Writing a realistic story doesn't mean you have to write real world, general fiction. Realism applies to every genre—fantasy, distopian, sci-fi, action—you name it.
I'm going to substitute the word “realistic” with “believable”, just so we all stay on the same page. What this How-To outlines is how to make your story believable.
Magic can be believable. Flying cars can be believable. What that means is that the reader BELIEVES your story. It doesn't matter that it doesn't exist in the real world or that the reader has never seen that story element before. What matters is that your reader, while they have the book in their hands and are reading the story, believe the elements work for that specific world you've created.
So how can you tell if your situation is realistic and believable?
A little girl cannot fight a tiger to the death and win without divine intervention or magical powers or some huge, mega laser gun thing.
A normal human being cannot get stabbed in the stomach and continue to fight a raging battle.
A normal person cannot break the laws of physics.
This is important: Magic and advanced technology are the only ways your characters can break the laws of physics.
But even those elements need to be believable to your world, and that comes from setting RULES for the world and sticking to them.
If your story is set in the real world in today's day and age, you can't have people floating around unless you give a reason for it. Maybe they're a science experiment, some kind of mutation. In a real world story, you should follow real world rules. A person cannot travel at light speed and live (Star Wars got around this by some fancy technological term, but it didn't even make sense to me).
In fantasy worlds like Mordor, Tortall, and Alagaesia, there are rules to the world. People do not pick up a weapon and kill someone with it on their first try (maybe with melee weapons, but definitely not a bow and arrow). They have to learn to use the weapon before they're any good at it. A princess would be expected to be poised and elegant, not wild and ungroomed. There are certain rules that mimic the real world that will apply to your stories, no matter what genre they are. Follow them. Don't go and make your protagonist wake up a werewolf one day just for the heck of it. Believability comes from realism, and realism applies to everything. (I'm going to keep saying this over and over until it sticks in your heads.)
Follow the rules you establish for your world.
I'll give an example of all this using magic, since that's the easiest for me to demonstrate. When you set up a system of magic for your story, you have to give it rules of how it works. Here are a couple different examples.
Magic is in unlimited reserves within the individual. They use magic wands to channel the magic and give it physical form as spells. But then if you have a character running around without their wand and still casting spells, it contradicts the rules you established for this system of magic. Thus, it's not believable.
Magic could be found in the air. The individual must be able to see the strands of magic, and they can mold them into manipulating the physical space around them. It would be unbelievable in this situation for a person to pull magic from within themselves and shoot it out of their hands.
Magic could be within the individual in limited reserves. They have to make signs with their hands to perform the spells. It would not be believable in this situation for a person to perform a spell if their hands are tied.
Basically, the elements of your story should not contradict the rules you create. It could be a fantasy, but even fantasy worlds have rules. FOLLOW THE RULES. (Are you tired of me saying this yet?)
The rules can only be broken if you give a good reason for it. With X-Men, they don't just magically have all these awesome powers for no reason. Their genes had a mutation in them that gave them the powers.
Just think logically about what you're writing. Does it make sense? Be as self-critical as you can.
Do a lot of RESEARCH for your stories. I know the prospect of going to Google or Wikipedia and typing in a few words sounds daunting, but please research every element of your story you are not personally familiar with. Weapons, vehicles, plants, food, architecture, rocks, wildlife, weather, personality disorders, disabilities, injuries, cultures, etc. If you're unsure you're writing something correctly, double checking on Google wouldn't hurt you.
I don't think there is much else to explain about this, so I'll end with more examples across several genres. If you have any noteworthy ones to add that you've seen people do, please post in the comments, and I'll add them to the list!
If your vampires cannot bleed or have some kind of substituted bodily fluid equivalent, they will be unable to make babies because blood is required for a very important step in baby-making. (Twi-fail reference for those of you keeping track. I could be wrong, but I don't think the VampMeyers [copyright Dana's Reasoning With Vampires blog] had blood flowing in their veins, and besides, their heart had stopped, thus no blood flow, thus no baby-making is physically possible.)
If your werewolves turn on the full moon, don't have them randomly turning in the middle of the day.
You cannot have children with ghosts.
If only bad-hearted people become ghosts, don't have a good-hearted ghost floating around.
If your vampires skip school every time it's sunny out, don't say they have a perfect record. (Twi-fail!)
If your vampires cannot stand the sight/smell of blood, what do they do when their girlfriend is on their period? (*ahem* VampMeyers. Well, she said that the blood wasn't “pure”, so it didn't count. Um, Meyer, blood is blood. Do you want me to pull out my anatomy textbook?)
Okay, I'll stop with the Twilight jabs. Onto another genre!
If they have the magic power to fly, why are they still riding in horse-drawn carriages?
She has the power to save the world, but her powers don't show up until the final ultrabattle with the villian! Don't do this, please.
Robots cannot have babies. But the baby-making process is possible, but I won't go there.
**Refer to the How to write ROMANCE chapter**
**Refer to the How to write PHYSICAL FIGHTS/WEAPONS chapter**
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