How much realism does a story need? Well, clearly it has to be plausible, otherwise your readers will throw the book down in disgust. Guides litter the internet and bookshelves – how-tos of making your work plausible. These are really awesome, but it does raise a question. How “real” should a story be?
Suspension of Disbelief is that narrow little range wherein an author can do something unrealistic, but the audience will accept it. And thats the answer right there. Make it real enough to work and reflect the actual world, but learn where to bend the rules. Include unrealism where necessary, But what is there has to be plausible, at least for the audience. And gross inaccuracy is pretty much a no-no, right?
Well, it depends.
Yeah, see, what you include in your story still has to be entertaining. Yes, Hot Fuzz included police paperwork, but they made fun of it. And frankly, sometimes you have to bend the realism rules a little bit.
“But wait!” you scream in your nasally, whiny voice, snot spewing from your mouth (it’s really easy to picture my opponents as losers when I get to make up the strawmen myself). “You’re supposed to write what you know!”
“No you don’t,” I say heroically, my long hair streaming behind me as the setting sun outlines my muscled physique (it’s really easy to picture myself as awesome when I’m the one doing it).
Well, that illustration fell apart. Anyway, the fact is that we can’t always write what we know. The story about an embittered Vietnam war vet who takes on the entire Burmese army was probably not written from experience. And if you want to write anything more than an autobiographical slice-of-life story, you will run into things that are new to you. Now let’s talk realism. In a 100% realistic universe:
Two martial artists will face each other and take their stances. And then they just sort of fall over in a pile of hugging, biting, and ineffective flail-punching.
A cop and a crook will wildly shoot a few times at each other before a bullet lands on the criminal’s shoulder. he doesn’t notice due tot he shock, but he loses the use of his arm and successfully sues the police department.
A private eye solves a murder case, and goes to prison for interfering with a police investigation.
Batman gets tracked down by the NSA.
Just… yeah. But the thing is, you need to figure out which unrealistic tropes are necessary, and make everything else plausible. But keep it good, no matter what – tellin a good yarn is your first priority!
Without plausibility, your story is meaningless. Without the fun bits, your story is pointless.