Abrupt Edge Diary - 16

This is the fifteenth in a series about the construction of the novel-in-progress, Abrupt Edge

15.  Verisimilitude

In its list of synonyms for the word, truth, the American Heritage Dictionary gives this distinction to the synonym, verisimilitude:  “Verisimilitude is the quality of having the appearance of truth or reality” and adds this example as to its use:  “merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative (W.S. Gilbert).

I would not wish to have minced  words with Sir William, and I hope that none of my work ever causes him to harrumph in his grave, muttering “bald and unconvincing narrative.”

In his highly regarded How Fiction Works, James Wood doesn’t index the word, verisimilitude, but he has a lot to say about truth and realism, pointing out that you can have one without the other.  Thus, Kafka’s Metamorphosis may be considered more truthful than, say, the average police procedural crime novel (my comparison, not Wood’s, although he ascribes “harrowing truthfulness” to Kafka’s novel while any of us would admit, a man turning into a giant beetle is not terribly realistic).

Verisimilitude comes with a certain kind of novel.  For all of the charged words Faulkner uses in Sanctuary, there is still his incredible ear for dialect, his imagery of light and dark, highbrow and lowbrow, chifforobes and ‘coon hounds.  A Gregor Samsa could no more turn into a giant beetle in a Faulkner novel than a Czech bureaucrat in a Kafka novel would launch a jawful of tobacco juice towards a spittoon.

Yet in certain kinds of highly imaginary fiction, ideas you could never know except as the author tells them to you are mixed with minute details such as, in Ulysses, the sizzle of Poldy Bloom’s pork kidneys sauteing or the crinkle of the wrapping paper around the soap in his jacket pocket.  In a sense, stream of consciousness works as a narrative vehicle because verisimilitude buoys up the stream of words coming at you out of the characters’ minds.  It isn’t real, of course, no one thinks like that, and words certainly don’t come out of anyone’s mind at you.

I try to not let verisimilitude be my bête noire, but, if you’re writing about an imaginary brothel in an imaginary community in the middle of nowhere, you don’t want a reader saying, “No way!  You can’t pour concrete in hundred and twenty degree weather,” or, “Hey, I happen to know for a fact that a fully laden C-141 needs 8000 feet of runway to take off.”

Con Sellers, the person who taught me the most about writing fiction, wrote character-driven novels.  He said he was never sure what was going to happen next in his works, because it was the confrontations of his characters that caused things to happen.  He advocated creating character charts for all of the more than walk-on characters*.  That tends to take care of certain kinds of verisimilitude:  if it’s highly symbolic that Joe was born the day Pearl Harbor was bombed, he can’t turn twenty-five the day World War II ends.

I don’t remember Con talking about plot outlines or even chronologies, but I find myself edging towards both.  What date did Jacob Gleason leave Ashland for Abrupt Edge?  It’s important, because he walks around in the desert for a while and he might perish from either hypothermia or hyperthermia, depending on the date.  How many persons live in Abrupt Edge?  How did the first airstrip get built?

Next post I’ll go into a few examples of how I wrestled with some questions like this, and divulge a few details from my character charts.

Update: Since I wrote this post I’ve picked up Richard Price’s novel, Lush Life. If you want an example of verisimilitude-nay, the very quintessence of it, read Lush Life.  It’s cops and victims and punky hoods, loonies and lovers, aspiring actors and perspiring detectives, Lower East Side gentrified and ungentrified, history, psychology, sociology-and it’s almost too much.  Whiskers grow, sweat trickles, barf spews, hands grope, knees buckle.  One of Price’s blurbers says he writes better dialog than anyone.  I stick with Elmore Leonard, but I have to admit, Price’s dialog sounds like real conversation between real persons, in cadence, in vocabulary, in syntax—in other words, the essence of verisimilitude.

* I have an adaptation of Con’s generic character chart which I would Email to you if you put your Email address in a comment.

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