Let’s say you’re reading about a castle.
As you read the tell-tale clues—the high stone walls atop a hill, the creaking wood drawbridge—your imagination is forced to build one for you. Your mind constructs turrets and arrow-catches, moats and men on horseback, where only “a castle” has been suggested. In your mind, the castle becomes reality.
We're all writers, so we all know the power of words (and repeating it here is useless). But words also distort that reality—they can make fantasy feel totally real, and yet render reality totally unbelievable. I’ve written fiction and been told, “I felt like I was really there!” Then written completely true, non-fiction essays about my childhood and been told, “This is so unrealistic. This would never happen.”
Because it's all about how much you give the reader outright, and how much the reader is left to build the castle in her head. And you can use this little cheat, this mini production studio that comes built-in to your consumer, to cut the fluff out of your manuscript.
The reader’s superpower
The best piece of writing advice I ever received was “less is more.” Now, as always, take so-called simple writing advice with a few grains of salt—they don’t always apply, and when they do, you may still ignore them for stylistic reasons.
However, the “less is more” rule is, I believe, the key to writing that truly feels real.
Here’s why: readers have a really cool superpower. It’s a superpower that can function even when provided with very few words.
And that superpower is... (duh!) Imagination.
It’s the ability to subconsciously fill in any gaps the writer leaves in action, conversation, or description with something real, something with flesh; to paint between the lines with our own colors (no matter how absurd they are).
It’s the same skill that infers meaning from tense or obtuse conversations, and hears things characters aren’t saying. It’s the skill that builds a full-featured world in a reader’s mind, out of nothing more than words.
With that in mind, all you really need to do to convey realism in your writing is build a simulacrum of what you want your reader to see—provide enough clues, enough landmarks, that your reader ends up with a structure for what we want them to imagine, and then the reader’s imagination fills in the gaps.
Why? Because we trust ourselves more than we trust others. An image on a screen could be photoshopped. We know when we see a dragon on-screen that it’s just special effects.
But we’ll believe whatever our imaginations assemble for us. It all happens internally, beyond the true-or-not-true filter we use to process all other day-to-day stimulus and input. We've built the castle ourselves, so of course we believe it's real.
It’s just a hunch, but I believe this is one of the reasons books fail to translate well to movies. I don’t mean objectively failing, but failing in the eyes of its pre-existing, literary devotees: the reader has already built out the characters, the landscape, the world, even, within the confines of their own mind—and nothing in reality can come close to imitating it.
When you first read about Hogwarts in The Sorcerer’s Stone, it feels like a real place. Rowling gives just enough detail—and holds just enough back—that your mind easily fills it in. One gets to know Hogwarts so well over the course of Harry Potter that one doesn’t doubt for a second that it’s a real place, or what it looks like.
Did you ever watch a Harry Potter movie… and know that the Hogwarts you were seeing on-screen wasn’t really Hogwarts? My first time watching the film adaptation of The Sorcerer’s Stone was incredibly jarring, because the Hogwarts I saw on-screen barely came close to the Hogwarts in my head. It felt like my trip Disneyland a few years ago—just cheap imitation of real things: the castle that’s too perfect to be a real castle, the fake desert landscape with its perfectly placed cacti and carefully balanced red rocks. They play at being real, but can’t possibly match my memories of real English castles, of real southwestern deserts.
Cutting back on words
I’ll admit it: I’m an over-writer. Especially when I’ve decided something is important.
Let’s say it’s an unspoken, underlying sexual tension between two characters on-screen. I probably won't be able to resist bludgeoning my reader over the head with it in my first draft. (It rather reads like a commentator sneaking on-screen and shouting, “See? Do you SEE? They’re so into each other. Just kiss already. Go. Go. Kiss. KISS NOW.”)
For a lot of writers (not all, but many), overwriting is normal. Like a lot of things in life, it’s a trust issue; we’ve lost faith in our reader to fill in the gaps. When something is important, the writer’s instinct is to become a broken record; to repeat things, to go into long and unnecessary detail about whatever it is we’re desperately hoping (and needing) our reader to remember for later, for our clever little plot to work out.
We want the reader to see a two-story A-frame, and so we try to build a full-scale, livable one—out of popsicle sticks. And end up with five pages about a stupid house.
Because really, that’s all words are: popsicle sticks. Tiny and bland and not very strong on their own, but when arranged and glued, you can construct something a little larger with them.
I'd suggest that it's not necessary to build the entire house out of popsicle sticks for your reader to believe in it, to be able to see it. Readers have a much more powerful engine—the ability to turn a few words, a few popsicle sticks, into something huge and ornate and beautiful, in their own way.
All you really need to do is build a simulacrum of the house. Just the important popsicle sticks, really, and your reader fills in the rest.