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Five Tips For Writing A Dinner Table Scene

A dinner table scene is a cornerstone of the domestic setting in films and TV. 

As a professional script consultant, I’ve read countless boring dinner table scenes, often burdened with the task of delivering heavy exposition. The problem is that they are static by nature and usually heavy with dialogue.

In this article, I’m going to give you five tips for you to avoid these common issues, and master the art of writing a compelling dinner table scene.

dinner table scene

1. Reveal Your Characters Through Subtext

Subtext is a very powerful tool for exposing the true nature of relationships.

As a writer, you can reveal your characters sitting around the table by delving into the hidden meanings behind their dialogue. This can either occur in the conversations that they have amongst them, or through individual monologues at the table…

In Reservoir Dogs, for example, Mr Pink’s dialogue points towards his tendency to defy conventional norms, which reveals his essence as a character.

2. Use Tension as a Weapon

Consider the scene’s function in terms of tension. Without it, the scene risks being flat and merely expositional.

Tension can be built throughout towards a climactic point, which exploits dynamics already set up in the narrative.

Alternatively, it can be introduced gradually, shifting the dynamic to create an increasingly awkward atmosphere. A perfect example of this dynamic at play can be seen below in the second series of Fleabag.

3. Explore Culture Through Food and Setting

Exposition doesn’t always have to be revealed through the dialogue. The dinner table and the food being served can offer valuable insight into the story’s setting.

The dining room’s description, along with ornamental details, provides a backdrop for exploring the characters’ culture.

A perfect example of this can be seen in The Sopranos, which masterfully incorporated Italian/Sicilian culinary traditions to humanise characters who, despite being murderers, showcased a relatable aspect through their shared meals.

sopranos dinner table scene

4. Use Entrances/Exits to Change Dynamics

Explore how the entrance or exit of certain characters can shift dynamics and expose power structures.

During this scene in Whiplash Andrew is interrupted by his cousins’ entry.

The bitterness he carries as a character rises to the surface, culminating in Andrew belittling his cousin’s achievements, which subtly reveals his own aspirations for greatness.

5. Play with Movement to Change Beats

In a screenplay, beats refer to the individual units of action or moments within a scene.

Each beat serves a specific purpose and contributes to the overall progression of the scene.

The movement or blocking in a scene refers to the physical actions and placement of characters within the setting.

It plays a crucial role in moving the beats forward by visually representing the shifts in the narrative.

These beats can involve changes in character dynamics, revelations, conflicts, or shifts in emotional tone.

In The Color Purple, a Thanksgiving scene escalates through strategic changes in beats, leading to a high-energy climax.

Mastering the art of writing a dinner table scene involves a delicate balance of subtext, tension, cultural exploration, dynamic shifts, and strategic movement.

By employing these tips, you can transform a seemingly static setting into a dynamic arena for character revelation and narrative development.

Nick Fore Script Doctor / Script Consultant

Nick Fore is an experienced script consultant who reads screenplays for the British Film Institute.

He has written comprehensive coverage on over 1,000 scripts and has helped screenwriters get their work into development with production companies such as Imagine Entertainment and Screen Ireland. 

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