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Verisimilitude: How Illusions, Confidence Games, and Skillful Lying Can Improve Your Fiction

Few of us who write fiction think of ourselves as liars, yet, in an objective sense, it's what we do each time we release a story. Come explore the ways in which the arts of deception can make you a better writer.
by

Deren Hansen

on 1 May 2015

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Transcript of Verisimilitude: How Illusions, Confidence Games, and Skillful Lying Can Improve Your Fiction

Reader Worry Powers the Story Engine
MODELS
Verisimilitude
How Illusions, Confidence Games, and Skillful Lying Can Improve Your Fiction
Don’t Undermine
Readers' Confidence
Don’t Break
the Illusion
LIAR’S
2: Things Happen for a Reason (Depth)
1: The World is Rich with Variations (Breadth)
ART of DECEPTION
Acknowledging issues and alternatives reassures readers you haven’t made a mistake.
The Lesson of Scandals:
A Cover-up Always Makes it Worse
"Hang a
A telling detail is a supporting element, mentioned in passing, that someone familiar with the setting, situation, or process would know.
Proof You Know What You’re Talking About
TELLING DETAILS
Because Someone will do the Math.
BOTCHED
Illusionists Know Less is More
Select and Show the Best Bits
Showing Only the Highlights Creates a more Vivid Experience than the Actual Event
HOME VIDEO
Should only be used to modify the act of speaking (e.g., "said loudly," not "said spitefully").
Adverbs in Speech Tags
Stick with the basic forms: … he said. … she asked. Speech tags should never attract attention.
Speech Tags
HIGHWAY
Roller coasters are great fun because we know they're carefully engineered to stay on the tracks and bring us safely back to the gate.
Help Readers Participate by Following The Rules of Two:
This is why we Prefer Showing to Telling
Active Readers Participate in the Illusion
NO ROLLER COASTERS
We watch the magician wave a handkerchief and don't notice the elephant being rolled on stage.
“The monster you imagine when I say something goes bump in the dark is far scarier than anything I could describe.” — Howard Tayler
IN LATE
The True Core of Story is about Internal Consistency, not Moral Certitude
Narrative Clarity is the First Key to Verisimilitude
Stories, like the Best Lies, are Founded on Truth—a True Core
You must Understand The True Core if you want to Lie Effectively
TRUTH & LIES
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Tension and Release
Ratcheting up Suspense Increases Verisimilitude
Pattern Breaking
Uncertain Outcome
Delays and Gaps
SUSPENSE
Texas Coral Snake (Deadly)
Verisimilitude is how well a story creates the illusion of reality.
Mexican Milk Snake (Harmless)
Making One Thing Appear to be Another
ILLUSION
This is How the Untrue can be Truer than the True
4. Useful: A True Board
3. Reliable: A True Course
Thinking in terms of, "objectively correct," or, "not false," we declare statements like, "2 + 2 = 4," and, "Sky = Blue," to be true.
2. Constant: A True Friend
1. Correct; Not False
TRUTH
No World-threatening Stakes
External Conflict is Driven by Internal Conflict
Arises from Competing Agendas
“Conflict just means someone’s mean.”
No Definitional Bad Guys
BELIEVABLE CONFLICT
The Ring of Truth
The Appearance, but not the Substance, of Truth
-tude (having the quality of)
simili (similar)
veritas (truth)
VERISIMILITUDE
Readers Need to Believe You Know What You're Doing
CONFIDENCE
of Authority
Author is the root
Use linguistic spices, like profanity and dialect, sparingly.
Resist the temptation to make clever references.
Watch for muddled metaphors/similies: "In her sleek dress she looked like the stamen (male part) of a flower."
Avoid non-sequiturs like, "barely flooded."
Competent Wordsmithing
Good Writing seems Effortless and Invisible
SUSTAINING the
What this really means is that skillful lying is simply another form of model making.
The RINGS of
Twists Obvious in Retrospect
Motivated Action
Arc of Development
Winners and Losers
History
Conflicting Interests
Reactions: Grief Cycle
Evolution: a dynamic world
Subplots: other things are happening at the same time
No “too good to be true” Mary Sues
Not a Formula
No Stereotypes
No Monocultures
More than a Single Biome
Not Just a Stage
The World is Rich with Variations
Plot
Character
Setting
The American Dialect Society named Stephen Colbert's, "truthiness," the word of the year for 2005. And rightly so because it captured the spirit of the times so well.
But there's an older word we shouldn't overlook in our rush to be trendy:
What does it mean?
Other Meanings of, "True":
But if we limit ourselves only to the objectively true then we have to conceed that calling something a novel is tantamout to calling it a lie.
This is a lie!
Models Simplify Reality, Emphasizing Some Aspects and Omitting Others.
This model is useful when you need to travel between cities.
This model is useful when you need to travel within a city.
If you bumped into this fellow, should you pet it or run away?
What about this one?
Consider the lesson of:
Cornered by doting parents, I was once forced to watch an interminable video of junior's first taste of solid food.
To this day I cannot believe the video lasted only half an hour.
I swore a holy oath never to make anyone watch my unedited home video.
But no good deed goes unpunished: friends and relatives who watched my videos all thought the event seemed much better than they remembered (and wanted to have more of them, not less).
This is How Story is a Model
Nothing an Illusionist Does is an Accident.
Everything -- costumes, gestures, stage effects, and particularly the beautiful assistants -- is carefully orchestrated to direct our attention.
Then, with a flourish, he makes it appear for us.
The magic is in our heads.
OUT EARLY
It isn't that we have to coddle readers from the attention deficit generation.
What you Show Directs Readers' Focus
What you Don't Show Gives Readers Space to Fill in the Blanks
Let Readers Fill in the Rest
Postpone reader gratification, defy their expectations, and show counter-intuitive effects.
Establishing characters who are capable of both heroism and cowardice makes it harder to predict what characters will do.
Establishing a pattern and then breaking it causes as much tension for readers as it does for the characters involved.
Readers, like fish, need to be coaxed toward the climax with cycles of tension and release.
NO
Even though a story, like a roller coaster, always follows the same path, readers want to feel as though anything in the context of the narrative is possible.
1: Every non-trivial element brought to readers' attention should appear in the story at least twice.
2: Every character should have the potential and opportunity to make at least two different choices.
ILLUSION
Which image suggests grace and mastery to you?
Most people choose the one on the right.
Of course, clowning does require a great deal of skill, art, and determination. But subtlety isn't part of the curriculum.
Nothing breaks the illusion of fiction more quickly than showing the reader, whether by accident or on purpose, the author's grease paint and bright red nose.
STRIPES
Have you noticed how you both see and don't see highway stripes while driving?
Conventions like speech tags serve the same purpose in narrative.
DETAILS
The Numbers Must Add Up
Harry Potter is lots of fun, but what do they do with wizard gold besides buy school supplies and treats off the trolley? The story falls apart if I think about the wizard economy too carefully.
A popular dystopian novel had fifty people, a herd of cattle, and assorted other livestock living on less than ten acres--something that would never work because a single cow requires between two and five acres. It's hard to believe the fantastic elements when the pedestrian details are wrong.
Plan 9 From Outer Space is so bad it elevates badness to an art form.
In one classic scene, as the reanimated dead rise from the cemetery and tromp off to terrorize the earthlings, the plywood tombstones behind them wobble like grass in a breeze.
I've yet to meet anyone who can keep a straight face while watching that scene.
DESTROY the
ILLUSION
GAMES
The "con" in con-man is a contraction of "confidence." Fraud generally requires the perpetrator to gain the victim's confidence.
For example, in a con called the king-bishop-pawn game, the con-man (king) uses an authority figure (bishop) to convince the targets (pawns) to invest in the fraud.
How Do You Convince Readers You Know What You're Talking About Without Turning Your Fiction Into Non-fiction?
There was a time when carrying a clip board in a public place, like a store or museum, gave you instant credibility. You need the narrative equivalent of a clip board.
Science Looks Like This
For Example:
Or This
Right?
No, Real Science Looks Like This:
Can You Spot the Significant Result?
Real lab work usually involves colorless liquids. Chemists only mix up flasks and beakers full of something colorful to make photographers happy.
And What do You do if You Don't Know the Details?
Lantern
on it"
True Core
Confidence
Illusion
Skillful Lying
With the discovery of the simple rules of perspective (the vanishing point) the art of the Renaissance became substantially more realistic.
In a similar fashion, verisimilitude in narrative depends on just a few simple rules.
The Essence of Skillful Lying in a Narrative
DEPTH
BREADTH
Setting
Character
Plot
Things Happen for a Reason (Cause & Effect)
LOST
LABORS
At the end of the day, lying is hard work. You can ruin it all if you forget the two basic rules:
TRUTH
What do We get When We Put it All Together?
"Lampropeltis_triangulum_annulata Mexican Milk Snake.jpg" by LA Dawson, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lampropeltis_triangulum_annulata.jpg
"Micrurus_tener Texas Coral Snake" by LA Dawson, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Micrurus_tener.jpg
"First rice.jpg" by tigerpuppala_2, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:First_rice.jpg
"ChessSet.jpg" by Alan Light, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ChessSet.jpg
"Graduated Cylinders and Beaker filled with Chemical Compounds.jpg" by Horia Varlan from Bucharest, Romania, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Graduated_Cylinders_and_Beaker_filled_with_Chemical_Compounds.jpg
"Lenski's long-term lines of E. coli on 25 June 2008, close-up of citrate mutant.jpg" by Brian Baer and Neerja Hajela, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lenski%27s_long-term_lines_of_E._coli_on_25_June_2008,_close-up_of_citrate_mutant.jpg
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