I’ve been writing this post forever. I’m slowly working on the second part of the series and most of the time I’m stuck in that world. So I’ve neglected my blog and other things a bit. The good news is I’m past 10k on The Pit; the bad news is I’m nowhere near done. Oh well, let it flow. I was thinking 30k, but it might turn out 45k or something.
Now, onto the main topic.
I’m a native Russian-speaker, born and living in a non-English-speaking country (Latvia), so English dictionary and thesaurus are my intimate friends. (No, I don’t read books or science papers with a dictionary; I need it to write.)
Some call my story gritty, so I was thinking about it a lot recently. This word was stuck in my mind for quite a bit, but I wasn’t paying any attention to what it actually means. Gritty. It’s obvious. Right? Well, not quite so.
What does the word gritty mean? What makes a story gritty?
The dictionary defines gritty as
1. rough, sandy, dusty, abrasive, rasping, grainy, gravelly, granular (gritty dust);
2. courageous, game, dogged, determined, tough, spirited, brave, hardy, feisty (informal, chiefly U.S. & Canadian), resolute, tenacious, plucky, steadfast, ballsy (taboo slang), mettlesome, willing to face danger, able to face and deal with danger or fear without flinching (a gritty determination);
3. realistic, hard-hitting, unsentimental, unromantic (a gritty film); this can be further expanded to
hard-hitting – uncompromising, tough, critical, vigorous, no holds barred, strongly worded, pulling no punches, unsparing;
unsentimental – not tending to indulge the emotions excessively; facing facts or difficulties realistically and with determination; tough-minded; tough, not given to gentleness or sentimentality; a tough character;
unromantic – not of, related to, imbued with, or characterized by romance; neither expressive of nor exciting sexual love or romance; unloving, not giving or reciprocating affection.
This is what we get to work with.
How does this translate into genre or story? Into a world the writer creates? The characters? What is grit?
Well, grit is a personality trait.
“Grit in psychology is a positive, non-cognitive trait, based on an individual’s passion for a particular long-term goal or endstate coupled with a powerful motivation to achieve their respective objective. This perseverance of effort promotes the overcoming of obstacles or challenges that lie within a gritty individual’s path to accomplishment and serves as a driving force in achievement realization. Commonly associated concepts within the field of psychology include “perseverance,” “hardiness,” “resilience,” “ambition,” “need for achievement” and conscientiousness.
Grit is defined as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” Gritty individual is a high achieving individual, he/she also possesses “zeal” (fervent or enthusiastic devotion, often extreme or fanatical in nature, as to a religious movement, political cause, ideal, or aspiration) and “persistence of motive and effort.” Individuals high in Grit are able to maintain their determination and motivation over long periods of time despite experiences with failure and adversity. Their passion and commitment towards the long-term objective is the overriding factor that provides the stamina required to “stay the course” amid challenges and set-backs. Essentially, the Grittier person is focused on winning the marathon, not the sprint.”
Gritty stories are character-driven stories. Characters, their motivations and actions are what make a story truly gritty.
Terrifying, bleak, dark, depressing, pessimistic, gloomy or powerfully disturbing is not gritty. Nor is gore and all the gruesome detail – these are decorations.
With this said, I embrace my weirdness, because I LOVE this music video. This is also an example of a good, but not gritty short story. 😉
CONTENT WARNING: Kids and fragile adults, shoo, shoo! (No, it’s not sex. This is not a fanservice either. Don’t come crying WTF???!!! later.)
A gritty story is a passionate story. It might be unromantic, but it’s a story driven by passionate people, and that passion for something defines them pretty clearly. It’s the power core of the story, or even larger, gritty might also be a matter of the whole world being a certain way, not specific to kinds of character or action; or perhaps a matter of how events are described.
Gritty is the opposite of the literary style of Romance. It lacks otherworldliness, or heroic themes, accents and morals; it doesn’t invite you to aspire to these gritty ideals, like a romantic tale would (e.g. myths, parables, epics, legends, etc.) It is also possible that you, the reader, need to be gritty (in sense 2, obviously) to endure a gritty story safely, because a truly gritty story might exhaust you to the bones. Passion is exhausting as well as exhilarating.
Grittiness increases the believability of fantastic elements in particular and the story world in general.
The word gritty warns us that within the book is a kind of truth; truth in the sense of human nature and experience. The story and its characters have some of the roughness, imperfection and complexity of the real world. People change, but don’t necessarily grow or improve. Not everything is going to turn out pretty, there is violence within and the characters are not black, white or even grey. Sometimes there’s no neat little resolution at the designated ending point of the story. Because gritty story doesn’t shy away from the nastier side of things. People willing to do bad things, knowing they are bad, and not necessarily for the “greater” good. The personal good is good enough, no justification is needed. It’s them or you and no one else is going to do it for you, so characters do things without agonizing or lamenting or spending too much time thinking about them.
Gritty is also about showing the consequences rather than concentrating on the pretty elements like battles, mass-destruction, love affairs, etc. We get to see the consequences for all sides, including the protagonists. If a protagonist did something not very moral, in a less gritty book this would just be skipped over. In a gritty book he will be hit by a truck. Twice. Maybe more. Not necessarily literally.
Hope I was helpful in some way and happy writing.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I got to get back to my head and talk to myself again and put some more letters into the story file.
Holy shit I love that video! And the song is awesome too! Hey – who’da thunk it, we have similar tastes. 😉
Also – you practically described the feel of my novel as well in your awesome description of what gritty fiction means. Total high five!
Aye, Vero. High five!
I like gritty stuff, but I’ll probably avoid books that would suck too much life out of me. I’m not into total mindfuck. At least not too often. 😀
So I am in the early stages of writing my own novel and was looking for a good understanding of what truly makes a story gritty, and I am so glad I stumbled upon this post. I second that high five. Your description is exactly what I’m going for and so I just had to say thanks.
Thanks for reading, Ryan!
Glad you found the post helpful.
Good luck with your novel!
I am working on a gritty fantasy RPG setting, and found the post very useful in helping to articulate what I mean for the readers. Thank you so much for this!