My Aha! moment came, strangely, in contemplation of an off-hand comment I made to a friend.
Both fledgling writers, we were discussing a story and he mentioned how some people he knew strove for “realism” in their writing, and were often trying to get him to conform to their ideas of it. I shrugged and said, “Tell them fiction isn't reality.”
My own words seemed to echo later that day and throughout the days that followed, but I wasn't sure why. After all, it was merely a truism. Everyone knew fiction wasn't reality, so there was nothing profound there. And yet... there was. I realized I had recognized a key principle of good writing, one that most aspiring writers take for granted without thinking about. Fiction isn't reality. Why is that important? Because too many aspiring writers try to capture reality in their fiction, instead of going after what they should: the essence of reality.
What's the difference? Think of a conversation, a real one. Real life dialogue meanders and wanders, it stutters and stammers, it jumps around, it's sloppy and unfocused. That's reality. But it's not good writing. The essence of a “real” conversation is what readers want. It's what good fiction delivers.
The lesson I would pass along is, don't try to deliver reality. Deliver its essence. Convey the stuff that remains after reality has evaporated. The piece of reality from which readers immediately reconstruct the whole in their minds, through the common ground of experience and learning. That's why some descriptions can seem so vivid with so few words, while others fall flat despite painstaking detail. It's why some characters who couldn't possibly exist in the real world jump off the page, while others who are “real” down to the most minute details fail to inspire interest. And it's why some dialogue seems crisp and lifelike, while other examples that are arguably a hundred percent authentic seem anything but.
Let reality go. Strive to capture its essence.
Hank Schwaeble is the author of two novels and the recipient of two Bram Stoker Awards including one for his first novel, Damnable (Penguin/Jove 2009). His short fiction has appeared in anthologies such as Alone on the Darkside, Five Strokes to Midnight, Horror Library Vol IV and a forthcoming volume of Zombies vs. Robots. He has also been a World Fantasy Award nominee. His second novel, Diabolical, was released in July of 2011.
A former Air Force officer and special agent, Hank is a graduate of the University of Florida and Vanderbilt Law School. In the little free time he has, he enjoys reading, watching movies, playing guitar, archery and, of course, writing.