Setting Thesaurus Entry: Cafeteria


Long tables, uncomfortable chairs, trash cans, line ups, styrofoam or colored plastic trays, banners, posters, ads, lunch staff, cash register, paper plates, plastic cutlery, menu board, stainless steel, windows, double doors, students (sitting, lounging, grouping into cliques…


Laughter, talking, squealing, shouting, trays slamming down on a table, chairs scraping the floor, chewing, the hiss of a pop can opening, the ding of the cash register, dishes clattering/banging/clanging in the kitchen, food being slopped onto plates, the side of a…


Menu items of the day (hot dogs, chili, chicken fingers & fries, corn dogs, burritos, tacos, hamburgers, pizza, etc), grease, pop, sweet ketchup, astringent mustard, burnt smells from spillovers or over-cooked food, butter, spices (chili powder, cinnamon, garlic, etc), onions…


Whatever’s being served that day (soups, salads, hot dogs, burritos, corn dogs, fries, hamburgers, pizza, stews, chili, chicken strips, tacos, subs, bagels, muffins, chips, cookies, candy bars, veggies and dip, salads, wraps) squished sandwiches from home, fruit…


Hard plastic trays, crinkly wrappers, bendy silverware, cardboard milk cartons, cold perspiring drinks, hot food, greasy fries, slick floor, swivel seats, hard benches, sticky tabletop, press of people crowding into lines and sitting on benches, warmth on hands…

Helpful hints:

–The words you choose can convey atmosphere and mood.

Example 1: I stood in the cafeteria doorway, eyes darting from one line to the next. The drool-worthy smell of greasy pizza wafted from the entryway that everyone was jammed into. Stick figures lined both sides of the salad bar. Nothing but the rustle of plastic sounded from the right-hand line: Twinkies wrappers, chips, and Twix bars. I glanced at my watch and growled. If they were going to give us so many choices, we should get more than 25 minutes for lunch…

–Similes and metaphors create strong imagery when used sparingly.

Example 1: (Metaphor) The beautiful people were in one corner, the smart ones in another. The artsy kids sat off to the side, as if to choose a corner would define them too narrowly. The rejects were scattered throughout in ones and twos, without even the cohesiveness to form a group. The high school cafeteria: a microcosm of real life…

Think beyond what a character sees, and provide a sensory feast for readers

Logo-OneStop-For-Writers-25-smallSetting is much more than just a backdrop, which is why choosing the right one and describing it well is so important. To help with this, we have expanded and integrated this thesaurus into our online library at One Stop For Writers. Each entry has been enhanced to include possible sources of conflict, people commonly found in these locales, and setting-specific notes and tips, and the collection itself has been augmented to include a whopping 230 entries—all of which have been cross-referenced with our other thesauruses for easy searchability. So if you’re interested in seeing a free sample of this powerful Setting Thesaurus, head on over and register at One Stop.

The Setting Thesaurus DuoOn the other hand, if you prefer your references in book form, we’ve got you covered, too, because both books are now available for purchase in digital and print copies. In addition to the entries, each book contains instructional front matter to help you maximize your settings. With advice on topics like making your setting do double duty and using figurative language to bring them to life, these books offer ample information to help you maximize your settings and write them effectively.


Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
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5 Responses to Setting Thesaurus Entry: Cafeteria

  1. GutsyWriter says:

    The cafeteria would probably be different in a French school where they serve a three course meal. Just heard that on NPR.

  2. Becca says:

    So glad this is helping everyone!

    Nora, we get ideas from our own writing–thinking of places we’re written about that may be common to ya/children’s writers

    Thanks for the plug, Robyn. Yes, Angela is Momzilla and I am Becca (the quiet, lazy CC moderator) 😉

    Donna, that’s a good point. I was thinking of when I was a kid, but I bet a lot of places do use styrofoam. I’ll have to change that.

  3. Donna says:

    Kids get plastic trays? We had styrofoam. I guess they didn’t trust us enough and wanted to kill the planet!

  4. Robyn says:

    Great stuff! I always try to write using my senses. Loved reading your ideas!! I’ll remember Cafeteria every time I write! Thanks, your newest blog bud, Robyn
    Are you momzilla??:)

  5. I’m flabbergasted each time I visit your blog. Where do you get all of your ideas? Love it!! … and I use it often.


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