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The Myth of “Realistic” Writing

“Just write it more realistic,” they said.

Makes sense. Realism. That’s like everyday stuff, right? Easy.

And then, maybe an hour later, you break down–this hollow, brink-of-tears, absurd frustration stemming neither from the sadness of failure nor the euphoria of success. Those would be concrete emotions. This is utter confusion—a special breed of creative annoyance impossible to solve. A riddle without an answer.

“Write something realistic,” you repeated aloud. “What does that mean? Am I living in reality right now?”

Yes. You are. Truth is, all writers have been there, and hitting this dead end is no fault of your own. Because “write realistically” doesn’t really mean anything, at least not without context.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street.Over the last decade, I’ve given (and received) the old-timey “just make it realistic” note probably over 100 times. Basically, what the reader is saying is that the experience should come off as “realistic” within the world you’ve created. Specifically. What they may also be saying is that the characters themselves ought to be realistic, no matter their environment. Frodo Baggins in Lord of the Rings or Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street, there are certain threads, common themes, we all share, and with it comes a logical process of growth. Behold: realism in storytelling.

But who needs logic? Isn’t that the goal of storytelling? To suspend our system of logic?

That is the goal, of course. Kinda sorta. Still, that doesn’t mean we can allow our characters, our plot, to take unrealistic directions. It all depends on what we’ve established in the world of our story. Would you realistically travel across Middle Earth to destroy a ring in a giant pit of fire? Maybe not (unless you have something to prove and like working outdoors). However, is it plausible for someone to sacrifice themselves for the greater good? Sure. Thus, in Lord of the Rings, we have a universal theme and a universal motivation. Thus. . . a “realistic” scenario. Tolkien created a completely fantastic series of events devoid of reality, yet we can connect on a very human level.

Similarly, writing realistic depends on the unique perspective of the story’s creator.

To pull a current example: Lena Dunham’s Girls. (*Lena Dunham haters may want to skip ahead, or troll their angst on Twitter. . . .)

If you haven’t seen the show, you should. At least a couple episodes (it’s also fascinating how many people criticize Dunham and have never seen Tiny Furniture OR Girls, but yeah, separate topic). We won’t discuss why and how the writer/actress has become one of the most polarizing figures in the entertainment industry. That’s a Tolkien-esque epic conversation in itself, and trust me, there are no winners. Let’s instead touch upon Girls the TV show in particular, which has been labeled as everything from “down-to-earth” to a downright blatant misconception of the modern, city-dwelling, middle-income female. Because, you know, 20-something girls don’t share baths.Girls

Regardless of your personal opinion, Dunham’s goal, presumably, was to create the anti-Sex and the City. A show that prides itself on “realism,” even if she doesn’t admit such outright. Or maybe she has. I dunno. I’ll let you wade through the vast internetsphere of hip articles and not-so-hip memes to crosscheck.

The thing is, Girls is, in fact, wholly realistic. But you know what? So was Sex and the City. And The Godfather. And Weekend at Bernie’s. They established a foundation for their story and never deviated from the tone, theme, and expectations of their own little narrative universe (narraverse? I’m coining it), no matter how disparate it seemed on the surface compared to our experience.

Because that’s the point. A film or TV series or novel or whatever is often-times a representation of how the author perceives the world. It’s through their lens. As long as they’re consistent, and the characters are acting realistically according to the “rules” their creator has set, then mission accomplished.

Believability issues are common in most scripts, but that doesn’t require you to alter a character’s action, or skew your plot, to fit some sort of preconceived, non-existent model of Genre-Encompassing Realism. Don’t let some cookie-cutter development person tell you different. You have to do what’s right for your story when it comes to promoting a sense of authenticity. Your story will thank you.

“But 20-something girls would never take a bath together.”

Perhaps not. Except in Hannah Horvath’s world, they might. And for a variety of reasons, the events leading up to that moment in Girls, and other seemingly implausible moments, make it totally realistic.

tumblr_inline_muzhwvm2Pa1r56z3wFor 12 years, Matt Misetich has worked in development as a script analyst and story consultant for production companies, managers, top writing competitions, and filmmakers. He has been a core executive at Script Pipeline since 2008 and helped a number of writers break into the industry, including contest-winners Evan Daugherty (Snow White and the HuntsmanDivergent) and Tripper Clancy (The AmbassadorsStranded). Besides instinctively quoting The Simpsons in everyday conversation, he’s writing literary fiction and developing independent feature and TV content that will probably not win many awards.