Food as a Writing Prompt

steaming hot coffee held by mittens

Look long enough, and you’ll feel the chill of the air and the heat of the drink in your hands.

You can’t use food as a writing prompt! Or can you? Hmmm… Food can be used for worldbuilding. It’s inspired the readers to recreate the dishes from books and movies (Did you check out the recipes from Studio Ghibli and Avatar: the Last Airbender or from the Harry Potter series and LOTR?). Heck, if people can find Jesus on a potato chip, then why can’t we find a scene or a character?

Ok, bad example.

Setting a Scene with Food and Sensory Language

Visions aside, if done well, food is something you experience rather than something that’s inhaled and forgotten. If it’s bad, on the other hand, forgetting it may be the best you can hope for. That’s why describing a food and the surrounding ambience can very quickly give the audience a strong impression of a situation (scary or otherwise). For this aspect, foods that inspire strong emotions or memories may be easiest to work with.

  1. Pick a food that you associate with a specific experience, situation, or person.
  2. Picture in your mind the feelings, setting, and flavors you associate with that food.
  3. Describe the scene using sensory language (language that appeals to 1 or more of the 5 senses: taste, touch, smell, sight, or hearing).
  4. Analyze the mood created and use it to guide you to the next step of the plot.

Some foods have a comforting or cheerful association: hot cocoa after playing in the snow or a soothing glass of wine after a hard day at work. Foods can be used to comfort, to romance, or even to intimidate, but it’s the trappings that surround them and the way they appeal to the senses (or don’t) that does the most to establish that atmosphere.

Building Character with Food

In any culture, there are norms for what people eat. For example, a grizzled U.S. cop drinking coffee isn’t going to make anyone blink (it’s a stereotype thing). If the grizzled cop only drinks herbal tea and milk, however, that’s going to get the reader’s attention and show very quickly and easily that there is more to this cop than meets the eye. It’s also a useful way to establish amusing and interesting quirks that can endear the character to the readers (or do the opposite).

  1. Pick a stereotypical character.
  2. List what foods or types of foods that character would be expected to like/have tried.
  3. List what foods or types of foods that character would be expected to disdain.
  4. Decide what the character actually likes (it will most likely be some of each).
  5. Use those choices to help direct you as you develop the character.
    • Is he more sensitive than he seems?
    • Is he a health nut?
    • Does she have a deathly allergy that could come into play in the plot?
    • Does she love junk food?

It doesn’t really have to be a stereotypical character (That just makes the exercise easier.) – you can use the same techniques with anyone.

Want to make a character that annoys the reader? Make him/her a really picky eater – excessively so. One who likes to complain about every little thing that isn’t to his/her standards. Like a kid staying at his grandparents’ house and saying, “That’s not how Mom makes it!” Or like an adult who only eats things that are a specific color (it happens).

We have all sorts of associations with what people eat or how people eat. It’s really interesting. Open-mindedness to trying new foods. Or definitely not. Using herbs. Meat and potatoes cooks. Practically a gourmet chef. Expert baker. Able to burn water. Did each of those make you think of a specific person or people?

We’re around some kind of food every day of our lives (we hope). That means we have tons of memories tied to it. That’s a lot of story fodder!


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