One of the things I struggled with the most as a young writer was trying to balance creating realistic characters with being a good storyteller.
Here’s what I mean. Let’s say I was writing a novel where there’s a strange but everyday fact of life for the characters in that world, like, instead of air everyone breathes tomato soup. (Bizarre, but yum.)
Since breathing tomato soup is so ordinary to the people in the novel and they can’t imagine a world in which they don’t breathe tomato soup, it would seem really unrealistic for them to sit around talking about breathing tomato soup. We don’t sit around talking about air and explain to each other how it came to be. So why would the characters explain it?
And it may seem awkward and contrary to the flow of the novel to just come out with the explanation explicitly.
Then you go and end up writing a novel where breathing tomato soup is totally unexplained and the reader is completely frustrated and distracted, thinking, “Why in the WORLD are they breathing tomato soup and why is no one explaining it to me???”
This is what I realized earlier in my writing days:
You are not writing for the people in the world of your novel.
You are writing for the people in OUR world, as in planet Earth, as in a place where we breathe air and need anything different than that explained to us. Always. Always. Always.
No matter where your novel is set, pretend that the narrator has been magically transplanted to Earth and is telling it to us in the present day. They might use their own language to tell it, but they still are giving an Earthling reader in the present day enough to go on to understand all the eccentricities of their world.
Now, as you are doing that explaining to Earthlings in the present day, this does not mean that two characters should sit around talking about things that would otherwise be ordinary to them. A better approach is to weave exposition in naturally within the context of the narrative and only when the reader needs to know the information because it relates to the plot (I talk a lot more about how to weave in exposition in my guide to writing a novel).
At the end of the day, it’s much more important to tell a good story than to stick too closely to what’s real. I mean, if a reader were solely interested in reality they wouldn’t be reading a novel.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go make a grilled cheese sandwich.
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Art: Camille au Métier by Claude Monet
I agree 100% with everything in this post.
I just wish some of the wing nuts on Goodreads and Amazon would understand this, too 🙂
Jaimie Teekell says
Great reminder! Thanks! Timely for me.
Alana Roberts says
Yes, because tomato soup DOES call for grilled cheese whenever possible.
Good tip. I've been tripping over that one for years.
Liss Thomas says
Great post. I'm sure breathing tomato soup would need just a little explaining. It's also fun to bring someone from another realm into the human world and throw something ordinay at them that they don't get. "What's a zombie?"
Julie Musil says
Great point. This was one of the many things I loved about Divergent. The author didn't go on and on explaining why the world was the way it was. It just was. She dropped info here and there, but definitely not info dumps about world.
Caroline Bliss Larsen says
This post suddenly made me ravenously hungry.
Thanks, Nathan. Now I want tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich.
Art Rosch says
Does Progresso make a tomato soup?
I'm convinced that the world is divided into two kinds of people:
Campbell's people and Progresso people. Do fish know they swim in water? That's the old conunumdrum, isn't it? Good story telling trumps everything, period!
Alan Drabke says
Well said. When people sit down to read a novel their emotional pores are wide open. It's not usually a good time to make a political point or be too vivid. I'm always impressed by Criminal Minds. They tell horror stories, yet, somehow, they never get believably gruesome.
Couldn't agree more, and "if a reader were solely interested in reality they wouldn't be reading a novel" just nails it 🙂
So many good points in one blog post – especially yummy food items. Thanks, Nathan.
Erin Harwood says
A very well-put response to the commonly voiced complaint I hear from kids (and Goodread reviewers, for that matter) that goes a little something like "But that would never happen in real life." And now I want tomato soup.
Karen Clayton says
Thanks, I needed to hear this one.
Tammy Palmer says
Great advice for newbies. I read a sample of a self published book recently and the dialogue went something like this, "As you know Bob…" and I quit right there. Dialogue is not the place for an info dump.
J.S. Johnson says
Crazy timing here – I just had a Twitter discussion with Mark Rubenstein about the effect of excessive realism on storytelling and pacing earlier this week.
So obviously I agree with most of this post – but grilled cheese sandwiches are super overrated. 🙂