Setting the Table for Family Drama: Writing Dinnertime Conflict

When it comes to stirring the plot, the familial dining table provides numerous opportunities for writers to use this setting to do as much or as little as they need it to do.

Among the most commonly occurring and underrated settings employed in fiction is the dining table. The dinner table serves more than (hopefully) good eats: it provides both place and reason for characters to be together. Relatively few limits exist for such gatherings. The dinner table accommodates routine meals but also can expand (with a leaf or two) for a holiday party or become several tables at an awards ceremony. Locations also are flexible: I’ve recently set the opening of a story at a patio table during a birthday barbecue. Impromptu celebrations such as promotions, too, might result in an outing to a favorite restaurant. Since mealtimes can occur at any point in the plot, so long as it makes sense for people to eat, the dinner table represents one of the most versatile settings that writers can use to creates scenes, forward the plot, and/or explore the central problem of a story. While these tables can appear in innumerable story types, I will discuss how a few of my favorite authors set the table when writing about families.

For these stories, setting the action at the dinner table can be quite natural. After all, families often are urged to dine together: shared meals are touted for strengthening familial bonds as well as providing a host of positive benefits. And who wouldn’t want to dine with their loved ones? However, even tight-knit families experience their moments of discord. Featured prominently in the Harry Potter series, the Weasley family is considered a loving one.[*] Harry Potter’s first breakfast at their home, however, is rather tense. Concerned that Harry hadn’t replied to their letters, Ron, Fred, and George Weasley decide to use their father’s enchanted car to rescue Harry from his relations (it was a cloudy night) and sneak him into their home undetected. Unluckily for them, Mrs. Weasley observes both absent boys and car and upbraids all parties for their irresponsibility save the relatively blameless Harry. Mrs. Weasley is somewhat mollified when her sons tell her of Harry’s hardships, but she isn’t one to let them escape the consequences just because their intentions were good: they have chores to do. She sends them outdoors to sort out garden beds instead of letting them nap right away (Rowling 24–41).

Rowling accomplishes quite a lot in these pages besides removing Harry from an unpleasant situation (and thus moving the plot forward). Harry, long accustomed to his aunt’s and uncle’s tendency to condone and excuse his cousin’s bad behavior while punishing him for mere infractions, sees Mrs. Weasley appropriately scold her children for engaging in a risky activity. His subsequent meals at the Burrow, where he is welcomed at the table and in which Mrs. Weasley attempts to feed him up (the Dursleys begrudge him every morsel ), are new experiences for him.[†] Escaping to the Burrow introduces Harry to how loving families work. More telling, though, is the contrast that reader sees between Harry’s home life, which is arguably neater, wealthier, and unhappier (Rowling 1–42). Rowling underscores the point that judging people’s worth by mere appearances or their wealth is fallacious. What makes people worthy is the how they treat each other. It’s little wonder that Harry would rather spend his summers in the happy chaos of the Burrow.

Manor house banquet tableFor unhappy families, however, the potential for tension at the table is extensive. Agatha Christie, a master of the manor house mystery, frequently seats her characters at a banquet table. Since her mystery novels often involve the murder of a wealthy benefactor to various family members (money and resentment making excellent motivations), mealtimes can be quite intense. The dinner table, being an obliging sort,[‡] works as both setting and opportunity for narrative exposition. In “The Second Gong”,[§] dinner guests and family members alike almost race to the dinner table to ensure they arrive punctually because their host, Hubert Lytcham Roche, notoriously despises lateness. His tardiness is so unprecedented that his guests and butler are stunned and hardly know how to proceed. Shortly thereafter, they find Hubert dead. Here, the table works in two ways: it reveals aspects of Hubert’s character (his controlling, unyielding nature) and gathers all the principal suspects together. In A Pocket Full of Rye, however, the dining table serves as the murder scene: Rex Forestcue, a rather nasty man, is poisoned during breakfast whilst surrounded by suspects—er, family members—all of whom had both motive and opportunity to kill him. In novels such as The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Christie uses the dinner table to review the case and acquire background information: Captain Hastings, a guest at Styles Court, and Hercule Poirot discuss the murder of Emily Inglethop during breakfast on at least two occasions, which affords Poirot the opportunity to question persons present about events surrounding the murder (for which he was not present) and gather clues.

Of course, not every family need be wealthy (or murderous) to be unhappily seated together at the table. From the outset of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, it seems clear that the seven-year-old protagonist’s parents don’t relate to their bookish boy. Neither mentions his kitten’s death after it occurred, not even to offer consolation. The boy doesn’t share his disappointment about receiving the unsuitable replacement cat with them, anticipating (correctly, I suspect) that his parents won’t understand that the hurt remained new cat or not (Gaiman 14–16). During another incident, his older self (who narrates the events) observes that he only consulted adults as a child when he absolutely must (Gaiman 63), suggesting that the boy already expects adults to be reluctant to help him. Understandably Gaiman’s protagonist is terrified when he realizes that his new childminder is an actual monster. He sits at the dinner table on two occasions, hungry but afraid to eat what the monster made for supper (Gaiman 82, 90–92). Beyond their immediate horror, these moments reveal a larger pattern in the novel: the powerlessness of children. It’s all too easy for the monster to portray the boy as truculent, making his protests seem…childish. The boy, already aware of how easy he is to discredit, knows he cannot expect his parents to believe or assist him. Gaiman captures this bitter aspect of childhood, its impotence, and allows it to be the force that drives his narrative by seating a child at a table.

When it comes to stirring the plot, the familial dining table provides numerous opportunities for writers to use this setting to do as much or as little as they need it to do. It can serve as a mere setting, providing the appropriate backdrop to the story at hand or cleverly reveal information about characters. Often, scenes from a dining table allow writers to connect to larger themes they explore, both for their stories about families and elsewhere. As such, it might not be such a bad idea to set characters down for something to eat and see what happens next.

Do you have a favorite mealtime scene from a story or book? Share what you liked about it in the comment box below. Also, sign up for the newsletter and receive links to latest Sequence in your inbox!

Works Cited

Christie, Agatha. The Mysterious Affair at Styles: the First Hercule Poirot Novel. New York: Berkley , 1990.

Christie, Agatha. A Pocket Full of Rye. New York: Signet Book, 2000.

Christie, Agatha. “The Second Gong”. Witness for the Prosecution, and Other Stories. New York: Berkley , 1984.

Gaiman, Neil. The Ocean at the End of the Lane. New York, NY: William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2016.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Arthur A. Levine , an imprint of Scholastic Press, 1999.


[*] At this point, the Weasley family’s problems lie more with financial constraints and the odd personality clash versus actual deep disagreements with each other.

[†] Harry, much like Jane Eyre before him, represents a tragic form of the poor relation: the orphaned and presumed penniless child required to live under the guardianship of uncaring relations.

[‡] Unlike the murder victim.

[§] For anyone besides me experiencing a bit of literary déjà vu with this story, it’s useful to know that Christie later rewrote and expanded this story, which she called “Dead Man’s Mirror”. I’m working with the original because I like its simpler plot. Having said that, Christie’s work can feel familiar in places because she reuses elements such as nursery rhymes (“Sing a Song of Sixpence” is one I’ve noted in a few stories), themes, and motivations (typically, money).

“Hidden Science” in the Writings of Franklin & Conan Doyle

Men of method: Franklin and Conan Doyle

Benjamin Franklin. By Joseph Duplessi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
It was my first year of graduate studies, and I found myself re-reading The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Some time had passed since I read this book in depth,[*] but certain portions remained clear enough in my mind, including Franklin’s ambitious and tongue-in-cheek project to acquire virtues in Part II.[†] As I read through this section, I felt a growing sense of familiarity that was related less to the content and more to the structure of the writing. Franklin’s project followed a pattern that I’d become familiar with while pursuing that other undergraduate degree:[‡] scientific methodology. Reading Part II of The Autobiography was not unlike reading a scientific paper: there was a section on the background and the project’s goal (“moral Perfection”; Franklin 1383), defined terminology, methods delineated (working on acquiring a single virtue on a weekly basis and recording instances of success/failure); results presented and discussed, and a conclusion or two (Franklin 1383–91), ranging from “I think I like a speckled Ax best” (Franklin 1390) to:

But on the whole, tho’ I never arrived at the Perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was by the Endeavour made a better and a happier Man than I otherwise should have been, if I had not attempted it (Franklin 1391).

Obviously, the project to acquire virtue wasn’t, per se, a scientific experiment, but it bore the hallmarks of one.

Elated that I observed something I previously hadn’t noticed, I wrote my short paper for the upcoming class with a reference to my discovery and mentioned it during my brief presentation. I, however, did not expect to be asked which approach to the scientific method had Franklin favored. My professor posed an excellent question, considering that the 17th and 18th century scientific thinkers were in the process of disputing more ancient methods (namely, Aristotelian) for deriving facts (Weinberg 201-14).[§] I, however, knew more about applying the basics of scientific methodology than its history.


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Photo by Walter Benington (RR Auction) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Curiously, though, this experience—that is, the feeling I’d come across a familiar format— recurred when I re-read A Study in Scarlet for a recent post. Again, I felt as though I was reading about Sherlock Holmes conducting a scientific study in which he carefully observed the crime scene’s grounds (Conan Doyle 23–4), collected data (measurements at the murder site as well as examination of the murder victims; Conan Doyle 26, 29, 56–7), and even tested his theory that the first murder victims was poisoned (Conan Doyle 58–9). But, there it was: a sort of literary déjà vu featuring the scientific method. While I’m sure I understood that Holmes was both methodical and logical in his approach to detection, I doubt I noted the specific scientific underpinnings in Holmesian detective fiction when I was reading the stories in my early teens. It doesn’t seem like the sort of thing I would have considered independently when I was intent on consuming as many mystery novels as I could. And I certainly didn’t have the same ability to read critically as I do now.

Of course, detecting  the presence of scientific ideas in the writings of scientific men (Franklin, a scientist and inventor, and Conan Doyle, a medical doctor) isn’t unexpected, particularly with two individuals whom share the distinction of forwarding scientific study. Conan Doyle’s fiction anticipated the usage of methods that would become central in forensic sciences (eg, preserving footprints, protecting the crime scene from contamination)[††] and inspired forensic science pioneers like Edmond Locard (Steenberg 35).[‡‡] In Franklin’s case, the study of electricity benefited greatly from his attention to it (Chaplin), to put it mildly. Nonetheless, uncovering these connections between very different people writing for very different purposes was satisfying. I wouldn’t go so far to claim that I’ve seen further than some, but perhaps further than I once did.[§§] And I do feel a bit like a sleuth for detecting evidence of scientific thought.

Have you experience literary déjà vu or found some interesting scientific ideas in unexpected texts? Share your experiences below! Also,  sign up for the newsletter and receive links to latest Sequence  and more in your inbox!

Works Cited

Chaplin, Joyce E. “Benjamin Franklin’s Science—In Public and Private.” Benjamin Franklin’s Science—In Public and Private. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Jan. 2017.

Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur. Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories, Volume 1 and 2. 1920. Reprint. New York: Bantam Classics, 2003. Print.

Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography. In: Franklin, Benjamin. Writings. Ed. J. A. Leo Lemay. New York, NY: Literary Classics of the United States, 1987. Print.

Lemay, J. A. Leo. The life of Benjamin Franklin: printer and publisher, 1730–1747. Vol. 2. Philadelphia, PA: U of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. Print.

Steenberg, Lindsay. Forensic science in contemporary American popular culture: gender, crime, and science. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.

Weinberg, Steven. To explain the world: the discovery of modern science. New York: Harper, 2015. Print.


[*] High school to be exact.

[†] Spoiler: It’s my favorite part.

[‡] For the curious, I have an undergraduate degree in Literature and one in Environmental Studies.

[§] Numerous sources discuss this critical change in scientific thinking, including the one I cite here (as a physicist, he brings an interesting perspective to exploring this history ). The scientific methodology has a long history and, of course, will continue to evolve as scientific discoveries and thought require it to do so. The link I provide depicts a concise timeline of important known events, dates, and person contributing to this evolution.

[**] Based on my limited research, I’d (tentatively) go with Francis Bacon. Franklin already was familiar with the self-improvement plans of notable intellectuals, including Bacon who was likely the most influential (Lemay 39). Considering that Bacon favored experiments to establish facts (empiricism), I think this dovetails neatly with Franklin’s process here. Oh, and not having an answer didn’t have any negative consequences for my classwork; it was just embarrassing.

[††]  Holmes use of footprint evidence seems amazingly prescient when you consider the SoleMate database of shoe prints.

[‡‡] He apparently encouraged his students to read Holmes stories.

[§§] I’m cheekily referencing Newton’s famous quote: “”If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Writing Holmes: How Conan Doyle Harnessed Hobbies for Sleuthing

“And that recommendation, with the exaggerated estimate of ability with which he prefaced it was, if you will believe me, Watson, the very first thing which ever made me feel that a profession might be made out of what had up to that time been the merest hobby.”

Sherlock Holmes, from “The ‘Gloria Scott’” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle[*]

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous character, Sherlock Holmes looms large in detective fiction. Although he is based on Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin,[†] Conan Doyle wrote far more extensively about his characters. Therefore, Holmes’s personality is developed to a greater degree. He has quirks—Holmes, often described as an eccentric, once shot “a patriotic V. R.” in his sitting room wall (“The Mustgrave Ritual”)[‡]—as well as vices (cocaine use) and hobbies. Of these, I find how authors of fiction use hobbies in their stories particularly interesting because hobbies represent a versatile means of characterization that can make a character more complex or succinctly communicate certain ideas about the character—almost like shorthand—that inform character behavior and even the narrative itself. In this first essay of a series that explores how writers use hobbies in fiction, I will discuss how Conan Doyle judiciously gave Holmes certain hobbies to create his great detective.

“The Merest Hobby”

Sherlock Holmes's sitting room. Photo by R. Gould
Sherlock Holmes’s sitting room (as reproduced by The Sherlock Holmes’s Museum) featuring “the patriotic V.R.”. Photo taken by R. Gould.

Conan Doyle uses hobbies to accomplish much in the Holmes stories. For example, we learn that Holmes is talented violinist in A Study in Scarlet. Mentioned alongside his other pursuits, this hobby demonstrates the diversity of Holmes’s interests. Arguably, the violin also gives him an emotional outlet: Watson speculates that the strange violin solos may reflect Holmes’s moods. While such descriptions suggest Holmes’s complexity, there are three instances in which Conan Doyle actually uses the word hobby[§] that illustrate more about Holmes’s character and his profession.

In his first case (“The “Gloria Scott’”), Holmes describes his “habits of observation and inference” as “the merest hobby”. This opinion alters once Mr. Trevor, staggered by how much Holmes could infer about a stranger by mere observation, informs him “that all the detectives in fact and fiction would be children in your hand. That’s your line of life, sir.…” Devoted readers of Holmes know from The Sign of Four, published prior to this story, that Holmes considers observation and deduction to be “two out of the three qualities necessary for the ideal detective”. Rather than informing the reader about detecting, Conan Doyle inserts this epiphany to show both Holmes’s backstory (How did Holmes become a detective?) and his evolution. The younger Holmes, like so many others, once was clueless about his future after he finished college. But as Holmes matures, so does his hobby. “The merest hobby” proves to be the basis of Holmes’s career in disguise.

The Dilettante’s Hobby

But the idea that observation and deduction could be a “mere hobby” is an important consideration that Conan Doyle explores in a second instance where the word hobby appears. “The Greek Interpreter” introduces Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s elder brother, who apparently surpasses his younger sibling in these qualities. However, as Sherlock drily observes, “If the art of the detective began and ended with reasoning from an armchair, my brother would be the greatest criminal agent that ever lived”. Since Mycroft Holmes is a lazy man, both lacking the interest in confirming his theories and incapable of obtaining proof to support them, Sherlock dismisses his brother’s efforts as “the merest hobby of a dilettante”.

But Mycroft’s passivity allows him to act as Sherlock’s foil (i.e., the hobbyist versus the careerist) in another manner, as his aversion to exercise is contrasted to Sherlock’s energy. Clearly, Conan Doyle considered the physical abilities[**] a sleuth might need, keeping in mind the dangers connected to catching criminals. Hence, he provided Holmes with suitable hobbies that would make him fit to be a detective.[††] In Sherlock’s college days, his athletic interests were boxing and fencing (“The ‘Gloria Scott’”); Watson later describes Sherlock as “an expert singlestick player, boxer and swordsman” (A Study in Scarlet). As is seen with Holmes’s other “mere” hobby, these activities transform from sporting pastimes into useful tools for self-protection and/or subduing dangerous persons. From these examples, we can see that Conan Doyle uses this notion of hobby to delineate the difference between amateurs and professionals by insisting that a true detective needs to be an active investigator, seeking proof of his deductions and capable of handling whatever dangers and difficulties that arise during an investigation.

The Wearisome Hobby

Sherlock Holmes seeking clues.

The importance of seeking proof, however, naturally leads us back to the third quality of the “ideal detective”: knowledge. Holmes mentions to Watson that he (Holmes) has written monographs on tracing footprints and preserving them in plaster of Paris, distinguishing the various types of tobacco,[‡‡] and how different trades affect appearance of the human hand, a conversation he concludes by noting “But I weary you with my hobby.” To understand what Conan Doyle is doing here, we must unpack this scene further. Holmes’s monographs on “technical subjects” result from seeking this knowledge (The Sign of Four). As detailed in “The Mustgrave Ritual”, Holmes spent all his free time studying “all the branches of science that might make [him] more efficient” as a detective once he embarked on his career. And this knowledge (referring specifically to Holmes’s monographs and how they are useful for solving crimes and presenting evidence in court) is of “interest to the scientific detective”—meaning that Conan Doyle views the ideal detective as the scientific one (The Sign of Four).

This discussion of Holmes’s hobby, the writing of academic treatises on said “technical subjects”—what we’d know call forensic sciences—is important because it firmly establishes that Holmes’s detective work is based in a scientific approach. Although Holmes is not an academic, his work is of sufficient merit to be published for scientific community and this confers on him authority.[§§]. And he needs to claim this authority: Although his scientific studies are extensive, they are not attached to a specific degree program (A Study in Scarlet) since forensic sciences were not yet a formalized field of study. Similarly, Holmes is not a government detective, like Lestrade or Villard (the French detective who consulted Holmes and intends to translate his monographs; The Sign of Four). To justify their regard and validate Holmes’s presence at the crime scenes, it’s important to show that he has certain qualifications (observation, deduction and knowledge) that these regular detectives lack. To summarize, Holmes’s academic hobby neatly serves as his detecting credentials.

Conan Doyle’s compelling use of character hobbies serves multiple purposes in the Holmes tales. Beyond the role of providing character description, they define both Holmes and his approach to detective work: methodological observation, analysis and confirmation backed by scientific knowledge. But Holmes’s is not merely an academic or even armchair detective—he also possesses the necessary abilities to gain information, apprehend felons, and defend himself. He essentially is the fictional CSI of the Victorian era. And in this case, hobbies make the Holmes.


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[*] For my quotes, I indicate the stories in which they appear because page numbers vary among the numerous anthologies, and it’s impractical to presume we’re all looking at the same book. For the record, the anthology I referred to was: Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur. Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories, Volume 1 and 2. 1920. Reprint. New York: Bantam Classics, 2003. Print.

[†][†] It’s well established that Conan Doyle loosely based Holmes and Watson on Poe’s Dupin and companion/roommate, respectively. For further reading, the reference lists of Holmes’s Wikipedia page is suggested—Wikipedia articles themselves are not good primary sources!

[‡] Yep, Holmes is that roommate. Also, this episode suggests that Holmes is a decent marksman.

[§] The three instances of the word hobby are discussed in their order of importance to the stories, not in order of story publication. Similarly, discussion of the actual hobbies tends to follow least to most important hobbies.

[**] This is not one of three qualities a detective must possess so much as a useful fourth.

[††] While Holmes’s marksmanship and acting ability are invaluable to his detective work, it’s difficult to term either as a hobby. We do know that Holmes started disguising himself as he grew famous, which—coupled with Holmes antisocial tendencies—signals that he adopted acting for his profession (The Sign of Four). For marksmanship, it’s unclear whether it was a sporting pastime prior to his career or again something he learned for his profession.

[‡‡] This monograph is also mentioned in A Study in Scarlet.

[§§] You could literally state that he doesn’t just know about tobacco ash, he wrote the book on it. Well, the monograph at any rate.