The bestselling YA authors return to the cafeteria setting over and over again throughout their story. That’s because this setting clearly implies the passage of time, and transitions the reader from scene to scene. Whether it’s the Hogwarts Great Hall, the Hunger Games’ Training Center Dining Room, or Twilight’s High School lunchroom, the cafeteria setting is the background that pushes the story forward.
1. The cafeteria setting opens a scene naturally.
Readers have no problem jumping abruptly into a new scene that takes place in the cafeteria.
- In Harry Potter, this scene is quickly grounded by placing the conversation in the dining area. “You’re joking.” It was dinnertime. Harry had just finished telling Ron what had happened when he’d left the grounds with Professor McGonagall.” (HP Ch.9).
- In Twilight, the cafeteria provides context for the upcoming conversation. “We were in the cafeteria at this point. The day had sped by in the blur that was rapidly becoming routine. I took advantage of his brief pause to take a bite of my bagel.” (TW Ch.12).
2. The cafeteria signals the passage of time on a small, daily scale.
We eat meals like clockwork. Show the characters meeting for a meal in the cafeteria as a way to imply what time it is, or to show that the story skips to the next day.
- In Harry Potter, the story often picks up the next day at breakfast.
- “Then, one breakfast time, Hedwig brought Harry another note from Hagrid. He had written only two words: It’s hatching.” (HP Ch.14).
- “The following morning, notes were delivered to Harry, Hermione, and Neville at the breakfast table.” (HP Ch.15).
- In The Hunger Games, breakfast again signals a new day at the training center. “Haymitch didn’t give us an exact time to meet for breakfast and no one has contacted me this morning, but I’m hungry so I head down to the dining room, hoping there will be food.” (HG Ch.7).
3. The cafeteria shows the passage of time on a large, seasonal scale.
The cafeteria is a great place to hang holiday decorations and let your reader infer that that bigger chunks of time have gone by.
- J.K. Rowling uses feasts in the Great Hall to travel through the school year.
- “On their way down to the Great Hall for the Halloween feast, …[a] thousand live bats fluttered from the walls . . .making the candles in the pumpkins stutter.” (HP Ch.10).
- “The hall looked spectacular. Festoons of holly and mistletoe hung all around the walls . . .” (HP Ch.12).
- “Harry made his way down to the end-of-year feast alone that night. . . . It was decked out in the Slytherin colors of green and silver. . .” (HP Ch.17).
- Twilight uses a snowball fight outside the lunchroom to show a change in season. “I’ll see you at lunch, okay?” I kept walking as I spoke. “Once people start throwing wet stuff, I go inside.” (TW Ch.2).
4. The cafeteria is a transitional setting between bigger scenes.
This transition gives the reader a calming break between action scenes. The hero may receive new information, or may just wait around dreading the next scene.
- While in the Great Hall, Harry receives a broom that he needs for the big quidditch match scene. “As the owls flooded into the Great Hall as usual . . . Harry was just as interested as everyone else to see what was in this large parcel, and was amazed when the owls soared down and dropped it right in front of him, knocking his bacon to the floor.” (HP Ch.10).
- In The Hunger Games, Katniss waits in the dining room before her big evaluation in front of the Gamemakers. “On the third day of training, they start to call us out of lunch for our private sessions with the Gamemakers. . . .We linger in the dining room, unsure where else to go.” (HG Ch.7).
5. The cafeteria is a place where the characters make plans for a bigger event.
Similar to its role for the transition scene, the cafeteria again sets up the hero for more adventure. Making plans helps build anticipation for the next big scene.
- In Harry Potter, a scene in the Great Hall lets the reader anticipate the upcoming flying scene. “Hermione Granger was almost as nervous about flying as Neville was. . . . . At breakfast on Thursday she bored them all stupid with flying tips she’d gotten out of a library book called Quidditch Through the Ages.” (HP Ch.9).
- In Twilight, Bella’s friends plan a trip, which results in an important scene where she meets Jacob Black. “Every day, I watched anxiously until the rest of the Cullens entered the cafeteria without him. Then I could relax and join in the lunchtime conversation. Mostly it centered around a trip to the La Push Ocean Park in two weeks that Mike was putting together.” (TW Ch.2).
- Katniss is happy to see that the stylists will join them in the dining room because they help her make plans. “Besides, dinner isn’t really about food, it’s about planning out our strategies, and Cinna and Portia have already proven how valuable they are.” (HG Ch.6).
6. The cafeteria setting provides a natural end to scenes.
Time spent in the cafeteria has a clear deadline: the end of the meal. This keeps both the scenes and the dialogue snappy.
- “The silence lasted until I noticed that the cafeteria was almost empty. I jumped to my feet. ‘We’re going to be late’ ‘I’m not going to class today,’ he said, twirling the lid so fast it was just a blur.” (TW Ch.5).
- “Tomorrow morning is the first training session. Meet me for breakfast and I’ll tell you exactly how I want you to play it,” says Haymitch to Peeta and me. “Now go get some sleep while the grown-ups talk.” (HG Ch.6).
Why it Works
The cafeteria works well as a setting because it is keyed with our usual way of remembering events– and then at lunch he did this, the next day at breakfast I did that, by Spring time we did this other thing.
This setting naturally pushes the novel forward because of its link to time. We can jump over the boring parts of the day or even the whole semester and have the characters meet up at Christmas dinner.
This shows time marching ahead without dragging down the reader with the exact hour of each event. The hero gets the information he needs, exchanges the essential dialogue, and moves on.
We already saw how the cafeteria is the backdrop for food symbolism. We’ll dive into the specifics of how the cafeteria also serves as a breeding ground for conflict in a follow-up post. (After all, what else could you get when you mix different groups of young adults together with minimal supervision?!)
The cafeteria appears most in the middle of the novel due to its transitional role in setting up later scenes. For now, let’s place the cafeteria setting card in Chapters 6, 8, and 10 of the master outline, but come back to it more often if necessary. See you at lunch!