Thursday, May 8, 2014

Writer's Workshop: How Lying Makes You a Better Writer

Stephen Colbert probably didn't know it at the time he coined the word in 2005, but TRUTHINESS is what fiction authors live, breathe, and bleed onto every page we write. Without our verisimilitude, the worlds and characters we create wouldn't be believable.

Verisimilitude, you say?

Now I bet you are all thinking that the above word is a little too long and not at all useful, especially in everyday talk. I recently attended a writing conference that had a class entitled Verisimilitude. I tried to avoid attending the class, but accidentally walked into the wrong room and felt awkward leaving, so I just stuck around. Boy was I glad I gave it a chance. Deren Hansen was the genius teacher leading the class.

So what is verisimilitude and how can it help you become a better writer? First off, let's do a little defining here:

So truthiness and verisimilitude are one and the same. They are the poker face. And in writing, they make us all liars. Writing fiction is just a step removed from lying. Now that you know that truth, how can being a LIAR-LIAR-PANTS-ON-FIRE make you a better writer?

First of all, you have to realize that in every novel you write, you are essentially acting as an illusionist. I recently read Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold. In this fabulous book, Carter the Great is able to convince the audience of his magic through his skills as an illusionist. Many of his great tricks required months of planning and building contraptions that mimicked a reality for the audience. Everything in his act had a purpose from the way he dressed or flicked his wrist to his beautiful assistants--everything perfectly orchestrated to draw the audience's attention. The audience would watch his shows and really believe in his magic. The funny thing is that most of the magic really happened in their heads. In essence, Carter was the greatest verisimilutudist of his time (or maybe I should say that Gold is?).

Stories, like the best lies, are based on truth. As a writer, we need to come up with a Truth Center to make our lie effective. Just like an illusionist, we have to plan our world and our characters. Do wands create magic? Does John love ice cream? Do the two moons of Elga rise at dinner each night? Answering these questions will make our Truth Center. As our story unfolds, we must stick to the rules we have created in our Truth Center.

Does that mean that we have to tell every detail? No, we just select the interesting and cut out the boring stuff. Let the readers fill in the rest. Howard Tayler (Schlock Mercenary) has said, "The monster you imagine when I say something goes bump in the dark is far scarier than anything I could describe." Less is always more.

What we can do to increase verisimilitude:

  1. Postpone reader gratification
  2. Defy their expectations
  3. Show counter-intuitive effects
  4. Establish characters capable of heroism and cowardice, making it harder to predict what they will do
  5. Establish a pattern and then break it. This causes as much tension for the reader as it does for the characters
  6. Readers, like fish, need to be coaxed to the climax with cycles of tension and release. Reader worry powers the story engine.
We all love roller coasters (most of us, anyway) because we know they are carefully engineered to bring us back to the gate. A story, like a roller coaster, follows the same path, but readers want to feel as though anything in the context of the narrative is possible. We don't want to be told exactly where we are going, we want to experience the ride. To do that, we have to follow the Rules of 2:
  1. Every non-trivial element should be brought to the reader's attention at least twice
  2. Every character should have the potential and opportunity to make at least two choices.
Make what you are writing appear easy. It is hard to have verisimilitude if the writing is poor. Good writing, like the experienced ballerina who split leaps high in the air, should appear effortless and invisible. Hansen says the best way we can do this is by using competent wordsmithing.

Some other wordsmithing tips:
  1. Stick with simple forms of speech tags - he said, she asked. They shouldn't distract attention from the dialogue.
  2. Adverbs should only be used in speech tags to modify the act of speaking ('said loudly', NOT 'said spitefully')
Make sure your numbers add up too. Someone is going to check your facts. Anytime there are critical details, make sure you are accurate. I recently went to a book launch where author Brodi Ashton was talking about her book, Everneath. Apparently she had the distance between Park City and another city wrong in her book. She hates it when people bring it up. Obviously it hasn't ruined the success of her book, but those readers that notice it are taken out of the story for a minute or two because that verisimilitude wall broke down. Author is the root of the word "authority". As an author, you are saying you are the authority on what you have written. Make it so (as Jean Luc Picard would say).


Readers need to believe you know what you are doing. You don't need to be an expert, but you need to do you homework. You don't have to write just what you know. You DO have to know what you write. What do you do if you don't know the details? Don't cover up the scandal. Acknowledge it and move on so that the reader doesn't think you made a mistake.

At the end of the day, remember that truthiness can be hardwork. Perception is everything. Now get out there and start lying, author! If someone catches you in a lie, just tell them you are working.

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