Genre & Theme
3 min read

A short guide to realism in story-telling

An illustrated image of a landscape from an aerial view.

Realism in storytelling involves accurately depicting everyday life, focusing on the complexities of human nature and the ordinary experiences of relatable characters. As a prominent subgenre within the reality genre, realism has a long-standing tradition in literature, film, and other forms of storytelling. This article provides an overview of the reality genre, examines the history and critical elements of realism, offers techniques for compelling realist storytelling, and guides writers in choosing realism as their reality genre of choice.

Understanding the reality genre

The reality genre includes a variety of storytelling styles that emphasize realistic, true-to-life narratives. This genre encompasses subgenres such as historical fiction, contemporary fiction, and realism, each with its own unique characteristics that appeal to different reader preferences. Choosing the appropriate reality genre depends on the writer's interests, the story's focus, and the intended audience.

When to choose realism as your reality genre

Realism is an ideal choice for writers who:

  • Are interested in exploring the complexities of human nature and everyday life
  • Aim to create relatable, emotionally resonant stories
  • Seek to examine social, political, and cultural issues through a realistic lens

The roots of realism

Realism emerged as a literary movement in the 19th century as a response to the romanticism of the earlier era. Realist authors aimed to portray life as it was, without idealization or sentimentality. As time passed, realism expanded to encompass various forms of storytelling, including theatre, film, and television.

Notable early realist authors and works:

  • Gustave Flaubert's "Madame Bovary"
  • George Eliot's "Middlemarch"
  • Leo Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina"

Key elements of realism

Realist stories typically focus on the daily lives of ordinary people, emphasizing relatability and authenticity. They prioritize character development, creating multi-dimensional characters with distinct motivations, desires, and flaws. Realist stories also feature dialogue that reflects natural speech patterns and interactions.

In addition, realist narratives often examine broader social issues, exploring the impact of societal norms and structures on individuals' lives.

The key elements of realism:

  • Focus on everyday life and ordinary experiences
  • Complex, well-developed characters
  • Realistic dialogue and interactions
  • Attention to social, political, and cultural contexts

Techniques for effective realist storytelling

  • Creating authentic, relatable characters: Develop characters with distinct personalities, histories, and motivations, allowing readers to connect with them personally.
  • Crafting believable dialogue: Write dialogue that captures real conversation's natural speech patterns and rhythms while revealing character insights and advancing the plot.
  • Building immersive settings grounded in reality: Describe settings in detail, incorporating elements of the natural world and human-made environments to create a vivid sense of place.
  • Balancing character-driven narrative with broader thematic exploration: Weave together the personal stories of individual characters with larger themes and issues, creating a rich and engaging narrative.

Examples of realism in contemporary storytelling

Notable authors and works:

  • Alice Munro's short stories - Acclaimed for their emotional depth and insight, Munro's stories focus on the everyday lives and experiences of people in rural Canada.
  • Jhumpa Lahiri's "The Namesake" - A novel that explores themes of identity, family, and the immigrant experience, following the life of a young man named Gogol.
  • Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections" - A family drama delving into the complexities of contemporary American life, as each member of the Lambert family faces their own struggles.

Popular films and television series:

  • "Boyhood" - A coming-of-age drama that follows the life of a boy named Mason over 12 years, capturing the essence of growing up in a real-time portrayal.
  • "Manchester by the Sea" - A poignant drama about a man who returns to his hometown to care for his nephew after the death of his brother, navigating grief and responsibility.
  • "The Wire" - A gritty television series that examines the lives of residents and institutions in Baltimore, revealing the interconnected nature of crime, law enforcement, and society.
  • "This Is Us" - A heartwarming drama series that chronicles the lives of the Pearson family across several decades, exploring themes of love, loss, and family dynamics.

Challenges and criticisms of realism

  • Avoiding excessive detail and maintaining narrative momentum: Realist writers must balance providing a detailed portrayal of reality and keeping the narrative engaging and moving forward.
  • Striking a balance between authenticity and artistic expression: Writers should aim to create realistic stories without sacrificing their unique voice and style.
  • Navigating the line between realism and other reality genres: Realism is closely related to other reality genres, and writers must be mindful of their chosen genre's specific conventions and expectations.

Realism in storytelling remains captivating for readers and audiences alike, as it portrays authentic human experiences, relatable characters, and thought-provoking themes. By understanding the history and critical elements of realism, and mastering the techniques of effective realist storytelling, writers can create compelling works that resonate with readers and contribute to the rich tradition of realistic narratives. Exploring realism as a genre allows writers to delve into the complexities of human nature, engage with broader social issues, and craft stories that truly reflect the world in which we live.



  1. Coyne, Shawn. 2015. The Story Grid. New York, NY: Black Irish Entertainment.