Writing Realism, Part II

Three Ways to BOOST Your Fiction

Last post we talked about some of the ways that too much
realism in fiction can drag down your reader’s experience. But writing
realistically can also be a big plus—with the right approach.

Writing Tip for Today: Here are some ideas for using realism
to enhance fiction and draw in readers for a more complete experience:

Location, Location, Location

One of my author friends who has traveled the world often
complains about writers who try to describe a place they have never visited. In
her view, just googling a far-off land is no substitute for actually setting
foot there. I agree that sloppy or surface research about a place can’t replace
intimate first-hand knowledge, but I’m willing to be a bit more lenient.

Let’s say you’ve never been to China, but you grew up with a
Chinese-American grandmother. I think if your grandma is willing to give
accurate info about the culture and physical setting of her Chinese experience,
a writer like you could pull it off. To write it well, however, you’d
need vital info on China’s landscape as well as the ambience of Chinese
culture. In places, China is forested and in others, wind-blown deserts
predominate. Readers will not easily forgive a story supposedly set in the
Mongolian Steppe but written as if it is overgrown bamboo jungle.

Be careful of time setting, too. I wrote a story set in the
early fifties. I was alive then, but most of my memory of TV and popular
culture is from the sixties. In error, I wrote that a boy’s shirt was like the
one on “Leave it to Beaver.” The popular sitcom didn’t air until long after my
story is set. Check your sources but check your memories if needed, too. Realism
in setting/time period is crucial to a writer’s success. If you can’t go, stick
to what you know.

Details, Details, Details

The part of China (a huge country with many ethnic groups) where the story takes place is important, too. You don’t want a Cantonese character sitting around in a yurt drinking fermented yak milk if he’s not in Mongolia. The writer who has lived in China will have the advantage when it comes to hard-to-describe smells, dialects and idioms, textures and other specifics that Google can’t begin to supply. Don’t put a Mr. Coffee in your scene before 1972. If your story is set in 1954 but your characters aren’t very well-off, don’t give them a ’54 Chevy to drive. They’re more likely to drive some older car—maybe even one no longer made, such as a Hudson or De Soto.

Even if your story is more local, be careful with details,
slang and dress. To nail a scene with realism, get slang and idioms correct,
but don’t try too hard. If you pile on every slang phrase and style, readers
will recognize the details at first, but quickly become saturated. Overdoing
these descriptions to flavor your story is a little like pouring too much salt
in the soup. Readers may suspect the many references are a crutch to mask
laziness or ignorance. A character who overuses the slang of the day is liable
to irritate readers instead of entertaining them.

Changes, Changes, Changes

Setting and details do matter in making your fiction
realistic, but the way your character changes in the story matters even more.
I’ve read so many student scenes where a character disagrees with or resists
change until suddenly—voila! The transformation is instantaneous.

In life, we change over time. That aha! moment might seem
sudden, but most of the time we are transformed and molded over time by
overcoming or conquering fears, enemies or conditions. We learn to triumph at
first by losing, and then by summoning our courage for one last effort (the
climax!). Most people and readers don’t respect changes which are not hard-won
or achieved through risk and great effort.

Tension and action should rise as the story unfolds,
culminating in some sort of realization or change. The obstacles the character
faces must get tougher, and the character must not win too easily. It’s a
little like the game of Jenga—as each piece of wood is removed from the tower,
the stakes grow higher, the specter of defeat looms closer and character and
reader nerves pull tighter and tighter. This sort of realism is the kind of
transformational experience readers crave.

Work on your observational skills, travel as far as you can
to real up your scenes and allow your characters to change only when they earn
it. Maybe haul out the old Jenga box to remind you what rising tension looks
like. Your readers will thank you.

Dear Readers: I am laid up for a while after my shoulder
surgery. I hope to get back to posting writing tips as soon as I can.
Meanwhile, KEEP WRITING!

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.

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