Verisimilitude: An Author’s Guide in Writing Believable Thrillers
by John J. Hohn
Definition of VERISIMILITUDE: the likeness or semblance of fiction to reality, to the truth.
Example : <the novel’s degree of verisimilitude is compromised by 18th-century characters who speak in very 21st-century English>
Fantasy and science fiction authors can engineer their own universe and populate it with creatures of their own imagination. Writers of realistic thrillers, however, must put their story forward in a manner that allows readers to suspend disbelief as the plot unfolds.
The author who creates a realistic thriller accepts human nature and the prevailing laws of the known universe as they are currently understood. The protagonist contends with a human adversary or against a situation that is credible. Readers are expected to remain within the boundaries of their own experience to understand what is happening. The story must be an engaging semblance to the truth. The writer is obliged to color within the lines, to keep the story credible, or the readers’ willingness to suspend disbelief is forfeit and the story may fail. A narrative may be presented as fiction, as the product of a writer’s imagination, but it reads as if it could or did actually take place.
Readers, consciously or otherwise, have a hierarchy in accepting the credibility of characters and events. Arrayed in the order, the hierarchy might list as follows:
- Likely: Characters and events are credible; beyond questioning.
- Probable: Characters and events open to some question but remain consistent with the circumstances of the story.
- Plausible: Characters and events challenge readers to accept but believable within the circumstances of the story and experience of the characters
- Incredible: Characters or events challenge the reader’s willingness to accept and may seem unbelievable and contrived.
- Impossible: Character behavior or events violate laws of nature or common sense and are too fantastic to believe. The story is mortally wounded. Readers reject it as unbelievable.
Reading is not like watching TV, a movie, or a stage play. Watching is passive. Audience members do not control the pace of the story. They must stay attentive. Readers, on the other hand, are free to question, pause to reflect, go the fridge, or put the book down at any time. Readers control the pace of the story. The criteria for realism, or verisimilitude, in writing fiction are much more stringent than for screen or stage plays as a result.
Writers can demote believability at any level of the story. Completely likely events can come off as incredible if sufficient detail is not provided or the characters involved are not well developed. Readers, however, rarely have problems with likely and probable events. The same cannot be said for a story line that is more challenging to believability. Writers need to take more care to overcome the inherent challenges that less likely events and characters present to readers.
Credibility concerns should override plot and character.
A plot that calls for an implausible major event to move it forward must to be redrawn. Characters must behave in a manner that is consistent with their personalities or they need to be redrawn. The story’s the thing, to paraphrase the Bard. Writers must yield to the demands of the story to the same degree that they expect of their readers.
Realistic thrillers begin with serious research—lots of it. A good, suspenseful mystery requires first-hand research with law enforcement, members of the medical profession, and other experts. Only in that way will a thriller be widely accepted as credible, and only then will readers be informed of how things work in the real world.
Television is not a good source. Detective shows would have viewers believe that DNA results can be produced overnight, whereas they usually take weeks. Forgeries are detected within an afternoon; but again, preparation of evidence for the court may take several weeks. Alone, an officer without a partner at hand would never pursue a gunman. Delays and setbacks complicate solving a crime. Setbacks need to be part of a novel’s plot. They also provide opportunity for advancing subplots and character development
Probably about 30% of a writer’s research will find its way into a story. Properly conducted, research is open-ended. It seeks opinions and feelings from the interviewed subject in addition to the facts. Stories based upon the subject’s experience broaden in the retelling and provoke additional considerations for a plot and the characters.
If the resolution of a plot depends on some extraordinary action on the part of a character, the character must be groomed for the critical event. In Deadly Portfolio, for example, the plot requires a forty-four year old woman to swim a great distance to rescue a swimmer. Early in the book, references are made to her good physical condition, her workout regimen, and her college career as a member of the women’s field hockey team. All of the detail building up the image of the character makes her near heroic rescue effort credible when it comes up in the plot.
Plausible or incredible events can be promoted in the readers mind to highly credible if the event is anticipated in the story also. Suspense depends largely upon withholding the resolution of the plot until the climax, but information that sets the stage can be shared. If a boat explodes, for example, early in the plot the owner can be concerned about finding the time to get it tuned up by a mechanic. A young man may have a heart condition that makes smoking pot very risky. His condition can be mentioned early in the story without giving away his future fate.
Finally, detail is essential.
Credibility is measurably enhanced when colors, aromas, sound, and tactile sensations (wind in the hair or rain on the face) are bountifully present in the text.
Writers debate endlessly whether plot or character should drive a story. Both, however, are secondary for the realistic writer. Truth drives the story. Anything less is a compromise. Readers may wave off a minor inaccuracy or fail to notice it altogether. The discipline is the author’s to assume. Doing so will result in a better, more believable story and personal and professional growth for person who tells it.
John J. Hohn is the author of Deadly Portfolio: A Killing in Hedge Funds, a five star mystery, and of As I Was Passing By, a collection of poems. He is a frequent contributor to various websites dedicated ot writing and publishing. His own website features articles on a wide range of topics including autobiographical sketches, financial planning, and civil rights. Born and raised in Yankton, SD, he graduated from St. John’s University in 1961 with a degree in English. His career in the financial services industry spanned more than 40 years. He is the father of four sons and a daughter and a stepfather to a son. He has resided in North Carolina since 1978. He an his wife Melinda divide their time each year between their cottage in the village of Southport NC at the mouth of the Cape Fear River and a cabin near West Jefferson, NC. www.jjhohn.com
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