There are several keys to writing hyper-realism.
Some works of fiction seem more energetic, more exciting, and more profound than others. It’s as if the author has deeper powers of observation than his or her fellow peers that enable writing hyper realism. The stories that have this quality are very often the ones that win major awards, and certainly as I look over the contest winners from Writers of the Future for the past couple of years, I can see this pattern.
Now, I have heard various names for this attribute in a tale. Some critics call it “heightened language,” pointing out that the author is typically struggling so hard to communicate that she puts all of her energy, all of her inventiveness into the process. In many cases, the author becomes so obsessed that she invents new phrases or coins new words. And almost always, the author is well aware of the poetical sensibilities of the piece: she’ll use assonance and consonance to write beautifully, and pay close attention to the rhythm and emphasis in her words. It’s not just a matter of choosing the right words, it’s something more.
If you don’t quite get what I mean, read Shakespeare, or study the best of our modern poets.
Here’s a little sample from the Bard:
When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls, all silvered o’er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves,
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;
And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defence
Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.
Or here is an example from William Butler Yeats:
The Lake Isle of Innisfree
I WILL arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
As a young college student, I remember thinking that sometimes when I read a story, it seemed so intense that it was “more real than real,” as if I were living through a waking dream, and I sought to induce such scenes into my work by selecting vivid images and using the proper language to create that dreamlike state.
Now, many years later, I sometimes get letters from fans with questions like, “I read your novel On My Way to Paradise in 1991, and it was so vivid that now I remember it as if I lived through it. I remember it better than my classes at the time.”
So how do you write a “hyper-real” scene? Here are for keys:
- Select unconventional images to propel the scene forward.
- Appeal to powerful emotions such as love, fear, anger, guilt, and so on.
- Be careful to apply your poetic sensibilities to every line.
- Make sure that you appeal to all of the senses.
Now, on point number one, when I say that an image is unconventional, I simply mean that I’m looking for something out of the ordinary. For example, let’s say that your character gets a knock at the door and opens it to find someone behind it, a salesman in a bowler hat. That’s kind of tame.
What if we change it up? Perhaps instead of getting a knock at the door, he hears thuds at the door, as if someone is hitting it with his shoulder? What if instead of a salesman, your character finds a heavily bearded homeless man in an Army jacket that reeks coffee and of old sweat—one with terrified eyes, who is holding a pitchfork as if he’s ready to run the protagonist through.
Do you see how an unconventional encounter can be a bit more riveting than something standard? And how it immediately hits you as so strange that it feels like a dream?
Remember to try to make strong appeals to multiple senses.
By this I mean, if you’re a writer who is great with visual imagery, don’t rely just upon strong visuals. Make sure to give us powerful sounds, or to appeal to scent or touch, and so on. This often requires you to dig deeply into yourself, to really struggle to master your craft.
As you write in a hyper-real style, it has several powerful effects upon your reader. First off, it engrosses the reader, so that they become glued to your manuscript. As you create your images using heightened language, the reader also becomes more comfortable, more confident in your abilities as a writer and more willing to suspend disbelief and just enjoy the tale. Most importantly, those tales that use these methods tend to stick with the reader long after they’ve read the story, becoming a permanent part of their psyche.
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