Write the real. Notice there are no quotation marks around the word “real” in that first sentence; it’s because the words that should go down on paper are those that actually represent what actually happens either in real life, or in the thought process of real life, or in the real life lessons learned over time, or in the real understanding of real circumstances. In essence, don’t bullshit the reader, because the reader will close the book, and walk away, and forget that the words ever existed.
Tell it like it is. Throw no sucker punches – life’s day-to-day twists are more than enough. Don’t work for shock value. Don’t try to figure out what’s already happened in reality. The reader gets nothing from scenes that don’t represent some natural part of life.
Now, this doesn’t mean that your piece needs to be one of realism. Science-Fiction, Fantasy, and Magical Realism all represent ideas that people have, or lessons that need to be learned. If we think about it, there’s nothing new learned from Star Wars; it’s simply the story of family, friendship, struggle, and survival. It’s the same for “The Very Old Man With Enormous Wings,” in the way that it’s the story of judgement, degradation, and the inability to overcome certain fears and stereotypes.
It is not the author’s job to give you a new reality, but to simply ask you to think about your own – to find your own story within the one they are providing. To use their characters as mirrors rather than windows.
It’s far too easy to merely observe Holden Caulfield, or J Gatsby, or Moll Flanders, and think that none of those stories apply to you while you’re reading. It’s much more difficult to stare at those characters as if you’re looking back at yourself. We are all Holden in the way that we all struggle to figure out who we really are, and we all swim through a world of “phony” people, or deal with families that don’t seem to care, or our own psyche that tells us everything is wrong. We are all wanting so badly to be J Gatsby, and never worry about a thing – at least on the outside – and live a life of the surreal where everything just comes to us, and love is easy, and work is easy, and money is easy, while in reality, we know that we can only live that lie for so long, and that at some point it will always lead back to staring across the water toward the green light. And none of us want to know Moll Flanders. None of us want to admit to the reality of the 12-year-old whore, the woman who grows up to marry five times, spend her life as a thief and a beggar, carry a child she’ll never truly know, a family who doesn’t remember, and be banished from society to die a lonely death.
It’s the author’s job to show you reality; it’s your job to admit to it.