Why Realism is Essential

If your story lacks realism, readers will be disappointed.

Why? Well, good novels encourage readers to suspend their disbelief; to believe that the story is real, even though it’s obviously fiction. Without realism, readers will find it hard to think your story is, well, real.

Now, coming from a guy whose most recent story was about spaceships, you’re probably a little confused. Does the need for realism impede you from writing about anything you can’t see or experience?

The answer, of course, is no. Stories about aliens, superheros, or medieval vampires can all be 100% realistic, because realism isn’t about stories being true to our world. It’s about stories being true to themselves.

A fancier way of saying that is to say that stories must be internally self-consistent. Basically, your story must follow the rules of your story’s world.

For example, let’s say I’m writing about a planet made from pillows, inhabited by three-eyed robots. If I introduce a robot with only two eyes, and offer no explanation, readers will get confused. This character has broken the story’s established rules. This creates an internal logic error, which breaks readers’ suspension of disbelief, pulling them out of the story.

Even one issue like this is enough to throw readers off-balance. This is bad, because you want readers feeling more balanced than a gymnast on a tightrope … or something like that.

Metaphor aside, here is a practical 2-step plan to avoid these dreaded internal logic error (which I now realise sounds like a coding term. Apologies, coders who’ve come here by mistake.)

  1. Create a ‘Story Rulebook’

Whenever you create a rule for your story that is different to real-world rules (i.e. that your story’s planet is made from pillows), write it down in a notebook or word document (prefered). This will help you keep track of your story’s ‘laws.’

Don’t feel that this rulebook is only for physics-based things. Feel free to jot down notes on your story’s society, history, economics – whatever is different in your story world compared to the real one.

2. Make sure every event is explained

Story events should either by explained by either the story’s internal logic (i.e. the rules in your Story Rulebook) or by exposition (i.e. a character saying why robot X only has 2 eyes when it’s been established that all robots have 3 eyes earlier).

If you follow this 2-step plan, you’ll be well on the way to making sure your story is as realistic (and thus as immersive!) as possible.

What are your thoughts on realism in fiction? Can you think of a story that made you annoyed with how unrealistic (according to its own rules) it was? Do you have any other tips for increase realism? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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5 thoughts on “Why Realism is Essential

  1. I might be able to forgive an author for introducing a two-eyed robot into a three-eyed robot world without explanation, but there would definitely be a few dramatic eye rolls on my part, along with a “Wait, what?” or two, and a definite urge to fling my Kindle across the room. But, as long as that robot behaved the same, I’d give the author a cursory nod for diversity and be more selective on choosing new reads from said author.

    However, if that robot behaves differently – speaks differently, approaches the story in a different manner, or relates to the other characters differently with STILL no explanation… well, that’s a DNF (okay, I might finish it out of curiosity to see if anything changes) and an “avoid this author at all costs” note. 😉

    I’ve read far too books where realism was lost in the translation. It’s noticeable in paranormal/fantasy where world building takes place, but I feel it’s even more obvious in contemporary reads where there is an expectation that is not met because of unrealistic dialogue, situations, and characters.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Right, it’s not a question of realism so much as it is believability — within the context of the story. A writer creates a believable, consistent, internally logical (and ideally well-researched) “reality,” and that allows his readers to suspend their disbelief and become immersed in the world of the fiction. We don’t want realism from our fiction — we can get that on the street for free — but we do want believability.

    Liked by 1 person

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