Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Verisimilitude VS Reality

Before we start, let me point you to the comments on Linnea Sinclair's post just before this one.


A comment on Linnea's post raises the question of how to avoid the abrupt and reader-losing Point of View Shift which I discussed in:

Here below in Verisimilitude Vs. Reality is one of the information feed techniques I referred to in my answer to that question on Linnea's entry. Clever concatenation of information feed techniques is how you get the reader to know something without telling them, and here is how you get them to believe it.

This below is one information feed technique used to avoid commiting the Expository Lump. So here are links to my discussions of Lumps.


Early in my writing career, I learned how dialogue differs from real speech.

Dialogue is the ILLUSION of speech, not the transcription of speech.

Before you grasp that distinction, you have no hope of creating dialogue that enchants the reader, moves the story forward, characterizes and informs the reader all in one single reposte, retort, dig, jibe, offhand comment.

The best one-liners that make it into common usage, (i.e. "Make my day.") capture common moments of life with an original sound-byte an actor can elevate to pure art. Other examples: Hannibal on the A-Team: "I love it when a plan comes together." Quantum Leap: "Oh, boy." Or the myriad Buffyisms we all loved so much -- smart-alec comments during a fight to the death.

A real person in a real situation just doesn't think that fast. So when Art supplies the right comment for the type of situation, it enters common usage.

Note we can quote the Television show's name, or the film, the actor and the line. In Television, for example, those lines are created by committee which can include the actor playing the character out based on a previous episode's line ("Logical, Mr. Spock.") ("He's dead, Jim.") ("Oh, one more thing.")

How many of you know the writer's name who came up with that marvelous line for that spot in the action? Think about that.

If you want fame and glory, find something to do other than be a writer. It's hard work, requires an enormous amount of education, and over a lifetime rarely amounts to more than minimum wage per hour invested.

So here's another long installment on that education in writing. It'll take a while to read this and apply it with practice.

Characters don't say what people would say -- because characters aren't people.

Characters are the illusion of people. So they say the illusion of what people say.

And the difference between fiction and reality is the same for most all elements in a story, not just dialogue. In worldbuilding, we build the illusion of a world, not an actual world; the illusion of a culture, not a real culture; the illusion of war or combat, not actual combat; the illusion of a government, not a real government; the illusion of mansions and hovels, not real mansions and hovels. So how do we make that illusion "work" for the reader?

How do we get readers to believe our illusions are real, so real they adopt our character's one-liners? (there are Sime~Gen fans who regularly conjugate the Simelan word SHEN when they experience the Ancient version.)

As story tellers, we are spinning illusions, not imparting information.

Yet the power and ultimate usefulness of our illusions depends on our crafting a foundation of correct information underneath our illusion.

Verisimilitude requires something to be truly similar to. And that's "information" that we build our illusions upon.

It may not be "correct" information that we need, but information matching that which readers already "know." Even if the readers "know" something that isn't actually true, the writer must start crafting the story based on what the reader believes to be so and gradually, step by step, work in the illusion of a new truth.

If that process is done well, it will end up making the reader so curious that he/she will go research the topic on their own, maybe dedicate their lives to it. Many Star Trek fans discovered Science Fiction via Star Trek when they were in college, and went on to change their majors to one or another science. Today, a new generation in college grew up on Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

I have fan letters from readers of Molt Brother and it's sequel City of a Million Legends (both available in e-book on Fictionwise, and on amazon.com in paper) indicating that the books inspired people to choose Archeology as their major in college.

Fiction speaks. Fiction influences. Fiction is illusion. But Fiction is sometimes more real than reality. How can that be?

Because a particular work of Art can reach into the subconscious and activate something within a person that we have no name for other than Soul, fictioneers have real power. Awesome power.

That's why so many books on writing craft emphasize knowing your audience, choosing to write to a particular, defined sub-set of all humanity so that your book will be marketable. But not just marketable! Memorable.

You have to choose "who" you are writing to in order to make the illusion of reality work for those people. Even in America, various sub-cultures harbor different convictions about the nature of reality, so writing with "verisimilitude" for each one means starting with different assumptions about the facts you have in common.

Only about 35 million in the USA watched Obama's Inaugeration. In the 1970's you needed a TV audience of 20 million just to stay on the air and there were only 200 million people in the USA. Today there are well over 300 million in the USA. The percentage watching television is shrinking.

In fact, the percentage of us in the USA that do or know any particular thing -- have anything at all in common -- is vanishingly small and still shrinking. So it gets harder and harder for a writer to identify a cohesive "Market" large enough for a product that would have costly production and distribution.

The business of fiction is in massive flux as is the business of news distribution.

The more your fantasy world diverges from the reader's everyday reality, the more careful you must be to craft on a platform of reality based facts familiar to your reader/viewer.

For your characters to become real people to a readership, the characters must be presented via details from that readership's experience. That's not necessarily "real life" experience. What readers have read in other stories is just as "real" to them and something a readership has in common.

So how do you cast your illusion of people? How do you create a character that seems real? Do you tell the reader everything about this character's biography and behavior tendencies in a 2 paragraph "character sketch" when you first bring them on stage? Do you even need to write a "character sketch" for yourself, as almost all writing textbooks recommend?

No. You don't tell the reader -- in fact, the less you tell the reader (or let the reader know via other techniques) the more realistic the character will seem.

Why is that?

Because in a text based narrative, you SHOW NOT TELL who the characters are.

Why does SHOW DON'T TELL create the most powerful illusion of reality?

Show Don't Tell works because the reader becomes actively engaged in fleshing out the details of every scene, every room you walk the character into, and every thought in the character's head. In fact, the character's internal monologue is much more powerful when you don't let the reader hear everything the character is thinking or especially feeling.

How can that be?

An engaged reader is garbed in the character, becoming the character and looking at the surroundings through the character's eyes, ears, nose, and mouth.

So you INDICATE a tiny (artistically chosen) detail derived from the THEME of the story -- like the strokes of a Japanese Brush Painting -- and the reader uses your details to make a fully dimensional 256 toned picture of their own. The reader becomes enveloped in your world because it is not your world -- but their own.

That's one reason children must be taught to "read" (beyond sounding out words) -- there is a mental technique of translating cold text into full-dimensional pictures in the mind that must be learned. The most common way of learning the technique is to read a lot of books -- until you find one that engages you fully -- then follow that author or that genre, building a set of experiences and facts "in common with" the writers of that genre.

The writer's function is to trigger the native imagination of the reader, not to inject the writer's own story into the reader's mind.

Marion Zimmer Bradley taught me an old adage, and I can never remember the originator of it. "The story the reader reads is not the story the writer wrote."

No two readers "read" the same story, even when reading the same text.

Better yet, when a story is well written (well crafted to energize the reader's imagination) then the same reader can re-read the text and discover a totally new and different story -- because the reader has changed.

The writer's function is to evoke emotion, energize imagination, arouse anticipation and deliver satisfaction. The writer is an artist whose medium is the reader's emotion.

When a reader gets all that emotional satisfaction from a text, they will remember that text as having TAUGHT THEM something.

There are two main ways that a human being learns. From instruction and from experience. Instruction is hypothetical, requiring cognitive activity. Experience is concrete and practical, requiring engagement.

The fiction writer teaches via vicarious experience, not instruction.

People remember what they learn when it comes wrapped in a vivid emotion. ("A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go doowwwnnn!")

Now let's take a concrete example of facts upon which to build Verisimilitude.

Here is an actual, real-life biographical fact that could become such a hard foundation for a fictional or fantasy scene or incident that would ring bells for the readers.

If presented wrapped in a powerful enough emotional context, this little episode could engrave these (actual) facts on readers' minds in such a way that, should this ever happen to them or someone with them, they would recognize the experience and respond in such a way as to save a life.

Though not all readers know it, it is an established fact that women often experience heart attacks with a totally different set of sensations than men do.

The challenge to you, as writers, is to use the facts below to create this scene within a story in such a way that a man reading it will recognize it happening to a woman he knows in reality. Convince husbands and brothers. Make the men understand what the woman feels.

This below came to me in one of those round-robin emails with "pass it to ten people" -- which is a real bad idea, because once it infects a circle of friends, you'll get 200 copies back.


> I was aware that female heart attacks are different, but this is the best description I've ever read.
> Women and heart attacks (Myocardial infarction). Did you know that women rarely have the same dramatic symptoms that men have when experiencing heart attack you know, the sudden stabbing pain in the chest, the cold sweat, grabbing the chest & dropping to the floor that we see in the movies. Here is the story of one woman's experience with a heart attack.
> 'I had a heart attack at about 10 :30 PM with NO prior exertion, NO prior emotional trauma that one would suspect might've brought it on.
> I was sitting all snugly & warm on a cold evening, with my purring cat in my lap, reading an interesting story my friend had sent me, and actually thinking, 'A-A-h, this is the life, all cozy and warm in my soft, cushy Lazy Boy with my feet propped up.
> A moment later, I felt that awful sensation of indigestion, when you've been in a hurry and grabbed a bite of sandwich and washed it down with a d ash of water, and that hurried bite seems to feel like you've swallowed a golf ball going down the esophagus in slow motion and it is most uncomfortable. You realize you shouldn't have gulped it down so fast and needed to chew it more thoroughly and this time drink a glass of water to hasten its progress down to the stomach. This was my initial sensation---the only trouble was that I hadn't taken a bite of anything since about 5:00 p.m.
> After it seemed to subside, the next sensation was like little squeezing motions that seemed to be racing up my SPINE (hind-sight, it was probably my aorta spasming), gaining speed as they continued racing up and under my sternum (breast bone, where one presses rhythmically when administering CPR).
This fascinating process continued on into my throat and branched out into both jaws. 'AHA!! NOW I stopped puzzling about what was happening -- we all have read and/or heard about pain in the jaws being one of the signals of an MI happening, haven't we? I said aloud to myself and the cat, Dear God, I think I'm having a heart attack!
> I lowered the footrest dumping the cat from my lap, started to take a step and fell on the floor instead. I thought to myself, If this is a heart attack, I shouldn't be walking into the next room where the phone is or anywhere else ... but, on the other hand, if I don't, nobody will know that I need help, and if I wait any longer I may not be able to get up in moment.
I pulled myself up with the arms of the chair, walked slowly into the next room and dialed the Paramedics .. I told her I thought I was having a heart attack due to the pressure building under the sternum and radiating into my jaws. I didn't feel hysterical or afraid, just stating the facts. She said she was sending the Paramedics over immediately, asked if the front door was near to me, and if so, to unbolt the door and then lie down on the floor where they could see me when they came in.
I unlocked the door and then laid down on the floor as instructed and lost consciousness, as I don't remember the medics coming in, their examination, lifting me onto a gurney or getting me into their ambulance, or hearing the call they made to St. Jude ER on the way, but I did briefly awaken when we arrived and saw that the Cardiologist was already there in his surgical blues and cap, helping the medics pull my stretcher out of the ambulance. He was bending over me asking questions (probably something like 'Have you taken any medications?') but I couldn't make my mind interpret what he was saying, or form an answer, and nodded off again, not waking up until the Cardiologist and partner had already threaded the teeny angiogram balloon up my femoral artery into the aorta and into my heart where they installed 2 side by side stents to hold open my right coronary artery.
> 'I know it sounds like all my thinking and actions at home must have taken at least 20-30 minutes before calling the Paramedics, but actually it took perhaps 4-5 minutes before the call, and both the fire station and St. Jude are only minutes away from my home, and my Cardiologist was already to go to the OR in his scrubs and get going on restarting my heart (which had stopped somewhere between my arrival and the procedure) and installing the stents.
> 'Why have I written all of this to you with so much detail? Because I want all of you who are so important in my life to know what I learned first hand.'

> 1. Be aware that something very different is happening in your body not the usual men's symptoms but inexplicable things happening (until my sternum and jaws got into the act). It is said that many more women than men die of their first (and last) MI because they didn't know they were having one and commonly mistake it as indigestion, take some Maalox or other anti-heartburn preparation and go to bed, hoping they'll feel better in the morning when they wake up ... which doesn't happen. My female friends, your symptoms might not be exactly like mine, so I advise you to call the Paramedics if ANYTHING is unpleasantly happening that you've not felt before. It is better to have a 'false alarm' visitation than to risk your life guessing what it might be!
> 2. Note that I said 'Call the Paramedics.' And if you can take an asprin. Ladies, TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE! Do NOT try to drive yourself to the ER - you are a hazard to others on the road. Do NOT have your panicked husband who will be speeding and looking anxiously at what's happening with you instead of the road. Do NOT call your doctor -- he doesn't know where you live and if it's at night you won't reach him anyway, and if it's daytime, his assistants (or answering service) will tell you to call the Paramedics. He doesn't carry the equipment in his car that you need to be saved! The Paramedics do, principally OXYGEN that you need ASAP. Your Dr. will be notified later.
> 3. Don't assume it couldn't be a heart attack because you have a normal cholesterol count. Research has discovered that a cholesterol elevated reading is rarely the cause of an MI (unless it's unbelievably high and/or accompanied by high blood pressure). MIs are usually caused by long-term stress and inflammation in the body, which dumps all sorts of deadly hormones into your system to sludge things up in there.
> Pain in the jaw can wake you from a sound sleep.

Now try to use that factual foundation, keeping in mind that many readers in America don't believe it or have never heard it, and weave something emotionally powerful around it so that none of your readers will ever mistake this experience for heartburn.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

PS: Romance genre news in publishing -- romance and sports.


  1. Lots of good stuff to digest here.

    One thing I disagree on and I have the education and experience to back up my statement.

    "That's one reason children must be taught to "read" (beyond sounding out words) -- there is a mental technique of translating cold text into full-dimensional pictures in the mind that must be learned."

    Actually, children are born with this ability. It only needs to be nurtured by parents, grandparents, and other caregivers reading out loud to them from birth. If it's not nurtured from birth, the window of opportunity closes. Then, the child must re-learn something he or she already knew, and that can be hard. This is why I teach children to read (the mechanical part) as soon as they show an interest in it. By the standard age of five, it's too late to take advantage of that natural passion and must, instead, be begun again.
    But, I suppose that's way off topic.

  2. Actually not off topic. How parents nurture children is connected to how writers 'characterize' in that one way to project the image of a character is to mention something from their upbringing.

    And you are correct, I should have said that children must learn to LOVE that process of turning words into images early in life, not so much "to learn" the process itself.

    See how the sketch of an idea in words gets filled in by the READER from what the READER already knows and assumes?

    You have demonstrated my whole point in a nutshell. Brilliant.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  3. Beautiful! I appreciate this post especially since I recently finished an SFR with excellent dialogue, and your post gave me insight into why it worked so well for me. Gracias!