really accentuate the genre.
If you have tips and tricks of your own, leave them in the comments!