Friday, July 23, 2010

The Difference Between Relatable and Real in Writing

Note: I’m trying something new here. I’m writing in a quasi-socratic method style. Hopefully it works, and if not…let me know.

As writers we are torn between trying to write something that brings the average reader in, while also writing something that will catch their attention and command it through the entirety of the story. Not to mention we are competing with TV, cell phones, Twitter (you can follow me as Michael_A_Tate BTW), and all other distractions with a medium that takes time, effort, and concentration. As authors we are in a tough position.

So how do we create a story that the reader can relate to but does not bore them? Simple. We take something extra-ordinary and pair it with something the reader is familiar with. For example, a hostage situation is a pretty extra-ordinary situation, and an office building is a pretty common setting. Here the reader takes the setting that you lay out and merges it with their own personal setting. Then you throw in the fireworks of a hostage situation and you have a decent story.

So there we go, we’ve got our formula right? Mmmm not quite. An example would be getting a new pet while living on an alien planet. We’ve got something extra-ordinary and relatable right? As you can imagine, this situation is not quite as appealing as the previous example. We’ve got to change our approach just a little.

Perhaps we can make the claim that setting must be relatable and the plot must be the thing that is extra-ordinary?

But by now I’m sure you’re shouting at me about how successful something like Star Wars is. Hmmm, I must have been wrong then. So let me revise. You need to have an extra-ordinary situation along with something that the reader can relate to. Does the hostage story have that? Check. Does the pet story have that? No. Does Star Wars have that? Lets see.

In Star Wars the setting is not relatable for most people. What about the plot? No. Most people are not going to be able to relate to being part of a rebel alliance aimed at destroying an empire. So perhaps we should look at character. Luke is a teenager with strict guardians. He longs for adventure and feels confident in his abilities before he’s ready. Now what kind of people generally love Star Wars? Teenagers like Luke…or something like that. I’ll give Star Wars a check.

How has our formula evolved? We realize that we need something relatable, be it characters or setting. (I’ll put my preference on characters) and we need an exciting plot.

So why is this again? Why doesn’t a story that deals with the slings and arrows of everyday life make it big (if at all)? It’s because the reader does not want to re-live what just happened to them that day. They don’t want to read 10 pages on how a character filed some papers at work, how the drive home was slow because of construction, and how long it took them to do the dishes because the dishwasher broke. I probably even bored you right there with those couple sentences so you can see what I’m talking about.

If you put those types of things in your plot (even if you have an really good one) then your plot becomes boring. So keep an eye out for those things.

I think we’ve concluded that relatable is good in a story, since it gives the reader a tie to their world; but writing something that is real and honest to everyday life is boring and makes the plot suffer.

The difference:

relatable = good for the story
real = not so good for the plot


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