Monday, July 29, 2013

Keep It Real, But Not Too Real

Demonstrating reality in fiction is a tough thing for all writers. Journalists face this on a daily basis. How much is too much? Do you include that photo of an accident? What about the details of a crime scene? I think you understand what I mean here.

The same issue comes up in fiction writing all of the time. I have a lot of writers who submit projects to me that are clearly missing that line. This especially happens with women's fiction projects. The stories involve a lot of real issues that women around the world face, but, unfortunately, in an attempt to be "real" with the story, they have crossed the line and probably included too much information.

Let me stop here and say one thing. In no way am I saying that we should censor writers and not discuss those tough issues. Adultery, abuse, drugs, suicide, loss of a child... all of these are certainly issues that we need to bring to the surface and not shove to the back dark corners of society. What I am saying is that we have to approach these topics with a little bit of grace and dignity.

The problem with going too far over the top to "show the harsh realities" is that the reader is simply too overwhelmed by the reality. Now, instead of having to deal with the issue and finding a solution with the characters, they are having to deal with just visually seeing what was going on with the characters and their situations.

I think the other issue relates to the how the readers can connect with the characters. If writers attempt to "be real" and include too many of these issues in a story, instead of focusing on one issue in depth, the readers can too easily dismiss the situation in the book and say there is no connection to them. They might be facing an emotionally abusive relationship in their own life, but when the author adds in a story that includes  a husband who is PTSD, a son who is coming out of the closet and an alcoholic best friend, they can simply say that it doesn't relate to them.

Another twist to this is something I have faced when working with teens and their creative writing. I often hear them ask if they can include swearing in their story. For them, it is a chance to do what they are normally banned from doing. My answer is always the same. If it is necessary, then include it. The analogy I use is when you bang your arm and hit your funny bone, or for you parents out there, stepping on a Lego with bare feet. The words out of your mouth can be pretty colorful. Why? Because simply saying "ouch" isn't enough.

As you think about story elements for your current work in progress, stop and think if it is really necessary. How much is too much? Would including that level of reality detract from the message you are trying to convey to your reader?

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