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How’s Your Verisimilitude?

 I learned about verisimilitude during the 2-month memoir  writing course I attended last year.  What a long word, and what a big difference it makes in our writing.

The scene’s message MEANS more when the reader can picture it happening.
Here, memoirists use the same conjuring trick as fiction writers do
– verisimilitude – the craft of making a scene feel authentic
by incorporating real life detail.  This is crucial to the literary
and emotional impact of your personal narrative.

  • -Mark Matousek

In an interview featured in the Paris Review, John Cheever explained:

Verisimilitude is, by my lights, a technique one exploits
in order to assure the reader of the truthfulness
of what he’s being told. If he truly believes he is standing on a rug,
you can pull it out from under him. Of course, verisimilitude is also a lie.
What I’ve always wanted of verisimilitude is probability,
which is very much the way I live. This table seems real,
the fruit basket belonged to my grandmother,
but a madwoman could come in the door any moment.

I spot two words within this long word: very and similar. The root of verisimilitude is the Latin verisimilitudo, which means “likeness to truth.”  A technique which is used to describe stories. The word similar within verisimilitude means that what you’ve created  is similar to reality. When you create something that seems similar to reality, you are seeking verisimilitude, which is synonymous to “truthlikeness.”

In memoir class, Mark Matousek reminded us that

verisimilitude is much easier to create than it sounds.
Once you get the hang of it, verisimilitude starts to come quite naturally.
Even if you don’t remember certain details about your moment
(the color of the shirt you were wearing, the day of the week,
the weather, or whatnot), you can approximate these elements
in a way that fleshes out the scene for the reader.
Example: “It might have been a Tuesday, I can’t remember now,
but I do know that it was the heat of summer and that I was sitting
in our spot by the river, watching the boats go by, when it hit me.”
Again, the specifics themselves are less important
than reference to geographical, physical, and temporal detail.

Deren Hansen in his blog Dunlith Hill Writing Guide explains that

a good lie rings true. Verisimilitude, or the appearance of truth,
is critical in a novel because readers open the book knowing it is fiction.
Their willingness to suspend disbelief is like a house of cards—
if you make one wrong narrative move the illusion of truth falls apart.

In this podcast , Brad Reed discusses how fiction writers can literally create stories, characters, and settings that come alive for their readers not in terms of plot, but through verisimilitude.

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