In Keeping the Fiction in Fiction, I discussed what a writer needs to weigh out before he/she brings current events into his work. I shared the importance of giving readers an escape from real-world problems like the pandemic, instead of making them relive it all over again. That said, fiction still needs a good helping of reality in it to allow readers to relate to it.
When I started writing on my own, however, I didn’t know that. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve never enjoyed writing nonfiction. I like to use my imagination to provide that getaway from real life for myself and my readers. When I embarked on my first novel, I thought I could explore the whole depths of my creativity and that it didn’t matter whether or not it was realistic. This was fiction, right? Isn’t it the definition of make-believe?
If I’d wanted to go into the sci-fi or dystopian genre, maybe I could’ve stuck with that mentality. Even with most of them, though, an author has to yield to reality at some point. Why? Because readers want to relate to the storyline and characters, even if they live in another time, place, or planet. I’d dare to say that that’s the reason the main characters in Star Wars—and many other sci-fi flicks—are human, despite being surrounded by other world creatures.
I can’t claim to have accepted this fact overnight. After I finished my first manuscript, I handed it over to a former teacher of mine to proofread and make any suggestions she might have. I expected her to notate grammar tweaks and the like, but I didn’t anticipate the input she gave me about my unrealistic components. In my early twenties at the time, I wondered, “Why do I have to keep it realistic? Won’t that take away from my creativity?”
On that first run-through, I probably didn’t take her advice as much as I should’ve, and the final product attested to it. I may not have had Marvin the Martian dropping in for a steak dinner, but the plot was filled with over-the-top drama, cringe-worthy dialogue, and unreasonable characterization. While you may find such on daytime television shows, I eventually realized that wasn’t what I was going for and it wasn’t going to sell…at least not to the type of company I wanted to pursue.
In time, I came to understand the need to keep readers engaged and the vital role realism plays in that. I saw that the notes my teacher made weren’t only her concerns, but they also represented the confusions readers would likely have. True, we want to keep them guessing, but there’s a difference between guessing and head-scratching. Guessing makes them turn page after page, whereas head-scratching can make them close the book and reach for a more comprehendible option.
Even so, you don’t always have to choose the most common—a.k.a. boring—developments to be realistic. For instance, say you’re writing about a car that runs out of gas. You might be tempted to just say it stalls and have the characters walk to the nearest gas station, since that’s what normally happens. But when a reader picked up your book, he was looking for more than that expected outcome. He wanted your individual spin on a situation like that. Instead of sticking with the no-brainer development, then, come up with a realistic yet intriguing way to handle it, such as a former love interest or rival coming upon the scene.
Our audience will enjoy the twists and turns we create, and every so often, we might get away with treading the fringes of reality. It’s a balancing act, and we can’t go too far towards the edge. When debating if something’s plausible enough to use, think like the reader and consider whether it would pull you out of the story because it’s disruptive or if it’d draw you in because it’s compelling and relatable.
While we should aim for originality and the element of surprise, we can’t assume that our book is all about us flexing our imagination just because our name’s on the cover. Rather, we have to keep our plot and characters to the fore by coming up with realistic developments that don’t bring readers out of the story’s flow. Like the flow of a river, it needs to be consistent, even if it’s more intense at one point or another. If we maintain that, we’ll provide our readers with a refreshing outlet where they can find both connection and amusement in our characters.
Editors: A One-Person Jury or a Friendly Doorman to the World-of Readers?