So, one thing we all strive for in our writing is realism. We want our characters to feel real. We want our dialogue to sound real. We want our settings to have that level of detail that only comes from authentic knowledge and experience.
To do this, writers will people watch and eavesdrop and travel to obscure places just to get an idea of what the air smells like. They’ll labor over the dialogue to make it as real as possible. They’ll add random events to their narrative to give that sense of uncaring fate. They will make their story as close to reality as possible.
Here’s the problem, though...
Not real reality, anyway. Oh, they may say they do, but that’s kind of a lie. Most people want fictional reality. They want clean dialogue. They want characters who win (maybe not cheerfully or without scars, but they do win). They want things to make sense.
Allow me to explain.
When people talk in reality, they make false starts and pause a lot and trip over their words. They can drone on for several minutes at a time. They talk over each other. If you’ve ever looked at an unedited transcription of a conversation, you know that real dialogue is the worst possible thing for fiction. People would claw their eyes out, and everything would take forever to say. When I used to interview writers for articles, it was just understood that I was going to clean up their words a bit to eliminate all that stuff. It would just be incredibly distracting in an article.
So fiction writers don’t write real dialogue. They write “real” dialogue, lines that have a certain verisimilitude, if I may be so bold, which appeals to people. They get cleaned up and tightened and measured out. These are the lines that make readers say “Wow, her dialogue felt so real, like she was someone I’d meet on the street.” That’s what we all want, right?
Did you catch that, by the way? The dialogue wasn’t real—it felt real. Think of how often things get phrased that way. An open (and often unconscious) admission that this isn’t how real people talk. But it feels like how real people should talk.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve made this mistake. I copied real people’s speech patterns into The Suffering Map, then had two different editors mention that as a specific reason I was being rejected. It didn’t matter that it was real dialogue, because it wasn’t “real” dialogue.
On a similar note, odd, unbelievable stuff happens in reality all the time. There are amazing coincidences. Lucky breaks. Unexplained things just happen. Heck, people die in freak accidents and that’s it. Story’s over, no matter how many things are left unresolved.
I’ve interviewed several screenwriters who did biopics or “based on true events” movies, and one thing most of them talked about was the material they didn’t use. The events that were so ludicrous people just wouldn’t believe them. A few different folks have said that the difference between fact and fiction is that fiction has to be believable, and these writers realized that. So they removed true events that would've made their story seem silly or implausible.
Here’s another example I’ve used before (and will continue to use again)-- Vesna Vulovic. She was a flight attendant back in the ‘70s (which technically means she was a stewardess) on a flight that was bombed by terrorists. Vesna fell six miles through the air and survived. Not in the sense of held alive in an iron lung on life support, mind you—she’s out there today walking, talking, having drinks with friends and laughing about things. She wasn’t even in the hospital for three months.
Is that the kind of event I should include in my realistic fiction? Of course not. Nobody would believe that.
Should I kill my characters at random, leaving their arc unfinished and their secrets unrevealed? Will readers applaud me for my daring and realistic writing? Not a chance. When I’m a writer I’m the God of my world, and if something doesn’t serve a greater purpose I’m a piss-poor god at best.
Y’see, Timmy, reality is a messy thing. Every aspect of it. And I don’t want my writing to be messy. I want it to be clean and polished and perfect.
Even when I’m making it “real.”
Next time... well, I’m on a diet right now, and it’s kind of gnawing at me. So I’ll probably end up talking about that.
Until then, go write.