Writing Technique: The Restaurant Syndrome

Picture this scene.

Your hero is sitting in a bar. He's thinking about things... life, death, taxes, the way he's being chased by a serial killer... whatever.

While he thinks, he sips his beer/Jim Beam/wine/etc.


He thinks some more.


He makes a casual comment to the barperson.


He looks over his shoulder and sees the killer in the doorway and beats a hasty retreat to the men's.

Thank goodness. Because at least this means he leaves the darned drink behind!

Of course, the scene isn't written in quite such a bare-bones form as the one you see above. But the reader gets bored anyway. The problem is, the author hasn't made an effort to show the character doing something other than drinking. (Yes, I know that's probably why he's in the bar in the first place... but your job as the author is to think about what else he might be doing.)


Tony sipped at his beer and thought about what to do next. The guy wasn't going to give up; that much was obvious. How come he knew so much? Where Tony worked, his weekend routine, his sister's address...

How the hell had he found out where Mandy lived? She'd only been there a month or so. He gulped down another mouthful of the beer. As though she hadn't suffered enough. Now this.

Of course, if he knew all that, he probably knew that this was where Tony came to drink, too. He could be out there right now, watching.

It was an effort not to turn and look towards the door. Instead, he tilted the glass and let the liquid flow down his throat. If he was out there, let him make the next move.

He caught the barman's eye, pointed a finger at the glass and nodded. If Tony sits here for much longer without any action, we're likely to watch while he sips the beer, swallows the beer, and gulps the beer. He'll drain the glass; tilt the glass and stare into the amber depths; idly swish the liquid around in the glass... do I need go on?

We've all seen scenes like this. They seem to happen when people are:

  • in a bar or club drinking

  • in a restaurant eating

  • in a kitchen making & drinking coffee or tea
If they are drinking, they continually sip/slurp/drink/drain glasses etc.

If they are in a restaurant, they "take a bite of" this and "spear another forkful" of that. You'll read lines like "he took another bite"; "he ate some more steak"; "he drank some more wine" ad nauseam.

You'll find characters drinking coffee, sipping it (again... a lot of sipping goes on in books); blowing on the coffee to cool it; stirring it; dropping lumps of sugar in it; adding cream or milk to it... until the reader feels like screaming "I KNOW HOW COFFEE IS MADE! I KNOW HOW TO DRINK IT TOO!"

You might be sitting there thinking: Well, so what? Isn't it logical that people would eat when they go to a restaurant? Shouldn't you show them having a drink?

Sure. That's fair enough. But once you show them having a sip of wine or a forkful of chicken schnitzel, stop.

Take a mental look around. (No, not around you. Around the setting in which you've placed your characters.)

  • Who else is there? What are they doing?

  • What else is going on around the main character(s)?

  • What mood is the main character in? How can you show this by actions other than eating or drinking?

  • How might the conversation lead to other actions taken by the main character?

  • Can you think of a twist that would lead to extra suspense or humour in a commonplace setting?

  • Is the character uncomfortable for some reason, so this discomfort becomes the main focus of his/her attention? (e.g. tight new clothes, an unfamiliar pain or ache, a headache, an allergy to the other person's perfume or aftershave?)
Once you start thinking, there are many, many other things that you can show your characters doing. Use them to your advantage.

The Restaurant Syndrome on Replay

It's bad enough having one scene in which a character is continually sipping or 'taking another bite' of something. But when you have that character forever going to the same place to repeat the effort, the reader will be ready to lynch you.

  • Do you have your characters continually talking over coffee?

  • How many scenes are there in which you send your characters out to eat or drink?
Remember that most of us squeeze a lot into our days. We move around the house, we drive from A to B, we go shopping, take out the garbage and go to the movies.

We interact with our friends and families in many different ways. Next time you write a scene, try to steer away from the obvious. Look for details that will help you add depth to character, create humour or build suspense.

Not sure if you're guilty of 'the restaurant syndrome'?

Try this. Open up your word processor, access your story file and do a search for the following terms: sip/sipped/drank/coffee/drink

ate/forkful/bite/food If you come up with 156 instances of the word 'drank' or 'sipped', you might be in trouble :-) Time for a rewrite...

(c) Copyright Marg McAlister

Marg McAlister has published magazine articles, short stories, books for children, ezines, promotional material, sales letters and web content. She has written 5 distance education courses on writing, and her online help for writers is popular all over the world. Sign up for her regular writers' tipsheet at http://www.writing4success.com/

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