Friday, April 29, 2011

How Realistic is Realistic Fiction?

I'm putting on my "reader" hat for this post because the jury is still out on whether or not I know the answer to this as a writer, but it's something I've been struggling with on both fronts lately and I think it's a worthwhile topic of discussion.

Change Begins Here.By realistic fiction, I'm referring to all young adult fiction that is not fantasy, sci-fi or paranormal. Since YA as a category is growing faster than most teenagers, all of those sub-categories are dividing as well. The realistic novel most of us are familiar with is what some readers and writers now refer to as "the problem novel." A few famous and recent examples include Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak (rape), Thalia Chaltas's Because I am Furniture (child abuse and incest), Jennifer Brown's Hate List (school shooting) and just about any Ellen Hopkins novel.

These types of books in YA definitely aren't new. Chris Crutcher author of Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes (originally published in 1993) has drawn on his experiences as a psychotherapist for most of his career, and his books are noted for being true to the way teens experience real problems.

Developing a compelling plot is a challenge in realistic fiction because what most of us learn during adolescense is that we need to come to grips with the reality that a lot of what happens isn't fair and isn't logical. However, as an author, if your plot isn't logical and doesn't stay true to it's own form of justice, the story won't be compelling.

From a writing standpoint, this is all very frustrating. Readers and critique partners rarely can explain why something in a "realistic" novel doesn't jive or how to fix it, but they can tell you when it works and when it doesn't.

Trout Fishing PennsylvaniaWe all know that details make a difference. Any 5 year old knows that if you want to get out of taking the heat for spilling milk all over your bedroom floor, you need a detailed account of the closet monster that came in and made the mess: height, fur color, tooth lenghth, etc. Without those details, nobody is buying your story.

Still, sometimes those details work against you. Maybe grandpa Fred can tell you the number of scales on that 10 foot trout he dragged out of the lake, but if he doesn't have pictures or reliable witnesses, who's going to believe that?

DunceOf course, grandpas tend to exaggerate details like that. They aren't credible narrators. So, a lot of what sells the reader on the story is the level of trust she has in your narrator.

Ugh, telling the truth is so much easier than lying.