How Illusions, Confidence Games, and Skillful Lying can Improve Your Fiction
The Appearance of Truth
“Truthiness,” coined by Stephen Colbert, was named Word of the Year for 2005 by the American Dialect Society and for 2006 by Merriam-Webster. It’s a particularly funny word given the current cultural and political climate, but there’s a perfectly good, albeit venerable, word whose original sense means the same thing: verisimilitude.
Verisimilitude is, “the state of quality of being verisimilar; the appearance of truth; probability; likelihood.” (Webster 1886)
Having the appearance, but not the substance, of truth is generally not considered a good thing. Fiction, however, is an exception. When you’re dealing in something that in absolute terms is a lie (because it never happened in the real world), verisimilitude is a virtue.
The essence of the art of verisimilitude is to understand and apply real-world patterns and structures in your stories. Even in a fantasy world you can’t ignore basic laws of economics—like how much farm land and how many people it takes in a medieval economy to support a single knight in the battle field—if you don’t want to alienate readers.
There is no such thing as, “objective,” history; every attempt to recapture the past is an interpretation in which some things are emphasized more than others. We build models for the same reason: to emphasize some aspects of the thing being modeled while ignoring others. Interpretations and models are a simplification of reality. Fiction is the literary equivalent of model making. Our stories can speak truth more clearly because they omit the confusing and distracting things that are part and parcel of everyday life.
One of the basic rules of writing is, “show, don’t tell.” It’s also a fundamental rule for life: people are much more willing to adopt an idea if you show them how to arrive at the notion themselves than if you hand it to them finished, polished, and ready to be placed on their mantle. A story can be spun that shows how concepts affect the lives of your characters much more clearly than trying to find an example in the life of an actual person.
Why do we tell stories, particularly ones that aren’t true?
Because sometimes the jester is the only one in the court who can speak the truth: sometimes the untrue is truer than the true.
Truth in the Patently Untrue
The first fantasy book that captured my imagination was the last book in The Chronicles of Narnia. I stumble upon The Last Battle in my elementary school library after exhausting their meager collection of books on World War II. The word, "battle," in the title is probably what caught my eye.
I was mesmerized by the apocalyptic themes—it was easy to entertain apocalyptic notions during a time when everyone assumed nuclear war was inevitable—and enthralled by the conceptual scope of the fantasy. I found the theme of ever expanding vistas of worlds wider and richer than the one we know to be particularly compelling.
The transcendental surrealism (not a term I had in my grade-school lexicon) of the story was far more effective than a mind-expanding drug. I got my first taste of the way in which one could understand something more deeply and vibrantly if they were unencumbered by the constraints of ordinary experience.
And that was it: one (metaphorical) puff of fantastic fiction and I was hooked.
Fantasy is far more than the relatively recently defined genre of medievaloid settings with magical elements. In the most general sense, a fantasy is any story with contra-factual elements. Some people prefer speculative fiction as the umbrella term for everything from classical swords and sorcery, through paranormal romance and alternate history, to science fiction.
Contrary to the common sense notion that the farther a story strays from the real world the less relevant it is, fantasy enables us to abstract away ambiguity and tell a clearer and more compelling story about underlying truths. An interspecies war between orcs and elves is much easier to understand than a conflict between competing human ideologies and economic interests in the real world.
To be clear, I'm not arguing that fantastic stories are better than more realistic ones: any kind of story can convey truth.
“But why,” you may ask, “worry about truth in a book about creating the appearance of truth in fiction?”
Because stories, like the best lies, are founded on truth.
The True Core of a Story
With all this talk of truth, you may feel overwhelmed, particularly your aim is to entertain, not discourse on universal truth.
The true core of the story is much closer to internal consistency than moral certitude.
I had a peculiar experience reading a trendy dystopian young adult novel: I didn't like the beginning, I liked the middle, and I didn't like the end. The first act seemed like a parade of contrivances to withhold information from both the protagonist and the reader. In the second act, the protagonist finally gets some information and acts on it. I became engaged because I wanted to see how the experiment played out and what information that gave us for subsequent efforts to solve the problem. Then in the third act, through a series of startling reveals, I was effectively told everything I thought I knew about the story was wrong, there was no way I could figure out what was really going on, and so the only thing I could do was hang on for the wild ride to the end.
The novel had no true foundation. Except for the middle, the author didn't show me how to enjoy his story, he told me how to appreciate his cleverness as the designer and operator of that particular roller coaster.
So what does this mean for those of us who want engaged readers?
The first key to verisimilitude is that reading is interactive; your readers want to participate in the story. The best way to alienate them is to say, in effect, “Shut up, sit still, and let me take you for a ride.” Engaged readers are ones who think about the book both while they read and after they stop. The best way to engage them is to establish the consistent foundation—the core truth—upon which the story plays out and because of which, when the tale ends, the reader will agree, even if it was a surprise, that the conclusion was inevitable.
A satisfied reader is the first, and most important, hallmark of verisimilitude in fiction.
* * *
This volume is designed to help you better satisfy your readers.
Chapter 2 begins with a readers’ Bill of Rights, courtesy of Mark Twain and Kurt Vonnegut, because the overall way in which you go about spinning your story determines whether your book rings true with readers.
Chapter 3 explores the verisimilitude that arises naturally when thinking readers engage your story.
Verisimilitude is the illusion of truth. We consider techniques that conjure or dispel those illusions in chapter 4.
In chapter 5 we look at competent wordsmithing, specifically those verbal non-sequiturs, awkward expressions, and linguistic gaffes that jar readers out of the story and break the illusion.
Conflict that rings true is the dynamic key to verisimilitude. Chapter 6 attempts to wrestle the subject to the ground.
In chapter 7 we look at the ways in which flubbing the details scuttles the verisimilitude of your story.
Chapter 8 continues the theme of enhancing verisimilitude by showing how to get major elements like action, societies, economies, magic, and science right.
Writing intentionally, whether you prefer to outline or discover the story as you go, is the capstone of verisimilitude. Chapter 9 looks at the preparation and research necessary to give your readers the illusion that you know what you're talking about.
Finally, the appendix describes some story development tools that may prove helpful as you work to improve the verisimilitude of your book.