Sunday, November 20, 2016

Verity versus Verisimilitude

Verity, from the Latin veritas, means “true” or “real.” In contrast, verisimilitude comes from the Latin likeness to truth. For fiction writers, the difference couldn’t be more dramatic—because drama originates in imitating rather than replicating reality. That’s the source of fiction’s big questions. As Richard Bradley put it in his review of Ward Just’s The Eastern Shore: “What makes a story true? What means of storytelling best capture reality? Are facts a path to truth or a finely constructed gate?”

“Verisimilitude,” Russell Smith notes, “is something I am constantly seeking in fiction. I am looking for surface detail that makes something seem real.” Because as Mark Twain and numerous others have observed, fiction, however fantastical, must seem more credible than reality itself.

But that’s only part of what fiction requires. In “Realism and Verisimilitude,” Taylor Stoehr suggests that “Fiction does not imitate life in the way that mirrors do, though we sometimes talk about its ‘mirroring of reality,’ nor does it pretend to be real in the way wax bananas do, or in the way that plastic simulates cowhide.”

Every novel creates a new reality, one true within its own parameters. The argument against Plato that Aristotle mounts in The Poetics insists that the most valuable truths transcend the literal facts. The best fiction, whether drama, epic poem, or novel, shapes a reality more causal and credible than the actual one.

How might you construct such a reality?

~ Propel Momentum.
As Robert McKee asserts in Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for the Page, Stage, and Screen: “Dialogue concentrates meaning; conversation dilutes it. Therefore, even in the most realistic settings and genres, credible dialogue does not imitate actuality.”
~ Manage Pace. 
It literally takes hours to prepare a turkey, drive to grandma’s, build a cabinet, or wash and fold the laundry. But no one wants to read logistics in anything approximating real time.
~ Avoid Coincidence.
Of course you could miss every traffic light, leave your identification at home, and be late for the plane. The one that crashes. But the fact that this could, or even did, actually happen doesn’t make it believable. Use subtle foreshadowing and set up to make your plot credible—particularly at its climax.
~ Justify  Psychological Insight.
Here’s McKee again: “beware characters who know themselves better than you know yourself.” The best novelists have explored every aspect of character psyche. But that’s a task for the novelist, not the character. 
~ Earn the Ending.
From the very start, present a protagonist with enough internal assets, however undeveloped, to save the day, and without the aid of convenient external miracles.
Tip: At its best, fiction feels, but should not literally be, more “true” than reality.

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