One common tool in the screenwriting shed is the eating/drinking scene: the characters meet up for coffee in a café; they go out for a beer; they sit down for a family dinner; they make reservations at a swanky restaurant.
But these scenes can present a challenge. At core, they are inherently uncinematic. We have a scene in which two (or more) characters sit at a table. We get medium close shots of their talking heads. We do a shot/reverse-shot as they go back and forth, talk-talk-talking. Simply put, it’s a flat thing to watch.
And eating/drinking scenes off the lure of an easy crutch for downloading some exposition. The characters sit down and trade wads of exposition. As mentioned in other articles, exposition should be treated like the necessary evil it is: minimize it as much as possible, and try to couch it in something more engaging (visuals, human, etc.) But an eating/drinking scene allows the script to just let the characters sit there and dump their exposition on the table. It’s a path toward easy but uninspired storytelling choices.
Eating/drinking scenes also invite the danger of empty business, like servers showing up to take an order, characters discussing the menu, the script burning lines on the characters eating food and sipping drinks and other inane clutter.
There is of course a place for eating/drinking scenes. The key is to ask if there is enough conflict and story inherent to the eating/drinking scene that it plays as well as a non-eating/drinking scene. For example, BIG NIGHT is about two brothers running a restaurant; of course there are going to be scenes of characters eating, and in the climax they cook and serve a meal. This final sequence is laden with story, because the stakes are high: how the meal is received determines if they will be able to keep the restaurant open or not.
Also: eating/drinking scenes in which danger is presented, like Michael Corleone’s sit-down in an Italian restaurant in THE GODFATHER, or Indiana Jones meeting with shady buyers in a swanky club in TEMPLE OF DOOM, only to be poisoned.
The litmus is to ask: Does this story beat have to be staged as an eating/drinking scene? For example, if we have a beat in which two characters go on a date, could we have them do anything else besides sit there and exchange gettin’-to-know-ya chit-chat dialogue? Could they go to an axe-throwing bar? Or ride a roller coaster? Or even simply walk in a park? Any of these give the characters action, and the scenes visuals, that are more cinematic and engaging than the aforementioned shot/reverse-shot medium-close static blah blahs.
A script might have the characters sit and eat/drink. But let’s always ask if there is a better, stronger, more interesting choice to be had. That way, if we still decide to go with the eating/drinking scene, we know the choice is being made for clear storytelling purposes, as opposed to easy filler.