Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Making Your Fiction Real

I was talking to one of my co-workers yesterday. She watched The Shawshank Redemption over the weekend, which is based on a short story by Stephen King. She remarked how she felt like it had actually happened, and she wasn't talking about recent copycats in the news. She spoke twice about the dialogue and details that made it seem so real, and marveled at writers' magical abilities to bring things from their imagination to life.

No doubt if you're anything like me, you're imagining, with a smile, people saying something similar about your book, your short story, your precious tale. But how do you take fiction, and turn it into something that's more believable and compelling than the world around you?

It's not simply a matter of suspending disbelief, or not breaking your reader's suspension of disbelief. If that were all you needed, no one would bother with speculative fiction in the first place. Many fantasy and science fiction stories make no effort at veracity, but a lot of urban fantasy suggests it's taking place on a margin of society you haven't found, yet.

Nor is it all about doing your research, and sprinkling it in organically rather than infodumping. That certainly helps, but that isn't the whole picture. You do need to know how the world your story inhabits works, and that means some grounding in reality.

That also means some grounding in senses your reader isn't expecting to be evoked. A reader will lose him- or herself far more readily if it smells, tastes, sounds, feels and looks how they might expect. You needn't pile them on; I recommend one at a time. Andy Dufresne's escape is certainly more memorable for the crawl through the sewer pipe, one last indignity to endure.

Dialogue plays its part, illustrated by my co-worker mentioning twice how real the dialogue sounded to her in the movie. Make characters speak the way they'd sound (without too much reliance on dialect), and it'll seem all the more real, like these are real people moving around your scenery.

Populating the book with good characters is another element. People have to behave realistically and consistently, even if that consistency is only according to an arbitrary set of rules only that character knows. Characters need agency, which is a fancy word for the ability to make choices and see them through. And, whether your readers like your characters or not, they have to care what happens to them.

What it gets down to, though, is the dreaded, "Write what you know." Remember, you're part of the audience. If what you're writing isn't true to you, it won't ring true to the reader, either. Writing what you know is about putting a piece of yourself into your characters. It's about fleshing out your scenes with events you've actually witnessed, causes and effects you've seen played out (and not just in a movie), and what you know to be true of human nature.

The expression, "Truth is stranger than fiction" isn't strange to you if you're a writer. You know about fiction. Fiction has to make sense. It has to have a theme. It has to have a beginning, a middle, and a satisfying ending. It has to resonate. Reality has no such restriction.

And yet, one of the highest compliments we can pay an author is to say his or her work felt real.

No comments:

Post a Comment