If plot and character form the heart and soul of fiction, then dialogue, setting and historical accuracy comprise the flesh and bones. Rather than presume to make definitive statements on any of these, I’ll enumerate a few precepts that work for me in writing fiction.
Realism in Dialogue:
- Say it aloud. Does it sound at all forced or awkward? Then it has to change.
- Brevity is best. But when a character must expound, revise it to a minimum.
- Understand the class and ethnicity of your characters. Differentiating speech patterns can be difficult, but will help the reader keep your characters straight. Also, see 1. above.
- Go easy on accents. An over-stressed phonetic accuracy stereotypes and diminishes a character. Even for comic relief, this sort of thing can be hard on the eyes.
- To dialog or not to dialog? Err on the side of more dialog, but know its limitations. You want it to display character and advance the story, but physical actions are better portrayed in exposition. Show them doing it, don’t have them tell us about it.
Realism in Setting:
- Can you see it? Whether it’s a hotel lobby, a street in New York, or a neighborhood in a city of your imagination, you have to see it in detail if it forms a significant part of your story. Make a diagram if you have to.
- Real places demand in-depth knowledge or solid research. The more well-known the setting (think iconic sights and cities), the more your readers will demand accuracy. Consult maps when necessary.
- Scenery and props are setting, too. Significant detail will flesh out the setting. ‘He sat down’ tells you something. ‘He sat in one of the red plush armchairs against the foyer wall’ adds elements of setting and mood. Likewise ‘She drove to the church at 5 pm’ versus ‘She drove to church at dusk under a flaming sky.’
Making Historical Events Real:
- Research, research, research. Internet research is fine, but get yourself to a library for original documents where possible. Look to experts for advice.
- Know the details of your setting. Get acquainted with clothing, household items, professional gear and architecture of the target period.
- Use novels of the period. Read copiously for a grounding in the speech of the time and for a sense of the zeitgeist.
- Vocabulary differences. Don’t assume your personal word stock is up to the challenge. To cite a well-known example, a psychiatrist in the nineteenth century was called an alienist.
- Employ slang and archaisms of the time, but only very sparsely and judiciously.
- Wear your research lightly. There will be a temptation to use everything you learn. Don’t do it.
Volumes have been written on these aspects of writing, and for good reason. But a writer has to start somewhere, and these time-tested tips will take you a long way toward realism in your fiction.