When you’re focused on the big picture of the plot, it’s easy to forget that the character has a normal life that’s been put aside for this adventure – little things that have to happen every day for life to go on. When the author ignores everyday life completely, however, the story gets a bit surreal and less believable. I bet we’ve all read books or watched movies where we’ve joked about these types of problems: How are they getting food? How are they paying for this? How did he not get fired?
If the reader is asking questions like this, there’s a good chance that some everyday basics are missing from the story. Although readers will forgive this to an extent (more in some genres than others), the more everyday details are integrated into the story, the more believable and interesting it can be.
What do I mean by everyday details?
Well, they’re the limitations on what is possible – from gravity to weather to societal rules. If you’ve ever been on a long camping trip, it’s every little thing you forgot to pack or plan for (imagine if you forgot mosquito repellent. Or matches. Or one tent pole). If you ever tried to start your own business, it’s all the details you didn’t realize were necessary until you actually tried to do it. If you’ve had kids, it’s the 1 million skills that you developed that you never could have imagined needing beforehand.
Basically, it’s the nitty-gritty facts of physics, behavior, necessity, and economics that we don’t think of until they stop us from doing what we want to do.
That’s how they work in a story, too. They stick in the background until they end up in the way. Once they’re brought into the foreground, they have a cause and effect relationship that spurs character response and moves the plot. When they’re in the background, they provide insights to how the world works.
For example, if you need something for characters to do while they have a conversation, find a chore that would need done in that situation. If you need a way to introduce a new character, you could have the cast stop to get something they need. If you need something to make them delayed, try some detail they could’ve overlooked or didn’t expect (for example, tolls on a road, having the car stolen, catching a cold, a phobia, etc).
Once you start thinking about it, you’ll probably come up with plenty of options to choose from, and each one will have a different influence on the story. That’s why considering the everyday is so important to writing realistically – it’s all about cause and effect, and if you don’t add in an effect when there should be one, there will be a noticeable gap.
Any number of simple, common circumstances can cause a nice hiccup in the plot, enrich your worldbuilding, or build characterization (or all of them at once). If you’re worried that your story is flat or unrealistic, check to make sure you’ve taken the everyday into account. It’s not always the answer, but it can certainly help.