We talk a lot about the traits that make a great character, but what about the meals?
There are lots of different ways to draw a character. Traits we add so the audience learns how to identify with them or picks up on how they'll operate. One thing that goes utterly underutilized by screenwriters is food. We can learn a lot about a character given their relationship to food. You can use it as a motivator, like in Lord of the Flies, or to punctuate a love scene, like how George loves to eat during sex in Seinfeld.
Today I want to talk about how you can accentuate your characters and scenes by adding food to them. We'll go over a few scenes that involve food and see how it can add humor, tension, texture, and make you hungry.
So let's dig in!
Eating in Film and Television
As a writer, sometimes you get so caught up in scenes and focusing on dialogue that you forget actors need something to do. It's boring just to watch people sit and talk. Even My Dinner with Andre had...well...dinner. There's an old writing trick that says something like, "If you're having trouble with a scene, make it rain outside and see how it changes."
Well, I think you should try it with your characters eating.
Food in film and television often goes overlooked, but I think it helps characters feel real to see them eating. It reminds us that we are watching human stories. And some of the best movie scenes of all time revolve around food. Think about the dinner scene in Meet the Parents. Is there anything funnier than them trying to have a peaceful dinner but being thwarted again and again by the food, emotions, prayer, and a poorly shot champagne cork?
One of my favorite YouTube channels, Binging with Babish, has an entire cooking show dedicated to the foods people eat in film and television.
And there are even entire movies based around meals, like Babette's Feast.
Food has a ton of functional storytelling moments as well. Let's look at a few examples of characters eating in movies and diagram why they matter.
Examples of characters eating food
First up, you can't have a Philly movie without a good cheesesteak. When they went to Max's in North Philadephia for cheesesteaks in Creed, it was not just local flair, it was characters arcing. See, at this point, the two leads aren't sure what to make of each other. This is a scene that brings them closer by bonding over a favorite eatery.
This is a perfect example of how to subtly handle a meal. This is Creed finally feeling like a Philadelphian. He learns about "jawn," and Bianca opens up to him about what she wants out of life. He also gets a moment here to learn about life. Food in this scene is an excuse to get these two on a date, but also to layer what he knows about the city. To know the city is to know Rocky. And it's to know Bianca.
And if you want to learn how to make a decent cheesesteak...Babish has your back.
What about some sexy eats? 9 1/2 Weeks has you covered. I've talked about this scene before, but I think it's maybe one of the sexiest in movie history. Here, food is sex. It's two people getting physically intimate by accentuating their senses with food. We learn that these characters want each other, but they have appetizers instead.
The romantic tension here escalates again and again as they try more. Here food works two ways. It accentuates what could be a boring sex scene. And it also makes us patient for it. We get tense wondering when a kiss will occur. It builds and builds as we go in a masterful and lusty way.
But what about using a menu to show character?
One of my favorite scenes in any movie is the ordering from the menu in Phantom Thread. It's so high maintenance that it feels like an homage to When Harry Met Sally. This is where we learn how particular Woodcock can be. How he demands excellence and perfection, even in his food. And how much Alma loves taking care of him. That's a theme in the movie, and something we have to remember as we go.
Their relationship builds from this scene. It becomes the mirror we can always go back to; he likes to eat; she likes to take care of him. Even when she's adding her secret ingredient to the food. Knowing our lead is high maintenance also shows us later how cantankerous he will be when he doesn't get his way. It's a great way to add tension when he loses what he wants.
If you're extra hungry, Babish has you covered on this one too.
There are lots of other instances where food highlights characters and characterization. Check out this video from Fandor that goes in-depth on characters and the food they eat.
What's next? Learn character development!
You know what your character eats, now examine what else makes them tick. There are lots of terms thrown around when you try to write a character in a screenplay. But what sets character development apart from the pack and why is it crucial to your story?
We've all sat down to watch our favorite TV show or movie series and enjoyed how the characters progress over time. While these arcs are confined to different time frames or throughout multiple episodes, the core of a character is within their development. Character development is the foundation of every great and memorable character, and it's something you have to master if you want to be a professional writer.
So click the link to find out.
Got great character and food scenes? Let us know in the comments!