July 8 – 14: “Can you describe some memorable moments how a meal or snack may have raised suspense?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week ITW Members Tom Young and J. H. Bográn are talking suspense and snacks while trying to answer the question: “Books often rely on food and meals for symbolism, can you describe some memorable moments how a meal or snack may have raised suspense?”


WARRIORSTom Young served in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Air National Guard. Military honors include three Air Medals, three Aerial Achievement Medals, and the Air Force Combat Action Medal. In a twenty-year Air Guard career he logged nearly five thousand hours of flight time while visiting more than forty countries. He is the author of the military thrillers The Mullah’s Storm, Silent Enemy, and The Renegades. His newest novel, The Warriors, comes to book stores on July 11.

Death Toll 3J. H. Bográn was born and raised in Honduras. Although he’s the son of a journalist, he ironically prefers to write fiction rather than fact. His debut novel TREASURE HUNT, which The Celebrity Café hails as an intriguing novel that provides interesting insight of architecture and the life of a fictional thief. FIREFALL, his second novel, is scheduled for release in September/2013 by Rebel ePublishers. He’s a member of the International Thriller Writers where he also serves as the Thriller Roundtable Coordinator and contributor editor their official e-zine The Big Thrill. He lives in Honduras with his wife and three sons.

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  1. The best fiction tells stories about people facing problems—and hunger certainly represents one of the most basic, immediate problems of life. So food quite naturally can become a source of moment-to-moment tension in countless possible scenarios. Imagine a well-fed villain munching on caviar as he interrogates his starving captive: “Ah, Meester Bond, you may share my little banquet eef you give me zeh nuclear codes.”

    Okay, a little cheesy (no pun intended), but you get the point. The character needs food to stay alive. He doesn’t have it. What will he do to get it?

    Particularly in survival stories, descriptions of the character’s hunger become central. When the survivor finally gets food, no matter how unappetizing, the meal becomes something of a catharsis. To a castaway on a life raft, fish entrails become a delicacy.

    The eagerness with which a character eats can demonstrate the hunger and desperation faced along the way. In Charles Frazier’s novel Cold Mountain, his protagonist, a Civil War veteran named Inman, devours a meal of beans and cornbread after days of subsisting on whatever he could forage in the wilderness: “A part of him wished to be polite, but it was overcome by some dog organ deep in his brain, and so he ate loudly and in gulps, pausing to chew only when absolutely necessary.”

    This is not just satiation. The reader knows Inman will likely face such hunger again as he continues his journey home.

    In my first novel, The Mullah’s Storm, an Afghan family treats Air Force flier Michael Parson to a meal after he has trekked through a blizzard. Parson experiences a moment similar to Inman’s: “If I live through this, he thought, I’ll never take hot food for granted again. He ate so quickly that juice ran down his chin onto his whiskers.”

    An excess of food can heighten tension, as well. Imagine a story of a prisoner of war who breaks down and collaborates with his captors. He gets rewarded with extra food, which he can hardly bring himself to eat because of regret.

    In the end, we’re all just mammals. We can live only minutes without air, days without water, weeks without food. Even hint at taking away one of those, and you have an instant source of suspense.

  2. What a great overview of the topic, Tom. Thanks a bunch. I agree completely and would add that when the writer addresses these basic, “animal” needs in his or her narrative, they achieve a secondary goal of making their characters real, believable, and relatable. That makes them come alive for the reader which in and of itself heightens the suspense.

    I remember well that scene in THE MULLAH’S STORM and as a reader I very much felt what Parson was going through. Briliantly written like all your books.

    I’m looking forward very much to THE WARRIORS.

    Thanks for kicking off a fun discussion.


  3. Tom Young made a wonderful summary leaving me not much to add, so I’m gonna have to get creative if I want my post to be meaningful.

    The first image I got when I read the question was one of a tenacious little prehistoric squirrel globe-trotting after a nut.

    I recall one of the books by David Baldacci, from the Sean King/Michelle Maxwell series, where the protagonists were going through a rough time. I remember Sean in particular tightening his belt a few times due to the hunger, the lack of food provided tension, so much that they were forced to work with a former enemy (or lover, aren’t they usually the same?)

    In my upcoming novel, Firefall, I have an early scene where the lead is about to commit murder, but first must follow his victims and ends up sitting near trying mighty hard to swallow some snack. Conscience, nerves, anxiety, and other emotions come into play for that scene.

    One of the most memorable scenes, though, comes from a somewhat old book that I read until recently. Stephen King’s Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger. There’s a scene where the gunslinger meets a boy in a ghost town were the food is scarce, and as it turns out, some of it may be deadly.

    So, what’s your most memorable food scene?


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