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Mass-1024x698.jpg?resize=525%2C358&ssl=1(Warning: This post contains plot spoilers.)

As I wrote here in January, the events of a story are inherently unreal.  The circumstances and struggles of life are heightened.  And yet, as we read an effective story it feels to us as if it is happening right now, to us.  Swept up to that degree we sometimes pause, set down the book, look up at the ceiling, catch our breaths and remind ourselves that it’s just a story.

Previously, I focused on the balance between the real and the unreal, employing those symbiotic dimensions of a story in order to encourage the reader’s suspension of disbelief.  Having looked at your story’s big picture, today let’s focus on the small details that create a sense of reality in the unreal realm of your imagination.  The day-to-day.  The ordinary.  The recognizable minutiae that make the illusion of real life stronger, or so we imagine.

The details of daily life, however, are dangerous.  Anna Quindlen said that “real life is in the dishes”, but not every greasy pot or bowl of cereal-stained milk is as laden with as much significance as you may hope.  Many a manuscript bogs down in drives from one place to another, showers, setting the table, the daily grind that feels precious to the writer but is really just a grind to read.

One-True-Thing-Anna-Quindlen-002.jpg?resEven Anna Quindlen herself does not ultimately try to build a novel wholly out of the everyday.  Her title One True Thing (1995) is a mother-daughter reconciliation story that brings together a daughter, New York magazine writer Ellen Gulden, and her mother Kate.  Ellen feels superior to her mother’s life as pie-perfect wife but when Kate is diagnosed with cancer, mother and daughter discover each other anew.  The novel could have been little more than a couple of hundred pages of dishes and earnest dialogue but that is not where Quindlen heads.  (Spoiler alert.)  Kate asks her daughter to help her end her life.  When her mother dies of a morphine overdose, Kate is arrested and tried for her murder.  So much for dishes.

Question: Is it dishes or drama that makes Quindlen’s story feel real?  The kitchen sink is familiar to us but, ask me, what resonates most strongly is the impossible burdens that parents impose upon their children.  Clatter or conflict?  A sense of reality may perhaps begin with ordinary details but what grips us hardest is what we know to be true, troublesome and beautiful about people.

Capturing time, place and society are other ways in which we believe a story comes to feel real.  Those elements are worth our attention, certainly, but by themselves how much do they help?

One might think that Fredrik Backman’s specialty was curmudgeon characters (A Man Called Ove), but in Beartown (2017) he proves equally adept at capturing a place: a town that has nothing special about it except youth hockey.  Indeed, without it Beartown would have no economy.  When the junior team’s fortunes improve, the whole town is pulled up too.  The town’s values and identity are tied up in the sport, as the novel’s omniscient narrator tells us right away:

Which is why places like this always have to pin their hopes for the future on young people.  They’re the only ones who don’t remember that things actually used to be better.  That can be a blessing.  So they’ve coached their junior team with the same values their forebears used to construct their community: work hard, take the knocks, don’t complain, keep your mouth shut, and show the bastards in the big cities where we’re from.  There’s not much worthy of note around here.  But anyone who’s been here knows that it’s a hockey town.

Beartown-Fredrik-Backman-002.jpg?resize=So far so good.  We know where we are.  We know the most basic thing anyone needs to know about Beartown: youth hockey.

But let me ask you this, do you feel that Beartown is your town?  Sub out football for hockey and Texans might say yes but for most of us, we may understand the novel’s setting but it’s not where we live in our imaginations, not yet.  Only as we get to know the characters and experience the crime—(spoiler alert) the rape of the fifteen-year-daughter of the team’s manager by the team’s star player—that forces Beartown to reckon with what is most important, do we truly begin to feel that what happens in Backman’s place is the kind of thing that happens everywhere, including where we live.

What about sensory details?  Capturing what we would see, hear, touch, taste and smell if we were really present in a story is another way of creating verisimilitude, but sparkling imagery and close observation have only a momentary effect.  We may see with sharp eyes or recognize what is “true”, but what do we feel and for how long do we feel it?

At the outset of Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School (2019), high school senior Adam Gordon is floating in a rowboat on a manmade lake with his girlfriend, high and babbling, when he notices that she is no longer in the boat, her clothes left behind.  She’s not in the water, swimming.  The lake is quiet.  Panicked, he motors back to shore and goes looking for her in her house.  Inside he enters a bathroom but not the one he was expecting:

It wasn’t her bathroom.  The electric toothbrush, the hair dryer, these particular soaps—these were not her toiletries.  For an instant he thought, desperately hoped, that they might belong to her mother, but there were too many other discrepancies: the shower door was different, its glass frosted; now he smelled the lemon-scented gel beads in a jar atop the toilet; alien dried flowers hung from a purple sachet on the wall.  In a single shudder of retrospection his impressions of the house were changed: Where was the piano (that nobody played)?  Wouldn’t he have seen the electric chandelier?  The carpet on the stairs—wasn’t the pile too thick, too dark in the dark to have been truly white?

The-Topeka-School-Ben-Lerner-002.jpg?resAdam is in the wrong house.  The houses in the development around the artificial lake all look alike, and he is high.  The moment is vivid—lemon-scented gel beads in a jar atop the toilet—one might even say closely observed, with concrete details to lend reality.  I have used guest bathrooms that have gel beads, never used, in jars.  I’ve been in houses with thick pile carpets and pianos that nobody plays.  I can picture where Adam is perfectly, can’t you, but is that truly what makes the opening of this highly-praised novel feel like it is happening to us as we read?

That effect doesn’t come from gel beads.  It comes from Adam, who has made some kind of dreadful mistake and is in that horrible few minutes before anyone knows.  His girlfriend (spoiler alert) hasn’t drowned, luckily, but merely swam to shore.  It’s a relief but for an agonizing few minutes Adam experiences everything that is wrong with his life.  He spends the rest of the novel trying to make it right.  His story, as many critics noted, is the story of what’s wrong in the world of privileged white boys.  Like many white guys, I experienced this as my story but not because of the sensory details but because it’s about a son who is psychologically adrift.

What about the way people act and signal their feelings?  When the people in a story behave with realistic precision, doesn’t that cause us to transpose ourselves into their story?  The answer again is yes—in part.

Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s excellent The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guild to Character Expression (2nd Edition, 2019) is a detailed guide to revealing behavior: in dialogue, via subtext, vocal cues, body language, thoughts, visceral reactions, and more.  It delves into the back stories, wounds, reactions, triggers, comfort zones and other factors that govern what characters say and do.  One hundred and thirty specific emotions are catalogued with their outward signals, inner sensations, mental responses, suppression, escalation, de-escalation and associated verbs.  Ackerman and Puglisi’s list of emotional cues is a comprehensive mirror to seemingly every feeling we have ever seen others exhibit.

The-Emotion-Thesaurus-002.jpeg?resize=21To their credit, the authors caution against over-reliance on emotional cues, and for a good reason.  Accurately signaled emotional expressions can show us how characters feel, but there is nothing for those characters to feel unless there is a strong story situation in which to feel it in the first place.  Something must be happening.  A dramatic framework is needed.  Without that, characters are merely actors acting without a script.  We see them walk and talk but we won’t necessarily identify.

I think you get my point: The surest way to create the illusion of reality in the minds of readers is not through daily life, sensory details, time and place or accurately rendered human behavior.  It is the eternal human situation, which is to say the universal struggles, traps, ironies, and all the other inescapable business of life that has burdened and lifted us for as long as we have walked the Earth.

If you have ever listened to someone else’s story and thought or said, “Oh man, I get that.  Something just like that happened to me!”, then you know what I am talking about.  We don’t identify with dishes, daisies, dawn light or demonstrative gestures.  We identify with emotional anguish, delight, dread, yearning, hope and the thousand other experiences that make us feel human, regardless of where a story has taken us.

In short, if you want readers to feel swept up and as if your story is theirs, the key is to create situations in which we undergo a known human experience.  It’s called universal human experience for a reason.  It explains why we can sink into stories set in other cultures, pasts, futures, fantasy realms, supernatural worlds and more and nevertheless feel like an inherently unreal story is happening to us, right now, as we read it.

What sweeps us up is not details but drama.  Let’s make that practical.  Here are a couple of suggestions:

  • What family struggle is present in your story?  What Oedipus complex, wicked step mother, sibling rivalry, family shame or burdensome legacy is at work?  What everyday situation brings your protagonist up against that family stain or struggle?  Make it inescapable.  Make it real.
  • What could cause your protagonist embarrassment or false pride?  Put your protagonist in that situation.  Make it real.
  • What would make your protagonist feel rebellious?  What would cause your protagonist to flee for safety?  Make any of that happen.  Make it real.
  • What situation would make your protagonist feel—without naming it—uneasy, on edge, nervous, apprehensive, jittery, miffed, at a loss?  Make that happen.  Make it real.
  • What situation would make your protagonist feel insulted, cheated, bitter, unfairly accused, resentful, envious, crestfallen, heartbroken, low or depressed?  Bring about that circumstance.  Make it real.
  • What is broken, unequal, ironic or wrong with the society around your protagonist?  If we were actually there, how would we see it?  What does your protagonist call it?  Create a situation in which it’s evident.  Make it real.
  • What object, sight or circumstance causes your protagonist to hope for something that he or she cannot get?  Bring it on.  Make it real.
  • What is good, funny, inspiring, admirable or hopeful about other people?  Let your protagonist see that in someone else, or better still be that for others.  Show it to us.  Make it real.

Try out a few of the suggestions above.  As you set them down, are you feeling like your protagonist is more like you—more like all of us?  If so, then the sense of everyday reality we’re seeking probably will be more strongly present in your story.

Who knows?  You might even be writing about the universal human experience.

What is one circumstance in your current story that could feel real for us all?


About Donald Maass

Donald Maass (he/him) is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist, The Fire in Fiction, Writing the Breakout Novel and The Career Novelist.


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