Realerism: Why Does This Story Feel More Real Than That One?
By Eric M. Witchey
Text that evokes the heart, history, and physical experience of character while managing dramatic timing and avoiding reminders that the story in the mind of the reader is actually coming from text on the page tends to “feel more real.”
I’m writing this the weekend after Thanksgiving, and I am thankful for my many writing friends, and I’m especially thankful for people who ask me questions that help me think about what I do and how I do it.
This week, Chris Pence, one of my online writing buddies, asked me a question that got me thinking. A while back, Chris read my original ED ACE article from Writer’s Digest, and he’s been working with that tool for a while. As most writers know, if you work with any specific technique for a while, you find its edges and new questions to ask. This week, Chris asked me about the illusion of realism. Specifically, he said, “I’ve been re-reading Stephen King lately, mostly early stuff, and I’m struck with how realistic he was able to make those stories feel. Too many stories I read never quite shed the “fiction” feel. What advice do you have on increasing the realism in a story?”
Before answering, focusing on two things in this question is important. First, Chris is asking about “feel.” Second, he is asking about the reader’s experience rather than the concept of realism as it is used in literary criticism.
The question is simple enough, but the answers are complex.
Note the plural of answer.
The factors that mix in order to create or detract from a sense of realism are myriad.
First, consider that each reader brings their genetics, early life imprinting, personal history, family culture, community culture, regional culture, national culture, religious background, gender experience, sexual experience, travel experience, etc. to their reading. Therefore, realism for one reader is different than realism for another. In Jungian terms, while there are culturally recognizable archetypal images and symbols, each specific image and symbol has its own much more particular meaning for any one individual. In fact, Jung believed that it was not possible to decode an individual’s relationship to their own symbolism until extensive personal history and background had been fully understood. As writers, we don’t get to sit down with each reader and explore their background. We get to write from our experience and with a general sense of our audience’s experience in mind. If we all wrote the same way, from the same experience, and with the same sense of the symbolic, we would all have the same audience. Luckily, we don’t.
The written word, in fiction, is a guided meditation–a sort of hypnosis–in which the writer is the guide and the text is the voice the guide uses.
The reader begins with trust that allows them to slip into the illusion. In fact, the opening of a book is a ritual of trust. If the writer does nothing to violate that trust, readers allows themselves to be immersed in the experience. Once the writer violates the trust, the reader breaks free from the illusion.
Realism, in the case of Chris’s question, is a term that describes the reader’s ability to completely believe in the experience of the reading.
If the above is all true, which is debatable, then the mix of techniques employed by the writer interacts with the set of experiences and expectations of the reader to create a completeness of belief—a feeling of realism.
So far, none of what I have said is particularly helpful to a writer attempting to place little black squiggles on a white background and call it a story. Execution is very different from theory. However, the above is important to understand in terms of background for what follows.
Here’s a piece of the execution side of realerism.
For me, and I stress that this is a description of my experience, the sense of the piece being “a piece of fiction” lingering in the background results from slight violations to my sense of immersion as a result of character depth, timing, and attributions. This is a fairly simplistic description, but those three things can be used as categories for larger and more complex subjects. However, it is important to keep in mind that many more factors can influence the reader’s belief in the fictive dream. For example, I won’t be talking about objective correlative, clinching details, telling details, concrete imagery, and many other things.
Traditionally, narrative immersed in character experience is called “close subjective narrative.” Personally, I prefer the more descriptive phrase, “reader experiencing through the character filter.” What I mean by that is that every moment and everything in the story within the perception of character is selected and interpreted based on character psychology, physiology, social history, emotion, and agenda. That experience and observation is grounded in the sensory and reactionary experience of the character.
You can say:
He felt the warmth of the sun on his cheek and wondered why she had left so abruptly. No matter. He would find her that evening at her mother’s house and prove his love.
Note that the character in question has a sensory experience. He has emotion, curiosity followed by determination. He considers and decides. The lines can be mapped to the ED part of ED ACE. The character has an Emotion that drives a Decision.
Aside: For people not familiar with ED ACE, it is an acronym for an emotional logic cycle that often functions in the mind of the reader as they experience story: Emotion drives Decision, which results in Action, which initiates Conflict, which results in a new Emotion. The new Emotion initiates the next cycle. I’m sorry, but I don’t have space here to provide a more detailed exposition of the concept and how it can be used and abused.
However, the sun on the character’s face may not have anything to do with his deeper psychology and emotion. Consequently, the reader will feel that he is false–not real—because he is paying attention to something that violates the reader’s internal sense of who that character is and how they “would” behave in this moment. Additionally, he is “feeling” the sun, which means that the reader is not in his skin experiencing the world through him. This creates another level of distance that is “unreal.”
Here’s a revision of the lines. This time, I’m making the world something that is experienced through the selection caused by his truer emotion and interpreted from the perspective of his specific psychology and emotional state.
He had loved the summer sun warming his cheeks when they had played on Aunt Sophie’s beach as a children, but this sun, the sun of the midland forests, was an insult to life and love. This heat in his cheeks raised his hackles and made unwelcome goose flesh crawl up his arms.
He abandoned their driftwood bench, rejecting any place where she had turned her cold cheek to him. Heading through the forest toward the parking lot, he kicked through the fern-choked undergrowth, imagining himself a god striding through delicate ice castles in her heart. The crack and slap of each frond was another wall falling, another defense against him dying.
She could not hide her heart from a god. Tonight. Tonight at her mother’s house he would make her understand his love.
Okay, what has happened is that every object in the experience of the character has taken on significance to him in the context of the emotional experience he is living through. A small amount of back story created contrast between an earlier life innocent state and a current obsessive, tainted state.
This is what I mean by depth of character. Every detail that is selected, recognized, interpreted, and experienced by character is a result of the character’s psychology and their emotional state and agenda in that moment of the story.
Strained Example: Given the above character in setting, consider how the reader would respond to the following.
He had loved the summer sun warming his cheeks when they had played on Aunt Sophie’s beach as a children, but this sun, the sun of the midland forests, was an insult to life and love. The white sand back then had been a mystery, and he had more than once set out to count all the grains on the beach. Once, he had even tried to take a bucket of sand in to the kitchen table so he could count grains while it was raining outside. Of course, nobody had helped him at the time, and his mother had gotten angry. Luckily, his sister had been willing to help him clean up the mess. Now, the heat in his cheeks raised his hackles and made unwelcome goose flesh crawl up his arms.
He abandoned their driftwood bench, rejecting any place where she had turned her cold cheek to him. Kicking through the fern-choked undergrowth, he imagined himself a god striding through the ice castles in her heart. The crack and slap of each frond was another wall falling, another defense against him dying. Each fern matched his sense of order in the way that fiddleheads and fronds confirmed nature’s use of the Fibonacci sequence. It would have been good to sit down and unwind a few fiddleheads just to count the curls and see the numbers and symmetry. He supposed that he wouldn’t be able to explain that to a poet or a songwriter, but what did he care about people like that?
She could not hide her heart from a god. Tonight. Tonight at her mother’s house he would make her understand his love.
In this example, the reader’s sense of character is either strained or broken because the interpretation of the images contradict one another in terms of their support for his emotional state and psychology. Because they are not quite resonant, they also create a violation in the reader’s sense of timing. Even though a case could be made that the passage on Fibonacci reinforces his obsessive nature, such a passage strains the reader’s sense of belief in how he “should” think and behave if he is experiencing the suggested emotions.
Now, a few words about timing.
Each genre has expectations. Story is story, but the mix of techniques for rendering story changes from genre to genre. On a more subtle level, the mix of technique also changes from writer to writer. Timing is a function of the way in which the writer provides narrative content, character experience, conflict, and detail. When the timing is right, the reader never considers the components of story in any way. When the timing is off, the reader becomes aware of the words and how they are organized on the page. While the writer can manipulate timing, they cannot control the reader’s sense of how the timing should be managed.
Have you ever heard someone say, “Once I got used to the language, I was able to read (insert classical author name here).” For me, that’s an apt description of how I feel when I read Tolstoy, Jane Austin, or Henry James. I have to get used to the rhythm of the narrative and the movement of narrative distance in and out of character experience. I have to get used to the flow of the syntax that was used at the time the tale was written. Only after I choose to spend some time reading such stories do I relax into the experience of the worlds they render for me.
Consider if in the passages above the character had, in addition to considering fiddleheads and Fibonaci, waxed poetic on the carpet of fall leaves beneath the ferns and the way in which some were already damp and rotted while others were caught in fern fronds as if immune to the natural mortality of the earth and the cycle of life. Imagine if he had moved from that little internal essay into an assessment of his own relationship to the woman in question and how she wanted him to be a damp, moldering leaf while she remained green, and full of life on the tree as if the coming winter were a mere inconvenience. . ..
This type of introspection might function well for one type of reader. They might consider it quite wonderful and part of the realism of the psychology of the character. Another reader (me, for instance) might consider it overwritten crap that gets in the way of the truer, more terse interior truth of character. For me, the timing would suck, and I would stop reading after one or two passages like that.
Interestingly, however, I would not stop listening if the book were in audio form and the reader were accomplished. Different input experiences create different tolerances.
In the timing category, issues of presented detail during the Decision in the ED ACE cycle and narrative overburdening of the E tend to be where problems demonstrate themselves. In fact, in terms of ED ACE, the decision is often implied by emotion and context in order to manage timing and not violate the reader’s sense of realism.
Timing problems also often result from inconsistency in how the E and D moments are handled. If the character is prone to the poetics described above, the writer has to be careful to make sure that the poetics occur when action, conflict, and emotion are equal in tension and speed. When, for instance, action is frantic, the poetics will disappear to an extent. In a moment of peace prior to a reversal, the poetics might go on for a while in order to create the idyllic lull that will be violated by the coming plot turn.
So, what about attributions? Most writers develop a sense of when to, and when not to, use dialog attributions (he said, she said). If at all possible, I like to allow scene business, character action, diction, and dialog implications to provide attribution. These techniques help keep the reader in the experience of the dialog. Of course, it is not likely that a writer will get rid of all dialog attribution.
In the same way, sensory attributions are occasionally necessary. Example of sensory attribution:
He felt the heat of the sun on his cheek.
He felt, saw, heard, tasted, wondered, etc….
All of these are sensory attributions.
A common error in developing writers is constantly, and without reason, narrating at a level outside character. One of the markers for that type of narration is sensory attribution. If “he felt the heat,” then the narrator is watching him feel it, which means the reader is experiencing it second hand through someone telling them about it. Refer back to the second passage above in order to see how the “felt” got replaced with direct experience and interpretation that was more true to character psychology, desire, and immediate experience.
These sensory attributions are, at times, necessary. However, text that relies entirely on them always “feels like fiction.” In addition, scenes that only allow the reader to “see” the scene and not to smell it, hear it, feel it, taste it, and have an emotional sense of the ambiance also cause the reader to feel outside the reality of the story.
So, text that evokes the heart, history, and physical experience of character while managing timing and avoiding reminders that the story in the mind of the reader is actually coming from text on the page tends to “feel more real.” Of course, how real depends on the skill of the writer and the mix of personal characteristics and expectations that the reader brings to the text.