Photo © Elke Vogelsang

Verisimilitude… and not so verisimilitude

Fiction writers are liars. Liars, thieves, and con artists. We make things up and try to pass them off as true. And thank god for that. (Tweet this.)

In our culture, lying is not often considered a useful, valuable skill (except in politics, but more about that later). For a fiction writer, however, whipping up a mess of lies and distortions is not just a skill, it’s a virtue.

Now let’s be clear, nobody reads a story hoping to be lied to. Just like no one drinks water hoping it will be wet – it’s expected. The word “fiction” means “a belief or statement that is false.” The irony, of course, is that people read stories in order to suspend disbelief and enter a world that seems… true.

Every reader has had that experience. You’re reading a book and you fall into its reality.

You can feel the heavy jeans sticking to your legs, hear the squeak of wipers on the bus window, sense the rush of water thundering through the tire wells.

It’s as though we’ve been transported into another reality and we willingly surrender our disbelief to enjoy it (or enjoy hating it).

So how is it done? How do storytellers make us believe in make-believe?*

Well, there’s no single technique, I’m afraid. But there is a material, a building block, that is essential in all cases. It’s an almost magical thing that can cause whole worlds to spring to life in the imagination. And what, pray tell, is this thing? It’s detail.

Well-told stories are made of vivid details that ring true with our own experience of life. The kinds of details that are appropriate to a scene and situation – the poor child’s frayed shoelaces, the failing restaurant’s eyelash in the onion soup. These details, although made up, are carefully chosen and serve as evidence of the reality they inhabit.

And evidence is convincing to the degree that it possesses verisimilitude.

Verisimilitude literally means “similar to truth” and is a well-worn concept in literature. In the context of details, verisimilitude means finding those images, sounds, smells, tastes, feelings, and events that tell us the truth about something… and in the very best cases it’s a truth we knew but hadn’t noticed.

It’s an odd quirk of the imagination, but the details that convince us most – the ones with the most “truthiness” as Steven Colbert might say – are the ones we don’t normally dwell on. Take for example these few sentences from Anthony Doerr about a girl from Ohio who has just visited the ocean for the first time and wants to learn how to fish:

They sell fishing gear in the back of the hardware store in Bath. A giant with a beard and huge round knees sits on a stool tying leaders. Her father looks up at the rack of fishing rods, thumbs up his glasses.

A lesser writer might have told us about the fluorescent lights or the cash register or the kind of clothes the sales clerk is wearing – but none of those things really tell us the truth of this place. Doerr’s selections, however, succeed brilliantly:

They sell fishing gear in the back of the hardware store in Bath: We infer that this is a small town with a store that tries to meet several local needs.

A giant with a beard and huge round knees sits on a stool tying leaders: The knees! We see how big he is by the size of his knees – exactly the kind of thing that might register in our subconscious. On top of that he’s tying leaders, which means he is a fisherman himself. Doerr shows us this instead of merely telling us. He presents evidence.

Her father looks up at the rack of fishing rods, thumbs up his glasses: Again, the act of “thumbing up” those glasses is a detail that demonstrates more than it says: he’s trying to get a better look, he may not know what he’s looking at, he’s possibly uncomfortable.

Every detail in Doerr’s three sentences sings with verisimilitude and, as a result, a little world comes to life.

The very best stories take these little worlds and use them as a stage to convery real truths that we can apply to our own lives. The meaning of love, the sadness of ordinary life, the joy of ordinary life, or the meaning of friendship and sacrifice in a world overrun by Death Eaters.

In this way, fiction is often truer than real life. So often we miss the details that colour our beliefs about what the world is really like. (Tweet this.) Or, we take things to be true – to have verisimilitude – when in fact they are only stories intended to mislead. I think, for example, of certain elected officials who after claiming to serve all citizens are regularly obliged to admit to misstatements, misinformation, unintended mission creep, and highly regrettable terminological inexactitudes.

Yep, I’ll take the lies of fiction over the truth of politicians any day.


*I should say that while verisimilitude can make fiction feel real, it’s not the reason most people read stories. A collection of stupendously observed details might be interesting for a while, but it’s unlikely to be compelling for 300 pages.  “Interestingness”, that thing that keeps us turning pages, is usually generated by unanswered questions, novel situations, by quest and conflict. Telling details are what make all that interestingness believable.


Your writing pump up!

Set your timer for ten minutes, pick a location (the room you’re in, a cafe, a park bench, a chicken bus in Tanzania, etc.) and describe the scene using telling details. How many details can you find that give evidence about a place and the people who live there? Think of writing as describing a circus to a blind child.

Set your timer for another ten minutes. Imagine a character. Describe only their bedroom. How much can we learn about this person simply from the telling details in the room?


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