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.

Mischief Managed: Rowling’s Kitchen Table

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 having any consequences because their intentions were good: they have chores to do. She sends them outdoors to sort out garden beds before they get the chance to nap. (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.

Mystery, Misery and Murder at Christie’s Banquets

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 formal dining 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.

Gaiman: What the Monster Made for Dinner

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.

Setting the Table for Family Drama

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 Sequence’s newsletter and keep current with the latest posts.

NOTES:

[*] 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).

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.

 

Reading Past and Future

Ready to read in the new year

Generally speaking, I avoid the whole “new year, new me” resolutions that plague the early days of January. In my part of the world, January tends to be cold and grey with a chance of snow. After the merry and bright of the darkest nights of December, January already feels like the morning after the night before.[*] Why add the pressure of life-changing resolutions?

To be fair though, I have the bookworm’s long-standing goal to read more, regardless of which part of the year it is. It’s been a rather poignant plan at times, when I haven’t had enough free time to read deeply the way I wanted to do or the focus when I did have time. In 2016, however, I felt like I read many amazing books, although I always wish for more time to read more.[†] With that in mind, I’ve compiled a list of the notable books I’ve read (links are to posts that discuss these books).

Since I’m making lists, I thought I’d consider books for 2017 as well. Normally, I let my birthday and Christmas presents[‡] dictate the books that I plan to read for the upcoming year, and I find other books that interest me as the year progresses. I am, however, hoping to get a few suggestions from my readers. Please feel free to post your suggestions in the comment box!

2016 Notable Reads[§]

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne[**]

The House at Pooh Corner by A. A. Milne

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This by Robin Black

Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch

Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind by Anne Charnock

The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan*

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

2017 To-Read List

All the Living by C. E. Morgan

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Howard’s End by E. M. Forster

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo[††]

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Take Off Your Pants! Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing by Libbie Hawker

Read a good book lately? Share your reading recommendations in the comment section below! Also, sign up for the Sequence’s newsletter and keep current with the latest posts!

NOTES:

[*]For some of us, this might be literally true on New Year’s Day.

[†] Just like that guy in the Twilight Zone episode.

[‡] Nothing is sadder than when you DON’T get books for a present.

[§] I’ve read more books than are listed here, but these are the ones that truly stood out as I was putting this list together. Some of these books are also re-reads.

[**] I still can’t believe I’d not read either of these books as a kid.

[††] I’ve actually been trying to read Les Miserables for ages. The problem is it’s so long that I start losing the plot when I put it down. I’m working on finding time to read it uninterrupted so that I don’t lose where I am.

Closing with Character

The New Year and Reviewing Character

character.jpg
Defining character means many thing for writers. (“Character” by NY is licensed under CC by 3.0. )

The closing of the year is a jumbled-up affair: The summing up of another year juxtaposed with setting up the next year. It’s not dissimilar to beginning a revision, which I’m (finally) undertaking for a short story I recently wrote. Both processes involve reviewing what you did, what you wish you did differently, and what you will do going forward. And, in both cases, it’s a good time to think about character. Writers use numerous techniques to make their fictional persons feel alive, something that greatly interests me as I edit that first draft where the protagonist feels a bit lacking in, well, character.[*] I recently read two books, one a novel and the other a short story collection, that approach the idea of character in compelling if divergent ways that illustrate what we as writers can really do to with our characters.

Unknowable Versus Lacking Character

A clear sense of character or even lack of character, for example, isn’t necessarily a handicap to tale well told. In The Vegetarian,[†] Yeong-hye rarely speaks throughout the haunting tale that chronicles the manifestation and evolution of her madness. With the exception of an unsettling dream sequence she recounts (presumably to Mr. Cheong), her story, her words, and her life’s details are told through the perspectives of her husband, brother-in-law, and sister. She is in essence a negative presence, and each narrator can only react to her mysteriously changed behavior and/or guess at her actions. We, as readers, experience their bewilderment in tandem. The result is remarkable: Yeong-he, much like roots of her madness (and seemingly, all madness) remain unknowable.

In contrast to her absent presence, Mr. Cheong (Yeong-hye’s husband) defines a lack of character in an altogether different and entirely unpleasant manner. The Vegetarian is not a story for the fainthearted, and Mr. Cheong is clearly the most reprehensible of its denizens—chiefly because he lacks empathy and compassion. The marriage between the two is not a love match: Mr. Cheong aspires to the “middle course”[‡] and finds it “only natural that [he] would marry the most run-of-the mill woman” available (12). Clearly, he represents a certain patriarchal extreme, where marriage means about his needs are being met and indifference to his wife’s interior life, interests, and even mental health. Or, as he puts it, “The strange situation had nothing to do with me” (26). Eventually, her decline, undoubtedly worsened by his neglect and mistreatment, cannot be ignored. Of course, he abandons her; after all:

her expression, which made it seem as though she were a woman of bitter experience, who had suffered many hardships, niggled at my conscience. (38)

Characters at Crossroads

Where loss seems to shatter and/or disrupt the characters of The Vegetarian, characters in the collected stories of If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This frequently find themselves at crossroads in their lives where they struggle to cope with their losses.[§] “Pine”, an exemplary story of the collection, features the widowed Claire who marvels at the choices Heidi made with her kitchen: Claire decides that, were she in Heidi’s shoes,[**] she would have chosen a smaller, easier to navigate kitchen with a pine floor to deaden the clumping gait of the prosthetic leg (155). Claire’s choices unsurprisingly are for muting: when her daughter questions her about her “friendship” with Kevin, she “think[s] about reassuring that no one could ever replace her father for me. I’m sure that is what she’s really asking” (164). It’s not. Alyssa suspects that Kevin has feelings for her mother and, in insisting Kevin is welcome to attend her soccer game, is assuring her mother that she’s okay with Claire moving forward. Claire instead focuses on how soon she will be losing her daughter to adulthood (165) and keeping Kevin as her “yes-man”—or more accurately, her emotional crutch that prevents her from moving past her widowhood (158-9, 172-3). Both Heidi and Claire have suffered terrible losses due to cancer. Their approach to these losses comes down to character: Heidi eventually found within herself the grit to get on with her life, while Claire (for now) remains exactly where she stood when Joe died.

Defining Character

Character, as Merriam-Webster has kindly reminded me, is complex word that refers to  more than persons of fictional works. It ranges from alphabetic markings to reputation. It suggests moral make-up of individual as well as the identity of groups.[††] It is word that encompasses much, and you need context to understand which character you happen to be dealing with, whether they lack, morals, or strength. Characters of fiction, too, need that complexity or even that mystery to make them real. As I go forward into the New Year, editing away, I’ll be sure to keep my character’s character and this complexity in mind. And, perhaps, mine as well.

Happy New Year!

Which characters caught your attention in 2016? Tell us about whom and why in the comment section below. Also, sign-up to the Sequences’s newsletter to keep current with the latest posts.

NOTES:

[*] New Year’s resolution #1: take it easy on puns.

[†] Kang, Han. Vegetarian: A Novel; Trans. by Deborah Smith. New York: Hogarth, 2015. Print.

[‡] I’m uncomfortably reminded of the advice that Robinson Crusoe’s father gave him about choosing the “middle state” of life at this moment. (Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. New York: Bantam, 1991.)

[§] Black Robin. If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This: Stories. New York, Random House, 2011.

[**] And resolution broken! Amusingly, Claire also considers whether Heidi is “more in denial” about her circumstances (155).
[††] “Character.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 29 Dec. 2016.

 

Room to Read

Speaking as an avid bookworm, there is nothing more irresistible than an unread book.

“This must be Thursday,” said Arthur to himself, sinking low over his beer. “I never could get the hang of Thursdays.”

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

I grew up in a reading household: both of my parents read regularly. My dad built bookcases in our den that still couldn’t hope to hold all the reading material we owned. My mom took me to the local library at least once a week, letting me check out all the books I could lug home. Laudable as their efforts were, this isn’t about how they inspired my reading.[*]

It’s about how sharing a room did.

The room in question was the bedroom I shared with my sister. Or, more accurately, the one she shared with me. Being several years older, it had been hers first. Granted, it remained hers in some real ways when it came to where things went and space division. I’m not sure if that’s much consolation for a teenager trading her privacy (and full-sized bed) for a much younger and much messier little sister. All things considered, she probably got the worst end of that deal.[†]

And I’m not saying that just because she’s frequently mentions the horrors of negotiating a floor strewn with doll shoes whilst trying to silently slip into bed after a night out.[‡]

But when you happen to be one of four children, sharing happens. So we did. She may have shared a bit more with me than she knew at the time. Speaking as an avid bookworm, there is nothing more irresistible than an unread book. She kept hers under her dresser. And, I most certainly borrowed them.

Being a voracious reader, I read rather indiscriminately then.[§] I quite happily absorbed myself in some sister’s not-so-age-appropriate romance novels alongside the library’s copy of Little Women. But there was one book—I don’t recall whether my sister was in high school or college at the time the new book came or exactly how old I was—but I vividly recollect the cover as it peeked out from behind dark wooden legs: a planet with its tongue sticking out. That one, that one was a revelation. A clinically depressed robot? Computers declaring the meaning of life is 42? A chap who can’t manage Thursday? It was odd and hilarious at once. I loved The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, even the bits I didn’t quite get yet. It’s one I’ve reread many times, and it was my sister who (unwittingly) placed it in my path.

As we time went by, my sister purposely lent me books, too. Often, she provided me with plot synopses so that I could decide whether they were worth reading. Of course, we don’t always agree to read the same sort of books,[**] but I’m always interested in trying her recommendations. Like that time she suggested I read this story about a kid called Harry Potter. I was a bit skeptical, since it was for kids (or so I thought). She sent me home with the first three books. And she was right: they were great. For her birthday, I bought her the next four as soon as each was published.

I suppose putting up with a kid sister eventually paid off for her.

Who is your partner in reading? Post in the comment section below! Also, sign-up to the Sequence’s newsletter and keep current with the latest posts.

NOTES:

[*] Although, they absolutely did and do continue to inspire me to keep reading.

[†] Not that it was her choice.

[‡] I have it on her authority that stepping on Barbie doll shoes whilst barefoot is excruciatingly painful. It’s little wonder she made sure I became a far tidier person than I was naturally inclined to be.

[§] For the sake of my sanity, I no longer partake of breakfast cereals. To this day, I can’t seem to stop myself from rereading the boxes again and again.

[**] I still can’t talk my sister into horror fiction.