Rules of fiction: “Guess What’s Coming to Dinner,” with Ken Brosky

ken brosky

rules of fiction

Rules of Fiction with Ken Brosky “Guess What’s Coming to Dinner.”

Rarely do books scare me. It takes a great author to form the sentences that will inspire my imagination to conjure the horror hidden in the written word. It’s not like a movie, where scary things can be forced upon your eyes. That goes double for the gruesomeness that accompanies the best shlock fests–like John Carpenter’s The Thing, to name just one example.

Rachel Harrison’s The Return scared me. Even better, it came at me from different angles, like a pack of wolves closing in on an exhausted prey. I have to admit, I almost put this book down. The first twenty or so pages moved slow, and I found myself losing interest. But I pushed on and can’t express how glad I was to have done so. By the time the book picks up–with the return of a friend who’s been missing for two years–everything from the first section started to carry additional weight. It prepared me for the horrors to come by establishing the main character and building the bonds between friends so that what’s to come is even more devastating.

So what is it about? Well, Julie has returned to the world after being missing for two years. To encourage her recovery, Julie’s friends plan a retreat in a remote resort for some rest and relaxation. But Mollie, Elise, and Mae quickly realize that Julie is not quite herself. She’s changed … and Elise worries it might not be Julie at all. I don’t want to spoil anything beyond this. All I’ll say is: Rachel Harrison can write horror.


Dinner Always Has A Purpose

I want to zero in on a specific scene that Harrison writes with masterful skill: dinner. One important thing to remember about stories–books, short stories, movies, whatever–is that anytime people are eating, there’s a purpose behind it. Subtext, lurking underneath the table. Watch how Harrison does it, as Elise is preparing to meet her friends for dinner on their first night at the resort, and she notices her bag has mysteriously fallen off her bed:


The way my clothes are, it’s like there’s a body there. Like there’s some flat, invisible person wearing them, lying down on the floor … I can’t stand to look any longer, afraid if I do the clothes will stand up or crawl toward me.

Unnerved by the experience, Elise leaves and heads downstairs to dinner at the resort restaurant. It isn’t long before she notices that her friend Julie looks different. And it’s not just the fact that this vegetarian has just ordered a steak:


There’s something about her teeth. Aside from being chipped, not white anymore, they’ve shifted. Her canines have come forward. And her lips. They’re so chapped, shriveled thin, even in this dark room from across the table I can see the flakes of dead skin. And one of her dimples is missing. Did it fall off?

Julie has suddenly developed an interesting taste for meat:


There are drippings on her chin, and she’s barely chewing before swallowing. Her head bobs. No. It’s jerking. There’s a physicality to the way she’s eating. An aggression. I’ve seen her binge a few times, but it was never like this … there’s not the slightest inkling of shame here.

This dinner scene does so many fantastic things at once. It shows Elise is growing concerned. It shows a change that’s come over Julie since her return from two years God-knows-where. It even reveals a little conflict between Julie’s three supportive friends, all of whom choose to interpret Julie’s behavior in different ways.

But most of all, it sets the scene for the first truly scary moment at the end of the chapter when Elise goes back to her room:


There’s a shape in the shadows. Not the bed. Over the bed. On the other side of the bed, crouching in the corner. Knees and elbows up, sharp, at strange angles, like a tortured crab, head down, over something. Something dark and limp and dripping. And there are noises. Bad noises. Eating. Sloppy eating. Not eating. Feeding.

I get the chills just sharing this moment. Suffice it to say this is just the beginning.


Writing Activity: The Dinner Scene

Meals should only be in a story if there’s meaning behind them. Nobody wants to read about a bunch of people eating and talking about the weather … unless, of course, the weather involves acid rain or something of the sort! Meal scenes are only important to a story if there’s something simmering beneath the surface.

So let’s try a writing exercise, which I’m intentionally spicing up with key details. Start by selecting an interesting location: either set your meal scene in a far-off space station, an ancient castle, or a business retreat in the isolated countryside. Once you have that, decide what’s for dinner. Make it unique, based on the setting! This exercise is not the place for boring old chicken.

Now that you have the setting and the menu, populate your meal with characters. Aim for four at the most so you don’t get too overwhelmed. Again, think about the setting to determine the role of each character.

Finally, there needs to be a reason all four are eating together. And there needs to be an incident. Something happened prior to this meal. Something bad. Be creative here, but consider the stakes: the incident should be serious enough to put everyone on edge.

Now write the Dinner Scene. One last caveat: none of your characters should mention the incident. Let it simmer just beneath the surface of their conversations. Let the stress of the incident guide how they eat, what they talk about, even how they respond to one another. Make it tense. Make it meaningful.

And at the end, let the pressure get to one of your characters.

ken brosky

Rules of Fiction with Ken Brosky “Guess What’s Coming to Dinner.”

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