In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,
A sense of reality is important in any work of fiction, but I think it is particularly important in a story dealing with the abnormal or paranormal.
You might think only literary stories set in our contemporary world need to be realistic.
You might think any research you have to do is for realistic stories, not necessarily genre stories or abnormal stories or paranormal stories.
If you’re writing a science fiction story set in another galaxy, you might think you will be able to throw realism completely out the window. You’re writing a story not set on Earth after all, so there are no rules, every facet of the reality can be made up, you can do anything!
Not so fast. The problem with throwing realism completely out the window is that your readers won’t have anything to grab onto, they won’t have anything that resembles the reality they currently know. Even if you’re writing something super fantastical, you still need at least some sense of reality in your writing.
In fact, I think a sense of reality is even more important in a fantastical work than it necessarily is in a work of pure contemporary realism.
No sense of reality can bring a work of fiction down pretty fast.
If chapter after chapter goes by and there’s nothing that resembles real life we can grasp, it can be really difficult to actually get involved in the story.
Put us on an oddly shaped spaceship. Introduce us to weird creatures we’ve never read about before. Write us images that are wholly original.
But give us something in terms of character, in terms of conflict, in terms of environment, in terms of relationships and tension and stakes, to get us invested emotionally.
And one way to do that is to stick close to realism, at least part of the time.
Research things you might need to research. Reference things we know in our world, at least a few things both tangible and not tangible.
The great thing is that you can abandon reality once your reader has an emotional investment!
Within reason of course, but one super cool thing about storytelling is that if you can get your readers invested in your storyline, in your main characters, you gain yourself a little bit of freedom when it comes to reality in the rest of the narrative.
I think it takes a really gifted writer to abandon reality completely. To just throw caution to the wind and make up so much along the way that there’s nothing for the reader to recognize any longer.
I’ve never written a story like that. Well, I kind of did once, and it didn’t work out the way I hoped it would. It’s why, even in my more fantastical of stories, I maintain a sense of reality at almost all times.
Again, it doesn’t matter what kind of fiction you write. Literary, horror, fantasy, science fiction, romance, mystery. Write in the genre you’re passionate about, and write in it well.
And always keep in the back of your mind that a sense of reality, at least in small doses, will make your writing soar all the more!