Why Realism is Important (for me)

If you spend enough time studying the English language–writing, speaking, grammar–you find subtle differences in how people write, particularly if you’re writing your own novels. Farther down this road, you can taste little differences in perspective, and how the writer sees himself, or his work: whether he approaches it from an artistic angle, a storytelling angle, or a visual angle. I posit the importance of realism throughout, whether it’s a science fiction, a fantasy, a lawyer-backed whodunnit, or a romance.

The artistic (or sometimes, cerebral) writer comes at a story in an unconventional way, whether it’s through broken/disregarded sentence/paragraph/chapter structure, or complicated, florid writing, or even tackling a philosophically complex topic. A few examples would be Neil Stephenson’s Anathem, some of Faulkner’s works, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and most notably, Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. This is a difficult way to write, given the writer absolutely needs to understand the ins and outs of the language in order to know what to disregard, bend, break. This style of writing generally comes after a long (perhaps too long?) stint in a university, or in deep study, and in some cases, due to mental instability brought about by illness or drug use. The most successful stories in this vein are the ones encompassing the human condition, perspective, and perhaps unconventional (or undependable) narration.

This style usually focuses on something beside the story, or within it, while the story is more a tool to portray an overlying theme. The individual trees are more important, here, while the forest is inferred or barely touched. It’s different from the other two types (that I’ve seen in my recent forays into fiction) insomuch that it breaks common storytelling tropes.

Storytelling is the oldest form of writing, found as the poetic epic Beowulf and Egil’s Saga, and all the parables of ancient times. It moves forward, usually focusing on a single character, or a group of them, and the story they tell through experience. Music began as a storytelling form. Most novels are written this way. They don’t need a deeper focus, although they can have one, and they don’t require in-depth, or complicated, or anything. (Note: the reason I state this is, in comparison to the artistic novel, the storytelling form can be quite accomplished and complete, while the artistic novel usually comes across as postured and shallow when tried in such a simplified, straightforward focus). Storytelling usually delves into the thoughts of the individual, the importance of the why in motivation, and has a strong interconnectedness between characters and events. It writes trees first and foremost, yet focuses alternately on both the trees and forest.

The visual style is quite similar to a storytelling style, except the writer’s focus is on a visceral, sensic approach, as if he wishes the reader there, in the middle of the story, and observing all the surrounding greatness as if a scientist. He labors over sights and sounds, smells and movements, while spending very little time visiting intentions and motivations. It is as if this writer sees the story as a movie, or a play, first and foremost, and tries to figure out how to convert it into words. Acrobatic, perhaps, and certain books require such a focus. Salvatore’s character Drizzt, and his friends/enemies, wouldn’t be half as entertaining, or enjoyable, without such a focus. This style of writing paints in broad strokes, with characters oftentimes becoming as pieces on a chessboard, with only rudimentary inner focus. This style develops the grandiose forest first, the trees second.

The first paragraph generally reveals the style of writing. If it begins with an actionable quote, you can be darn sure it’s a visual novel. If it begins with a description of the local flora growing on a hillside beside the protagonist’s home, be looking for the storytelling slant. If it begins with an obscure quote, an out-of-context statement, or a disclaimer, you’re most likely reading something artistic, or at the very least unconventional.

Now, across all three mediums, realism is at the heart. Details create intrigue, well-placed words garner depth, attention to specifics literarily flesh the novel out. Even with fantasy–dare I say, especially with fantasy–realism makes or breaks the piece. Almost every. Single. Time. Even a minimalist French aristocratic romance on the nuances of court-based love holds my attention if the writer gives enough detail. It’s why I loved the Kushiel’s series, and why Rothfuss’s novels are gathering so much momentum. It’s a great story–they have the writing chops to accomplish their dreams–but it’s also realistic.

I believe too many people forget this. I’m afraid they do. With the ex-flux of so many stories, so much work, so many novels, I’m reading more and more detail-sparse stories. The past nine novels I’ve set aside, never to pick up again, were discarded due to forgotten, or unresearched, or underdeveloped themes, settings, plot devices, actions. It seems the moment the writer doesn’t know something, he simply tries to paint over it and continue on with the story–usually important, pivotal scenes. “After I found a small storefront to rent, I quickly became established in the community.” …What? That’s the heart-and-soul of character development!

I might be the only one. If so, I apologize.

How do you write?

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