Some things never change. Santa is always overweight. Family picnics are picturesque, sun-dappled scenes. Kittens are cute, dogs are furry bundles of unconditional love. These are the things we have grown up with; they are what we expect. If you want to win over the audience, you immediately resort to these situations.
This post is not a debate about forcing reality into the story process, nor is it about whether or not Santa should be fat or Dachshunds are actually nice. This is about how much of our storytelling should be grounded in reality, and how much should do service to the genre one is writing about.
First and foremost, if we are writing life narratives or stories based on our own experiences, we can use this difference to our advantage. If I write about a particular family gathering, I can describe the non-stop rain forcing all thirty of us to spend six hours under one roof, sitting among the bags of unusable softball bats and volleyballs, watching each other eat. This becomes interesting because it goes against the expectation of a sunny summer day, and I can add all the other contradictions that made that particular day stand out. Or I can write about the one reunion that matched the stereotypical perfect day, and showcase all of those elements. This way, the contrast or agreement becomes just as important as the story.
In genre-based fiction, this becomes all the more important. The further the genre is from the reality we understand, the more we need to remind people of these differences. In science fiction, it is critical to make up some jargon for the 22nd, 25th, or 30th century people so they sound like a different people, along with devices and gadgets that remind us that it’s no longer the present. In good old sword-and-sorcery fiction fantasy, there should be an ample garnish of different intelligent races (elves, dwarfs, goblins, etc.), magic or at least the awareness of magic at every turn, and as many bold knights and brave warriors as the king can command. And in the genre of horror, well, let’s just say that an unsettling creepiness should fill the air.
But then there’s reality, and we have to decide where reality gives in to the genre. Consider a novel that is a police drama. In reality, most policemen will go through their career without killing one suspect. In a troubled area, maybe a cop has a handful of shootings during their twenty years on the force. In a novel, our police officer hero might knock off ten bad guys between the first and last pages. It’s not reality, but it’s drama in the name of writing for the genre.
Horror is particularly tricky because it has a lot of sub-genres, each with their own expectations. In the more reality-grounded genre of the killer on the loose, certain things come with the package: the criminal has incredible timing, an insurmountable amount of patience, a surprising degree of luck, and yet enough moxie to leave a string of clues leading to their demise. Paranormal horror steps further away from reality, but there is still the coincidental awakening of a long-buried evil. And with supernatural horror, all bets are off. Monsters and demons roam about inexplicably, their presence more metaphor than reality but horrible nevertheless. And through all this we are given the task of making all of this feel just real enough to happen, yet amazing enough to keep us turning the pages.
And yet through all of this, there is some foundation of reality that we at least have to acknowledge, but not to the point where it obstructs the story. Dramatic swordfights are a strong part of the fantasy genre, with all the derring-do and dramatic beheadings that can fit the page. In reality, beheadings are very difficult, swordplay is genuinely exhausting, and the fantasy part is more often brutality with a blade. And we all know the crime drama where the hero takes a bullet in the shoulder and is injured but we don’t worry about it because after all, it’s just the shoulder. Reality shows that is a very dangerous wound difficult to bandage and easily fatal. So where do we put reality?
We should always offer consideration toward reality, but find a balance where we can do the genre justice. Research swords, but allow wiggle room for the fantasy to win the day. Find out about guns and bullets, then decide how you want them represented in your drama. And when you stretch further out, you gain more liberty but still need to tip your hat to the genre. Thirtieth-century drinks are often blue so maybe include that, but give yourself the liberty to put in your own versions of sci-fi, knowing they also respect the genre.
In short, reality has its place, but when you write fiction it is your responsibility to make the story enjoyable and engaging, not scientifically reproduceable. As long as there is enough reality salted in to make the reader say, “Okay, I’ll go with that,” then you are satisfying your audience and maintaining an engaging read.
Except for the wiener-dog thing. They’re just mean and nobody can tell me otherwise.
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