Adventures in Terminology: Verisimilitude

I’m going to be honest with you. It’s a bit rich of me to be spewing wisdom like “‘show don’t tell’ is reductive and potentially crappy advice” and “ideation is a key to success” because I have absolutely no formal training in writing whatsoever. Everything I know about stories comes from the other side. I have a lot of training in critical thought, and I’d like to think I’m at least adequate at it.

As a result, I’ve made some assumptions about writing in the past. When I make those assumptions, Luke (who does have formal training as a professional writer) usually manages to say something that surprises me. Often it’s insightful wisdom or highly organized, process-based logic, but he did throw me for a loop once. When I went off on a tangent about whether a character would be able to see mountains from where they were standing in a comment on a section of Charlotte’s Journey, I learned that Luke was largely unfamiliar with verisimilitude. Certainly not the concept itself, but the word. I always sorta figured it was writing 101 stuff, but there you have it.

Luke’s already been offered up as the sacrificial lamb on this one, so don’t be embarrassed if you have no idea what I’m talking about. Verisimilitude is, simply put, the appearance or quality of truth in writing. I don’t actually speak Latin, and I’m an amateur etymologist at best, but I’m pretty sure verisimilitude comes from veritas (truth) and similiter (similarly).

XKCD #77 by Randall Munroe

Verisimilitude is important in a story because everything from the small seemingly insignificant details like “at what distance does the curvature of the earth and atmospheric light diffraction obscure the visibility of a 20,000 ft. mountain peak” to the big moments like “Charlotte realized that she could be ambassador and barbarian queen both” need to feel authentic. Maybe you’ve heard somebody say “A good story needs to ring true”? Verisimilitude is the bell.

What makes verisimilitude so interesting, and where I struggle with it the most, is that truth and reality are two very different things. Truth is subjective, and answers to a narrative. Reality is the world we live in. I have been known to confuse the two.

When working on Charlotte’s Journey, it is easy to remember that what is true in the story is not the same as our reality. We have magic, walking skeletons, made up places, imagined histories… all the lovely trappings of a fantasy story. They are categorically other to the world we actually live in. But what happens when we’re writing something a little closer to home?

If a walking, talking skeleton were to break in to a Tom Clancy novel, you can bet that in service to the interests of verisimilitude, Jack Ryan would be exposing the scooby-doo villain that was hiding behind heavy curtains of a particular shade of blue, dyed with the crushed shells of a mollusc found only off the coast of Ethopia (or some-such). No doubt we’d then be treated to lengthy descriptions of the villain’s clothes, their colour, the aspect of his complexion, the shape of the buttons on his shirt, his apparent age, hair colour, family history and a brief biography hitting all the relevant higher education and military service required to make a skeleton dance.

Sure, I’m taking the piss out of Tom Clancy a little here. His books, back before his name became a brand and he actually wrote them, are heavy on extensive exposition. But, that heavy exposition that Clancy and contemporaries like Clive Cussler are know for is always well researched and, unless some truth needs to be bent for the purposes of the story, true to reality. The research is done in the interests of verisimilitude. At the end of the day, a history professor/CIA researcher or an oceanographer aren’t your most likely super-spies that have saved the world from megalomaniacs and nuclear disaster 40 times over, but by grounding the stories in excessive reality, the reader is more likely to believe (or, perhaps, suspend disbelief) and be swept away on the adventure. All that reality gives the impossible heroes the appearance of truth.

Enter my problem. Anybody who attended the inaugural Adventures in Storytelling Suds and Stories may remember the description of a project I back-burnered a few years ago. In short, I started to write a high-seas adventure novel that is half homage and half send-up of authors like Clancy and Cussler called Knifeboat!

I put Knifeboat! on the back burner for a few reasons. First and foremost, I was busy. I started Knifeboat! just as I was teaching myself to stop writing. Secondly, the plot quickly began to demand that I have a working knowledge of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Political philosophy certainly has lots of interesting ideas, but an exciting read it ain’t, and I wasn’t willing to put the time in to that kind of punishing research. Finally, I got hung up on verisimilitude. I wanted Knifeboat! to echo writers like Cussler, so just saying ‘helicopter’ wasn’t good enough. I’d have to say ‘HH-60 Jayhawk US Coast Guard Search and Rescue Helicopter.’

A US Coast Guard HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter. Photo by Eric J. Chandler

Getting those details right is demanding and time-consuming. The process began to be more about exploring wikipedia than it was telling a story, and I began to feel a profound dissonance between my desire to keep my story close to reality and the story’s need to exist in a world that allows for a number of things that patently do not exist (not the least of which are a pirate broadcast UFC-style knife fights, undiscovered or forgotten Pacific islands, and a high-seas team of INTERPOL agents bent on ruining fun for everybody).

I mistakenly thought that for Knifeboat! to feel true, it had to be grounded in reality. I think I’ve grown out of that. Reading a few books that feel pretty grounded in a familiar reality, but really shakes things up with crazy impossible things might have helped. 1 I will return to Knifeboat!, and when I do, I’ll take a more enlightened view of verisimilitude with me. Learning that I didn’t have to ground a story in too much reality wasn’t my only lesson, though. In plumbing the very depths of what too much reality can do to a story, I think I stumbled across a pretty obvious piece of wisdom that goes all the way back to the mountains that Charlotte almost certainly couldn’t see from where she was standing.

I read them all. They’re all the same. Trust me.

Verisimilitude isn’t about reality, its about truth. As I said way up at the top of the article, these are very different things. In a fantasy tale, you answer to the truth of the story. Your characters know (or don’t know, Jon Snow) their history. Magic follows a set of laws, explicit or veiled, but extant. People aren’t surprised by fantastic things if they are common in the world they live in. That is all the obvious truth of a fantasy story. But, and here’s the kicker for me, all stories are a fantasy of sorts. Even Cussler, who wants us to believe that Dirk Pitt and the hardily bad-ass peg-legged Juan Cabrillo exist in some near-future of our world, is writing a fantasy. It might look a heck of a lot like the real world, but the story needs to be true to the fantasy first and echo reality second.

The corollary of that, of course, is that in a story like Charlotte’s Journey where the fantasy element is much more obvious, you still need to play by some rules from the real world. Unless there is good reason in the story to adjust universal constants, don’t change them. The curvature of the earth (even if it isn’t capital E Earth) and atmospheric diffraction of light are going to obscure a mountain at a distance of 200km from the observer. That’s true and real. 2 That’s the kind of verisimilitude that is important to every story.

  1. Reif Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, DC Pierson’s The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To, and Jasper Fford in general come to mind. I guess Magic Realism could help, too

  2. If your fantasy world has the inhabitants standing on the inside surface of a sphere, that may not be true anymore, and that’s when you get to change things.

1 thought on “Adventures in Terminology: Verisimilitude”

  1. “I always sorta figured it was writing 101 stuff, but there you have it.” Sick burn, brah 😛

    So, I have thoughts, but I’m not sure if they actually fall into “verisimilitude”. As I read your piece for the second time, I kept thinking about Spider-Man 3. This is one of my go-to examples from my personal timestream that I always think of when the concept of “earning it” comes up in stories.

    See, Spider-Man cast of his costume for Reasons in SM3, and lo! before the credits rolled he was *back* in the old red and blues. But I wasn’t buying it. I didn’t feel like he had earned that moment. (Anyone that’s Geek’D out with me for long will know this is a common complaint I have about big-budget storytelling these days.) It’s all a rush to get to these moments without bothering to care if we’ve earned the moment and thus make the audience *feel* it.

    So maybe verisimilitude is a part of that. What I’m talking about is more the rise and fall of plot and one’s ability to connect their reader’s emotions to the plight of their characters, still, if the logic of the world breaks—maybe I won’t care anymore? (At the least I’ll be distracted.)

    As James said in other words, every (other) world is made up and can have any logic it wants—so long as it remains true to its own logic. (Then again, have you ever heard about Theodore Roosevelt? Man killed a mountain lion with a knife and his hands by jumping off the back of a horse. That story is REAL. It happened, in our world! But how crazy is that? If I told you that story in biography—would you believe it? It’s completely factual to the “real” world, but the events, so outrageous, potentially break some kind of logic *despite* being real.) I’m not sure what my point is, but it’s in there.

    How about a query:

    Let’s say James didn’t go off on that most excellent tangent note about mountains. Let’s say he just let it slide and the words I wrote, “Charlotte looked into the distance at the mountains”, stayed in the story. Through every redraft until it’s finished, published, and readers dive into Charlotte’s world, those mountains are not just there, but seen by her. No character visits them (in the story), they don’t cause avalanches for anyone to dodge, they’re not rich with kryptonite to make Vilnius’ toy stop working—they’re just there, off in the distance, to be noted in passing by Charlotte (and the Narrator) *once* as she moves from one place to another. If that line stayed in and you read it: would your verisimilitude be broken?

    For me—no, absolutely not. I don’t know the math behind the curvature of the world, light density, physics, or whatever else I’m supposed to know. Charlotte looked at some distant mountains while she walked the camp. Cool.

    For James—I fully believe it would pull him right out of that story (’cause, uh, it did). It has no affect upon the story, but *it had an affect upon the reader.* (Which, as a concept, I’m finding the most fascinating…)

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