Writing Realism, Part I

Three Ways to Sink Your Fiction

We should aim for realism in our fiction, right? In order to
connect with our readers, they need our stories to reflect real life. In most
cases, yes. But there are exceptions.

Writing Tip for Today: Yes, we need readers to connect with
our stories, but watch out for these realism pitfalls:

Time

One way that realism in fiction can sink your story is by writing moment-by-moment. As we’ve talked about in posts on time management, you are the story’s manager. Our real lives are often boring and uneventful. It makes sense, then to give readers credit for being able to fill in the routine blanks. You can safely skip minute details of everyday life, zooming over them to the next important story event.

In fiction, you are writing not the passage of real time, but the perception of time. An example of this might be a scene where your character drives across town for a meeting. Your reader’s perception of time is very different if you follow the character’s every move. He opened the car door, put one foot on the floor and sat down. He stuck the key into the ignition and started the car. He put the gear into reverse and backed out of the driveway—you get the idea.

If the point is only that your character gets to the meeting,
just write, “He battled traffic across town, and was late for the meeting.” If
someone has planted a car bomb under his seat (God forbid!) it may make sense
to include that step-by-step account. Overall, if you write these minutiae,
readers will seek a reason why. If there’s no reason, readers will simply be
annoyed.

Details

Overloading details is another way too much realism might
doom a scene. When we enter any setting, we usually notice a few details, as we
decide where we are and what it means. Readers do the same for fictional
scenes. Although every setting has thousands of details you might describe,
readers want that near-instant assessment: Where am I and what could it mean?

This fact makes it important not to flood readers with details they don’t need. If you’re placing long paragraphs of description at the front of a scene, consider which are relevant and choose the best to write. The Rule of Three can be handy here. Remember, you are directing your reader’s attention. Be sure that attention is pointed where it can serve the story and not simply a list of setting features.

Character Dialogue

Writing realistic dialogue is a great skill—if you know
where to be real and where to be fictional. Some may not agree, but in
revisions I almost always remove the warm-ups: er, uh, well, etc. These
throat-clearings don’t give readers the best picture of the dialogue. Instead,
try weaving beats of physicality or emotion or thoughts around the dialogue.

Likewise, don’t allow your characters to chit-chat or natter
the way we really do in life. To keep your readers following the story, only
give them dialogue that points to the story’s arc of movement. If you let your
characters chew the scenery, readers will likely be confused. Not to mention
bored. Remember, readers look for clues as to how the story turns out. If you
plant red herrings, be sure you have a good reason.

Last, too much realism in dialogue can result in
introductions, name calling and other cringe-worthy mistakes. When characters
introduce each other, keep it simple. “I’m Tom,” not “My name is Tom. Pleased
to meet you, Tom. The pleasure’s all mine.” When your character addresses
someone, don’t start with that character’s name unless you think readers need
to hear it. “Jane, will you come here please?” sounds stilted. Better to go
with, “Come here, please.”

Can you think of other places where too much realism might not help your story?

Next time: Three ways realism in fiction can boost your
story.

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About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

8 comments on “Writing Realism, Part I

  1. Another boo-boo: backstory in dialogue, otherwise known as “maid and butler” dialogue.

    If you’ve ever read a detective novel and zoned out while the characters explained how X did Y and … and … and … you’ll see the problem. Yes, the background details might be necessary, but they bore readers when presented as a block of speech.

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