4 Ways to Write Realistically—Whatever That Is

Realism Seems Simple enough, but…it’s not.

Everyone knows what’s real, right? So why have a movement over it? Why even wonder or discuss it? It’s just a natural thing, isn’t it? Realism. What’s the big mystery?

Well, the term Realism itself is problematic. It depends so much on your conception of what’s real. And that depends, as so much does, on how sane you are. And sanity is a slippery term too, isn’t it? Some people are so sane it drives them insane.

If you think too much about this crazy world, you’ll go nuts. Just look at some of the radio and TV commentators and talk show hosts. They’re so “sane,” so rooted and obsessed with the political “realities” of life—as defined by them—that they’ve become ranting lunatics. Thanks to such extremism, Realism has effectively lost its meaning.

Write down to earth

Back in the day, Realism was a revolutionary way of thinking, living, and writing. It developed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries with America’s rise as a superpower, thanks in large part to capitalism and industrialization.

A rather well-off middle class loved their new prosperity and having more money. They no longer wanted to read fiction unrelated to real life.

So the fiction writers—all at once almost—turned from fanciful, Romantic plots and language, to real life material and words. Prior to Romanticism, most fiction writers tried their damndest to sound more educated, distant and aristocratic in their vocabularies and stories.

Realism made it okay to write about everyday people in everyday words. Truth be told, it’s my favorite way of writing.

Today’s generation of bloggers are Neo-Realists. The best ones write like people speak. They write about what exists in the world around them: work, social media, making money, being successful.

They’re fun and entertaining to read because they waste no words. Their writing is clean, clear, crisp. Right to the point. And often very funny. Brevity is, indeed, the soul of wit.

This same Neo-Realist style can apply to fiction. You want to write about dragons and vampires? Okay, fine. Some of the best stories are about real life fire-breathing “loved ones” and blood-sucking friends.

Whatever your subject, say it fast and sharp. For starters, ditch the adjectives and adverbs. Trash the hype. Respect every word and every second of your reader’s time.

Be objective, cool, detached

It might not be you. You might be highly subjective, emotional, and frantic. That’s fine, I guess. But try the opposite on for size.

Get yourself out of yourself. 30 minutes before you sit down to write, pop a Xanex if you have to. Frazzled fiction grates on the nerves after a few pages.

What’s really intriguing is a story that’s tense and roller-coaster wild, yet written in ice-cold, steely-eyed prose. Tell just the facts, ma’am. The remarkable, amazing facts. With no expression and no hyperbole. Like Trump negotiating a deal. Or Moneymaker over a $1m pot at the World Series of Poker.

Emotionless narration chills a reader to the bone.

Plot around complex ethical choices

One of the hardest parts of being human is making tough decisions. That’s reality on hyper drive. Do I do this? Do I do that? Geez. It’s gut-wrenching. And riveting reading.

  • Huck Finn was torn between helping Jim, his black slave friend, escape to freedom, or doing what Aunt Polly and the Widow Douglas would want him to—turn Jim in. After a prolonged, agonizing fight with himself, Huck decides to side with him Jim and help him escape from slavery. In his moment of decision, Huck says, “All right, I’ll go to hell then.”
  • Howells’ Silas Lapham, who’s broke and needs money, still refuses to sell the mills.
  • Earning his Red Badge of Courage, Crane’s Civil War soldier, Henry Fleming, despite formerly deserting, returns to his regiment and leads a triumphant charge against the enemy.

The real world—whatever that is—lies all around you. You’re in it, my friend. Your best stories are growing inside you right now, in the struggles you’re having with difficult choices, but you need to be grounded, objective, cool, and detached to write them into existence—before they write you out.

That’s right: the stakes are high. If you want to be a great novelist, you have to face the present reality: you’re not one yet. So get real before real gets you.

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