This applies to fiction and nonfiction, especially narrative nonfiction, but I’m going to talk about it in the context of story.
Hyper-realism is when you let the details of what your character is doing bog down the pace of the story. If you are concerned with telling a compelling story, one that keeps your readers engaged, you need to cut away anything that might bore the reader, even if it means leaving big chunks of your character’s life off the page.
Whenever I see this, I’m reminded of diaries. When I was a kid, diaries were cute little, hard cover, blank books for girls. They had fairies or ponies on the covers. Typically, brass latches closed and locked the cover. The diary came with a little brass key the Diary Keeper could put on a chain around her neck to keep the precious contents of the pages safe.
Now, why on earth would any nine-year-old girl have to lock away her words? Because she spilled forth onto those pages her deepest secrets, crushes, betrayals, and heartaches. It’s the kind of stuff her big brother might like to read—if only to tease her. It’s the stuff of story.
Years ago,I went to the Goodhue County Historical Society to conduct research for a historical novel. The GCHS had 19th century farmers’ diaries. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on them! Diaries! Written by farmers a century ago! Surely, like that little brass key, these diaries were going to reveal secrets of 19th century life that would make my novel.
Do you know what I found in those diaries?
One Scandinavian farmer after another dutifully recorded his day’s activities and accounts. Things like: Sunrise 6:18. Drove oxen with trees to mill. Milled 23 new pine boards for addition to barn. Mercantile: 16¢ 3’ leather thong. $1.25 8 lbs sugar. $3.70 5 yds green woolen. & & & (I made up these entries to illustrate a point—don’t think those amounts are meaningful.)
I was impressed with the dedication to keeping diaries as a part of farm life. The entries were meticulous accounts of daily life, if you only cared about accounts. There was almost no narrative involved, and almost nothing I could use in my novel.
If the nine-year-old girl’s diary is a romantic fantasy, the Scandinavian farmer’s diary is hyper-realism. A good story lies somewhere in the middle.
How do you know if you’re writing like a Scandinavian farmer?
You know you need to get your character out of bed and into work, so you start the scene in bed. Then write her getting to work over the course of ten pages.
You find yourself envisioning your character going through the motions of her day as you write, and writing down everything she does, from opening her eyes to brushing her teeth to taking a leak. From opening her filing cabinet to tabbing through the alphabet to putting Jones in place after Johnson and before Jonnson.
Your scenes include lots of details that aren’t relevant to your story, the stuff that happens before or between the interesting stuff.
Maybe the diary analogy wasn’t your favorite. Here’s another one:
You know that person on Facebook who posts photos of her vacation and her sister’s wedding and her baby’s birth and her triathlon…and after perusing her photo stream, you’re like, “Damn, that woman knows how to live!”
And then there is that person who posts photos of what he ate for breakfast and his car in the grocery store parking lot and the snow he shoveled and his coffee cup in his cubicle and the sushi he bought at Whole Foods on his lunch break…and after seeing all that, you’re tempted to hide him!
It’s not that the first person lives a better life than the second, it’s that the first person tells a better story. Story is not about the mundane. You can’t afford to have readers wanting to hide your character’s photo stream. You want your readers to be like, “Damn!”
If you’ve realized you sometimes write hyper-realism. How do you fix your story?
- Identify the plot and subplots of your story.
- Identify the character’s goal and obstacles to that goal.
- Identify the theme(s) of your story.
For every scene you have on the page, ask yourself if it is advancing the plot or a subplot, furthering the theme, or advancing your character’s pursuit of the goal. If it isn’t, it’s extraneous. It’s not serving the story.
Let’s say you want to write a scene in which your character gets out of bed or brushes her teeth? I have written several myself. How do you show that sort of mundane activity successfully? By making sure the scene is doing more than one thing. In other words, it can’t just be a scene of people brushing their teeth for the sake of brushing their teeth.
Maybe your couple is having a fight over the sink. Maybe they seem perfectly happy, but your POV character is wracked with anxiety.
Maybe as your detective is doing research in the library, she makes a discovery that advances the plot.
If you can’t combine elements to make that mundane stuff both interesting and relevant to the story, cut it. Start the story in media res, which means start with action.
If you really need to get us from A to B, use a brief passage of summary between more active scenes. You can also use a line of white space between scenes to show the gap in time. We don’t need to see the character wake up, get out of bed and go to work. Start at work after that nice white scene break.
Sometimes that mundane stuff provides a rest between action scenes or sets mood or establishes something interesting about your character. You can begin a scene with mundane stuff, but keep it short. In Dark Corners in Skoghall, Isabella gives Jess her diary. I have to do something with it, so I show Jess sitting down to read. It doesn’t take long for her phone to ring, bringing us all back to a more active scene. There’s another scene where Jess goes into the Village Hall to make a phone call. I want the reader to know she makes this call, but the content of the call has already been shown in scene. While she’s on the phone, Isabella shows up, which reveals something new about her abilities, something Jess figures out while making the call. In that instance, I could say the action of the scene is the phone call. But the scene is about Isabella’s new trick.
Sometimes you need mundane stuff to set up a more interesting scene later. I have Shakti run away at the beginning of the book in order to establish a behavior that becomes important later. That’s fine. Again, keep such scenes brief and see if you can layer in some tension. In that scene, Jess’s friend was supposed to be watching Shakti, so my purpose is to show that Shakti is willing to leave Jess’s side and go wandering, but the reader is more likely to focus on the fact that Jess’s friend screwed up.
Yes, give your characters lives to live, including mundane stuff, but don’t focus on the mundane, don’t let it drag out in real time, and make sure that while you’re showing us the day-in-the-life stuff you are also advancing the character, plot, or theme.
Check out stories where the mundane is integral to the story and analyze why the story remains engaging. Why does this work? Why do I care about someone’s morning ritual?
- Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday opens with the protagonist getting out of bed.
- The film American Beauty opens with the protagonist getting out of bed.
- John Sandford’s crime novels show a lot of detective work, including legwork and paperwork, yet he keeps the stories moving with plenty of dramatic tension.
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