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a:Keeping it Real

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One of the more baffling problems I see with my clients is that they’re not keeping their writing real. Their stories might be full of tension and clever plot twists, their characters people I might like to know, but their writing is not rooted in life.

This problem most often shows up in descriptions. Their characters’ hair is “silky,” or wool socks “scratchy.” Hearts “pound,” muscles “ripple,” eyelids “flutter.” Sunsets “glow” or rain “pours.” They are simply writing the sorts of things that other writers have written, time and time again.  It’s just as damaging when they go generic.  Rooms are “large” or “opulent,” gardens are full of “flowers” surrounded by “trees,” lipstick is “red,” their characters eat “food.”

When you’re creating your fictional world, details matter.  A clever story can be entertaining, but readers can’t lose themselves in your fictional world unless it feels real, concrete, definite.  Clichés are tired and overly familiar.  Generic descriptions are just filler, Pablum rather than steak.


Of course, most writers already know this. So why do they so often fall back on generic commonplaces and clichés?

They’re easy.  They’re what comes to mind first.  And they often look just good enough on the page that it’s possible to skip over them while you revise and never realize you have a problem.  You have to deliberately focus to spot the places where you’ve taken the easy way out.

Other writers, I suspect, fall into commonplaces because they’re more interested in other parts of their stories.  They want to get past the descriptions so they can dig into more dialogue, or they’re so caught up in the upcoming plot twist that their characters start talking banalities to get the dialogue out of the way more quickly.  And all of that might be fine for a first draft. But when you’re revising, you need to rip out cliches like the weeds that they are.

Replacing them isn’t simply a matter of pulling out a Thesaurus and looking for alternatives to “silky.”  You have to pay attention to the actual, real world.  That’s where you go to find the distinctive, often surprising details that will make your fictional world real.  For instance, the received wisdom is that teakettles whistle.  But if you actually pay attention when one is coming up to a boil, you’ll find that it often bangs and pops (depending on how hard your water is) and then begins to hiss.  If your readers have never noticed just how kettles boil, showing them that detail can make your fictional world feel more real than their everyday life.

To give you an example of the impact clear, reality-based details can have, Rex Stout once described Archie Goodwin visiting a witness’s apartment.  Archie finds it cluttered with furniture, including a piano stool in the middle of the room with no piano.  In another story, he’s searching a suspect’s room and notes that she left all of her dresser drawers open an inch or so.  I read these descriptions years ago and can’t even remember which books they came from.  But those little, unique details made those two locations so real that I felt like I was in them at the time and still remember them years later.

Metaphor is another way to anchor your writing in reality – even better, it’s the reality of your characters.  If you’re stuck looking for an original take on something, get into your viewpoint character’s head.  What would their surroundings remind them of?  How would they filter what they see?  This gives you a chance to not only capture the reality around them but the reality inside of them – their history, their experience – making your descriptions doubly real.

In Kenneth Roberts’ Arundel, set in 18th-century Maine, a character describes a dress as being the shade of yellow of a fern after the first frost.  This is not only crisp and specific, it tells you how someone of that century who was steeped in nature might have seen the world.


A lot of writing is fun – getting surprised by your characters, getting carried away by the action or fast-paced dialogue.

Keeping it real takes discipline.  You not only have to get into the habit of paying attention to the real world, you have to learn to see the blandness in your own writing.  But you’ve got to develop the discipline, building your reality muscles.  Keeping it real is the only way to create worlds your readers can inhabit.


About Dave King

Dave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer's Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website.


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