It’s ironic to write this a week before Thanksgiving. It’s more ironic that I—who had my first cup of café au lait before the age of five—should create a post advising writers to grab their characters and drag them away from the coffee pot.
In real life, many things happen in the kitchen. It’s the hub of activity. It’s where our bodies go for sustenance and where families bond while breaking bread. How many days do you not enter your home kitchen? Probably none.
Writers are advised to create stories that reflect and explore real life. This is good advice–but it does not mean your characters need to hang around the kitchen, even though in real life, real people do.
Let me put this another way. I read a lot of published books. I also read a lot of unpublished manuscripts. Guess which ones have FEWER scenes in the kitchen.
When you’re planning a story, you select interesting places for the big scenes: the opening, the point of no return, the climactic battle. Those locations are certainly important, and they certainly need to be intriguing–but those scenes don’t fill the bulk of your manuscript. You’ll devote more pages to lesser dramatic scenes and lesser dramatic locations.
Where do you send your characters for these important, but not as drama-filled, scenes?
Please don’t say the kitchen.
The kitchen is the fallback location, the comfort zone for comfort writing. After a while, comfort food gets boring and makes us fat. The same thing applies to writing scene after scene in your character’s kitchen. One of my favorite sayings about writing is that characters sleep and go to the bathroom, but I don’t want to have to read about it. I’d like to add this to that axiom: I love coffee, but I want to drink it, not read about it.
If you leave the kitchen, where do you go? No place exotic, necessarily. Think about the places we go in everyday life:
Home….Job….Restaurants….School….Gym….Parents’ home…Friends’ homes….Grocery story….Doctor’s office….The mall….Swimming pool…..Back yard….Neighborhood….City park….The beach….Bars….Cinema….Casino….Sporting events….Dance recitals….Police station…Hospital
Next, think about the particular setting of your story: Are you writing about a real town/area? Are there historical or significant sites there? Are you creating a fictional town for your story? If so, what’s it like? Where do inhabitants go?
If you are using a real setting, consider the available historical and significant locales. For instance, if your story is set in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, how long can you go without mentioning the flood or the flood sites? Not long. They are in the residents’ faces every day, and you’d be cheating the reader by omitting them. It would be like writing a Pittsburgh story and never mentioning a bridge!
Second, think about your character’s life and world. Where, specifically, does your protagonist go every day, and why? Are those places dull? Are her days repetitive? What can you do to change them up? What can these places show about your character?
If your character likes to read, she goes to a library—or a bookstore—or a used bookstore—or a friend’s house to borrow a book—or a monthly book group. This may show her economic status and/or her social habits.
If a character has a back problem, he goes to a doctor—or a chiropractor—or an acupuncturist—or a faith healer—or a massage therapist—or ignore it until he has to go to the Emergency Room—or buy muscle relaxants from a high school kid on the street corner. These place choices can show if the character is a traditional thinker or a non-traditionalist.
Where you send your characters says something around them, so use those surroundings or locations to perform double—or triple—duty: Advance the action. Teach something new. Show something about the character.
Let’s try an exercise. Choose a generic setting location, like an apartment building. What spaces are available in this apartment building for a lesser dramatic scene?
Apartment: Hallway. Elevator. Foyer. Neighbor’s apartments. Manager’s office. Laundry room. Garden. Bench in front of apartment. Front door. Mailbox area. Roof. Balcony. Fire escape. Enclosed yard. Play area. Pool. Exercise room.
What about a farmhouse in the country? House. Front porch. Back porch. Driveway. Barn. Garage. Garden. Fields. Swing area. Flower beds. Tool shed. Deck. Yard. On a ladder fixing the roof. On the lawnmower mowing the lawn.
See? No kitchen.
What about work? Let’s say your character is a drone who works in a cubicle making unwanted telemarketing calls to people all day. Dullest of the dull, right?
Not if you get them out of the cubicle. Try it. Make a list of all the places your drone can go, just within the office building.
Then take your drone out for lunch, and think of all the places available for a meal. Then end the work day, and think of the various means of transportation to leave an office. Then think of all the places your drone can go to after work, rather than going directly home.
Then, when your drone is exhausted because she’s been to the board room at work, a cute little deli/bodega for lunch, a hop in a taxi, a Zumba class, a hitched ride with a friend because her car’s in the shop–let her arrive home. Where she’ll have to check her mail, cross the foyer, ride the elevator, walk down the hall, pass her neighbors’ apartments, and get to her door—all before she ever reaches the kitchen.
She’ll probably need a cup of coffee, in the kitchen, but she’s earned it. Look at everywhere she’s been today!