Can I share a secret with you? When I first heard the word verisimilitude, I had absolutely no idea what it meant. My lecturer mentioned the word in an introductory lecture, and I had to rush off after class to find out a definition. I was surprised to find it meant ‘the appearance or semblance of truth’, since the class I was taking was about writing fiction. Then I discovered it had a different meaning in the field of literature, and that it meant ‘internal consistency’. What it boils down to … does your story, characters and setting have an authenticity of their own? Or is there a jarring lack of logic that will push the reader out of the story?
Achieving verisimilitude is a writing skill that can only come with practice, and lots and lots of reading. It isn’t just about getting the details right, but it is about building a quilt of details to form a picture and not a mess. Do the characters sit comfortably within the setting? Is the setting appropriate to the plot? Is the plot suited to the characters? If any of these questions give you an answer of ‘no’, them you are lacking in verisimilitude, and there is a good chance your audience with be alienated by the clash of inconsistency.
Take, for an example, the differences between the illustration and the photograph above. The feet and ankles of the illustration are much, much smaller and slender compared to the feet of the woman in the photograph. Now, those slender drawn feet are very decorative, but if real-life girl had those feet, she would snap an ankle when attempting to walk or dance. That is the perfect metaphor for verisimilitude; your details have to support the story.
This doesn’t mean you can’t give your imagination full rein while writing. Jules Verne’s fantastic tales are believable only with a suspension of belief. But all the elements that make up Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea fit together to create a tightly structured net of plot, characterization and setting that completely captures the reader’s imagination. As Captain Nemo prefers to use products only from the sea, it would break verisimilitude if he were suddenly to develop a passion for beef in red wine, rather than fish and seaweed dishes.
Verisimilitude takes work. But putting the effort into achieving it means that you have constructed a world that keeps your audience seeped in your narrative. The paradox of verisimilitude is that if you do it really well, the audience won’t even notice. This is one of those phenomenon where non-writers look at something well written and think “That looks so easy to do,” because the writing seems so natural and effortless. Take comfort from the fact that your fellow writers know this is not the case, and are admiring your craftsmanship and talent.