The mantra for writers these days is “Make it realistic.” After all, it won’t be long before we’re competing with three-dimensional, five-sense virtual reality. But we will never try to do that. It is impossible to give the reader everything, and you don’t want to. The trick to giving the reader a wonderful experience is to make the right choices in what we show.
Naturalism: the Ultimate Reality
There was a movement in the theatre world in the nineteenth century. The performers were trying new ways to make their performances as realistic as possible. One offshoot of this movement was the “naturalism” school. These people had the brilliant idea that the best way to show realistic theatre was to show reality. Actors woke up in the morning pretending to be their character. They went through their whole day as their character. By the time they reached the theatre, they were totally immersed in their role. This is now called “method acting,” and many performers use adapted versions today.
However, other theatrical geniuses tried to take the “reality” much farther. Someone actually had the idea of taking the side off an apartment building and placing seating there instead, so the audience could watch the tenants go about their daily lives. Can you imagine?
The lesson we learn from this is that showing the real thing does not create an artistic experience for the audience. As you might expect, in an average apartment building, there are hours at a time when nothing interesting happens. You’re not going to sell a lot of tickets to that.
It’s the same with novels. Novelists likewise cannot get away with showing what would “really” have happened. Much of our talent comes from choosing what to show and what to leave out.
The part of reality that every author manipulates is the amount of violence or graphic sex you include. Depending on your audience and your genre, the same scene can look completely different, all the way from the graphic description of physiological functions to the “fade to black and wake up the next morning together” sort of romance.
People who “speak funny” are probably the best example. In real life, there are some people that you can’t understand without an effort of concentration. If you try to give the reader the “real thing” and write down a strong dialect, it is difficult to read, hard to understand, and gets in the way of the reader’s connection to the story. Most of us hit the dialect harder for the first few lines to establish the character’s way of speech, then back off for the rest of the story.
I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but I was brought up with poorly educated farming people. They used double negatives, “ain’t,” and dropped the “g” in “ing,” as in, “I ain’t goin’ to no school.” Perhaps I am more used to that sort of language than most, but it has always seemed to me that those three characteristics are reasonable to read and give a strong enough indication of lower class language. (Even Barack Obama drops a few “gs” when he wants to be folksy.) If I want to go farther. I drop “of,” using “sorta” and “kinda” instead. “Gonna” is another common one. Hey, I use it sometimes myself.
If I have a “second language” character, or two people from different backgrounds, I give more individualistic habits, but I am careful not to overdo it. Inverted syntax is a common characteristic of dialect (Germans and their final verbs are the most common example) but I am very sparing with it in dialogue because I find that really slows down my reading. Yoda to do this we allow: the Force with him is.
How Much Action?
The one I am struggling with at the moment is action. And I don’t mean sword fighting, mountain climbing, or horses-racing-through-the-night type action. I mean all those little things that you put in to give the reader a picture of what the characters are doing. It’s a great way to solve the “talking heads” problem, and reduces your use of dialogue tags, but you have to be careful. If you start putting in things like “He looked around,” and “She raised her head,” too much, you are slowing the story, not moving it along.
I tend to go back over my story and evaluate all of those and ask myself why the person is doing whatever the action is. The action should demonstrate emotion or character, or have some other important effect. If the only reason is “the author needed it there to indicate who was speaking,” I take it out or find a more appropriate action.
This is a topic for a post in itself. Depending on author and genre, the amount of setting description can vary from none at all (A Shakespeare play script) to pages and pages of descriptions of settings and individual items (See Jean Auel, with her endless descriptions of Ice Age plants and their culinary and medicinal properties.)
A Matter of Choice
The bottom line is that, far from trying to be creative, most writers should focus on being selective. Choose details that will give readers the most vivid picture of the scene, and leave the rest out. Make your realism come from realistic people who do things that real people do and have realistic emotional reactions. That’s what readers really want. And they don’t need virtual reality for that.