“If you’ll accept my messianic fervor as regards the reason for writing, then it follows that creating (not real, but) verisimilitudinous people – go look up the word verisimilitude now – is mandatory. It also requires very nearly more art than any other aspect of writing. It entails keen observation of people, attention to detail, the eschewing of cynicism, the total flensing from your mind of any kind of bigotry, wide knowledge of habit patterns and sociological underpinnings for otherwise irrational or overfamiliar habits, cultural trends, familiarity with dress and speech and physical attributes, fads, psychology and the ways in which people say things other than what they mean.”
- Harlan Ellison
There is no shame for me in admitting, I had to pull out the dictionary for “verisimilitude” just like Harlan instructed. Remember, there is never any shame in a lack of knowledge, there is only shame in willful ignorance. There’s nothing wrong with not knowing something. What you should find embarrassing and humiliating is lacking the desire to learn. Not bothering to pull out the dictionary – that should make you feel like an idiot.
Once I knew what the heck he was talking about, I saw Harlan was right about verisimilitude being totally essential to great writing. Ask any experienced writers for advice and one of the pearls they will often bequeath is “truth” is essential. Beyond that, they often fail to elaborate.
This is truthful writing:
The sky is blue. Blue made him nostalgic.
Then you have:
The sky shone azure in a hue reminiscent of eyes like the first girl he ever kissed, when he was 10 years old, on summer beaches of Cape Cod.
That’s verisimilitude, kids. Visceral writing. Make the untrue feel alive.
But here’s the trick – knowing when to use those sentences. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and sometimes the sky is just blue. For example, if your characters have spent the entire story locked down in a dungeon of solitary confinement in a grey and miserable prison, simply stating the sky was blue can be a powerful punch to the gut. Context is everything. If every single detailed description you write starts to get filled with anecdotes of Cape Cod, the reader will get bogged down. You know the old saying, “Too much of anything is a bad thing.” Sure, poetic descriptions can be lovely and will paint a glorious picture. However, you don’t want to overdo it either. You want your writing to paint a picture the readers can see. You don’t want to splash so much paint on your canvas it becomes a blob of tasteless modern art.
When I wrote How You Can Get a Job at Walt Disney Studios Without a College Degree one of the things I promise readers at the beginning of the story is truth and honesty. The book would disclose all of my working experiences, leading me up to Disney. Unbeknownst to me as I was writing it (because I didn’t have the word in my vocabulary), I also sought to imbue the story with a great deal of verisimilitude. My love of writing and storytelling is for fiction, not journalism. So, I couldn’t write a book like How You Can Get a Job at Walt Disney Studios Without a College Degree as if it were a newspaper article, just filled with facts and statistics. The book had to be written like a novel; with short stories and anecdotes and vibrant descriptions of my experiences. This was a memoir, a vocational autobiography, if you will; not a news report.
Even a story about real life has to be instilled with the power to breathe.
Therein lies the problem many authors face. They think just because a story really happened, it automatically has verisimilitude.
No, no, no. Living an experience is really happening. Reading about an experience is never real. Reading is always happening inside mind of the reader. As an author, your challenge is to make the story in their head feel like an experience they can taste and touch and love. Storytelling is always the same, regardless if it’s fiction or non-fiction – it must capture the emotions of the audience. They have to give a damn. Otherwise, you’re not a storyteller, you’re a file clerk, just stamping out the cold, hard facts with no emotional connection to them whatsoever. Don’t relegate your stories to the emotional-equivalent of a manila folder.
Giving that tangible element to writing is like the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Indy is rubbing his thumb across his fingertips, searching a tactile intuition to discover the exact counterweight of sand required to replace the Chachapoyan Fertility Idol. I can’t tell you how many times in life that scene has played in my head, searching for the perfect balance to prevent the temple from collapsing and squashing me into goo.
For me, it is the poetry of verisimilitude that distinguishes good writing from great writing. The poetry of verisimilitude is where the “telling” in “storytelling” is honed. Therein lies the art of creating a tale with resonance. Telling a “true story” isn’t even enough. It’s not about writing things that are true, it’s about writing things that feel true. Things that feel genuine.
I walked to the store.
Not a true story:
I walked to the car dealership where all the salesmen still wore polyester pants from 1957 and the showroom smelled of cigars and scotch, like my granduncle’s patio.
You can tell a story that’s true, and boring, or you can tell a story that’s not true, yet completely alive. The emotional connection is what must feel truthful.
Verisimilitude, kids; it doesn’t need to be true, it needs to feel real.
What are some of your favorite examples of gorgeous writing that really pulls you into the story in a visceral way? Which lines have stuck with you long after the story was finished? What quotes from stories made you stunned or jealous of how eloquently something was phrased?
“The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
- Mark Twain