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On Writing Rules: Fair Play in Storytelling

Okay, first things first, I keep forgetting that I’ve got readers who have never taken a Creative Writing class. If you missed out on that (and, I guess, Latin classes too), then yesterday’s post ended with a much more mysterious cliffhanger than I intended.

And, worse, I’m not actually going to get into detail on “verisimilitude” until tomorrow. Today’s still just background.

So, out of a basic respect for you, my readers, I’ll cut through the suspense and just say that “verisimilitude” means “realisticalness.” Also, I really love saying that word. “Realisticalness.”

In actual writing terms, it’s a bit more nuanced, focusing not so much on realism as on–

Ack! See what I did? I almost started on tomorrow’s blog post. But I know you’re all a bunch of rebellious anti-establishment types, so it’s pretty important I explain the why before I start telling you what it is you must always, always, always do.

The Reader’s Experience

I talk a lot around here about Audience Analysis and Negotiating a Connection, and that’s critical to making effective Technical Writing. When it comes to storytelling, though, it’s way, way, way more important.

Why? Because storytelling isn’t just about effectively conveying information. The whole point of storytelling is to create an experience for your reader.

That’s sometimes referred to as “the contract between the writer and the reader.” Every reader picks up a book with certain expectations about the experience, and the writer has an obligation to meet those expectations (or do something truly amazing to justify any of them that get broken).

As I said yesterday, this isn’t a matter of style. It’s a matter of readability. In order to invest the time — not to mention the mental and emotional energy — into reading your book, your reader needs to be able to trust  that they’re going to get something usable out of that exchange.

They can’t reasonably expect a perfect story, or a narrative voice perfectly matched to their personal preferences, but they can (and should) expect a story that works. Some of the elements necessary to make a readable story include:

  • Trackable chronology
  • Consistent characterization
  • Reliable narration
  • Recognizable rules of nature

Willful Suspension of Disbelief

There’s my list, and I’ve been saying all along that these rules aren’t flexible, aren’t negotiable. You can probably think offhand of stories that violate all of these rules, though — good stories, that provided an excellent reading experience.

That’s a fair objection, and that’s where our monstrously long Latin word comes into the picture. “Verisimilitude,” in Creative Writing means, “sticking to the rules you’ve established.”

Essentially, verisimilitude is the jailhouse of good fiction, and every book comes equipped with one Get Out Of Jail Free Card. That card has a big fancy name of its own, too: “the willful suspension of disbelief.”

That’s really where the contract between writer and reader comes into play. Every reader understands that a work of fiction gets to have its own rules. As the writer, though, it’s your job to establish those rules, make them internally consistent to your book (or series), and present them to your readers as early and as clearly as possible.

The further we get into the story, the less acceptable these little changes are. If we find out in chapter seven that our academic is also a highly-skilled knife fighter (in a scene where he just happens to need to fight with knives), that startles us out of the story. It shatters the “suspension of disbelief” we set up based on the story’s introduction, and leaves us with plain old-fashioned disbelief.

How to Maintain Verisimilitude

Breaking verisimilitude breaks books. The good news, though, is that it’s not too hard to get it right. As long as you understand the elements in play (and you have any respect for your readers at all), you can usually nail it every time.

And you know what? I have respect for your readers, and (as I said yesterday), I love explaining things in excruciating detail. So let’s get that whole problem taken care of right away, okay? Come back tomorrow, and I’ll tell how to maintain verisimilitude.

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