Making Words Feel Like Life
We all know what it’s like to read a story that feels, well… fake. Every page gets a eyeroll, each plot point feels fabricated, and every line of dialogue feels wooden and artificial. Any book in any genre can suffer from this, but oddly, it doesn’t have a lot to do with the actual subject matter. I’ve read biographies of actual people that have earned some major side-eye from me, and fantasy novels that felt deeply, intimately real, with worlds that seemed to exist beyond the boundaries of the story itself.
So, how is that possible?
The answer is verisimilitude, which is a term coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the early 1800s, and it means the appearance of being true or real. And it’s actually quite different from realism.
I’ve had the opportunity to talk with a number of writers who were experiencing the same specific frustration. They’d written a story, and put it into the hands of readers, only to receive consistent feedback that the story felt unrealistic. This was unexpected, because the events in the story were inspired by actual events in the writer’s life. The events weren’t just realistic, they were real. So why were they getting so much skepticism from their readers? The easiest answer was, of course, that the readers were simply ignorant.
The actual answer was a little less satisfying for the writer–they just hadn’t learned to earn their reader’s willing suspension of disbelief.
Coleridge’s theory was that if you could make certain aspects of your writing feel real, you could then entice readers to swallow some pretty outlandish things. Like hobbits, or wardrobes leading into fantastic worlds. Huge coincidences, and apparent miracles. Fiction, by and large, is built on the far-fetched. Fantasy readers, in particular, read to see and experience new things. Some readers read to feel less alone–to know that someone else has also experienced what they have–but verisimilitude is still essential in these stories. If I read a story about depression that portrays the illness in a wildly inaccurate way (this happens fairly often) I come away completely unconvinced. The author has alienated me, instead of convincing me to wholeheartedly buy into their story–and that’s the goal for every writer.
So how do you make your story feel real when it contains elves or faster-than-light travel?
We’re all human (theoretically, please let me know if you’re not… pics or it didn’t happen) so we’re all experts on human nature, at least subconsciously. We know instinctively when someone isn’t acting quite right, even if we can’t put our finger on why. Human nature is one of the basic elements that we must get right in order to win our reader’s suspension of disbelief.
I had an example of this while participating in a writing group several years ago. One woman shared a story that opened with her main character discovering she had been buried alive. The scenario itself was very gripping, and her prose was good, but the execution somehow felt… artificial.
One of our very knowledgeable group members pointed out the issue: the woman, upon waking and finding herself trapped in a coffin, immediately dissolved into hysterics, screaming and slamming her fists against the lid. Sounds legit, right?
Except, that’s not quite how humans work. When we wake in a strange place, there are a few moments of confused disorientation. Our response is then to try to make sense of our surroundings–in this situation, she would grope around trying to figure out where the hell she was. This would be followed by alarm as she realized what a tiny space she was in, and an attempt to extricate herself. She’d try to open the coffin, kick herself free, and shout for help. Only once she realized that these attempts were futile would she begin to panic… and then the hysteria would begin.
Naturally, these would all happen in rather quick succession, but the fact that the writer had blown past confusion in a hurry, and jumped straight to hysteria made the character’s response feel… off. Even if we weren’t aware of this particular sequence of emotion intellectually, we all knew it subconsciously.
In order for the reader to buy into your character (and by extension, the story), they must fit into our basic understanding of how humans act.
Returning to what I said above about an inaccurate portrayal of depression, when you’re depicting experiences that any number of your readers may have actually had in their own lives, like mental illness, disability, a car accident, childhood trauma, etc, it’s important to get it right. Naturally, not everyone’s experience with the above will be the same, but there are commonalities you can draw from. If you haven’t had these experiences yourself, it becomes even more important for you to do your research.
When my husband Jeff wrote his Full Metal Superhero series, he cast a young paraplegic woman as his lead character. He’s not handicapped, nor does he have any close friends or family who are, but he was determined to get it right. So he did a lot of reading on what life is like for someone confined to a wheelchair. Firsthand accounts are the best, and if you can get someone to talk specifically about what the fiction they read gets wrong about their circumstances, that can also be immensely valuable.
What you don’t want is for someone who knows more about the situation than you do to think you’re ignorant. We can’t be experts on everything, but as writers, it’s our job to make our readers think we are.
What if it’s a “truth is stranger than fiction” situation?
Now this is a tough one, especially when you’re using facts that are widely misunderstood, or unknown in general. There’s always going to be a pedantic reader who’s going to call you out on something simply because they rank their casual knowledge against your supposed research.
The best way to deal with a situation like this is to have a character in the book question it–in other words, give voice to the doubts your reader may have. At that point, a more educated character can correct them with the actual facts. This impresses upon even the most doubtful reader that you’ve put some thought into the situation, and aren’t simply pulling it out of your… wherever. This technique is closely related to hanging a lantern, which we’ll talk about in a minute.
One of the best ways to give your story an overall feeling of realness is to include familiar, relatable details throughout your story. These details aren’t plot-affecting, they’re simply there to give your reader that sense of familiarity.
For instance, how many people know what it’s like to try to wipe some chocolate cake crumbs off the counter, only to make a streaky mess that’s bigger than the one you were trying to clean up? Probably a lot. How many of us inevitably burn our tongues on that first bite of pizza because the sauce ended up being way hotter than the cheese? There are commonalities in our daily lives as human beings that will feel familiar to a huge percentage of your readership, and the liberal inclusion of these details will help make your story feel authentic, no matter how far-fetched the setting or plot.
If your character has long hair (mid back or lower), consider having them get a few strands caught in a folding chair. Everyone with long hair will wince in sympathy when the character tries, and fails, to make a dramatic exit because they’re literally tied to their chair by their own hair.
If your character is microwaving something, have them be too lazy to punch in the right amount of time, so they shoot high and then step away for just a few moments too long. Argh. You have no idea how many times I do this.
If your character is on the beach, don’t forget that no matter who you are, or what you’re wearing, if you’re on the beach you’re gonna get sand somewhere you’d really rather not.
Often in our hurry to get to the parts of our story that excites us the most, we forget to include these very real, everyday details that make the story feel like more than words on a page.
Even if you’re not writing contemporary fiction, and there aren’t any folding chairs or microwaves to hand, details can make the world feel real. Remember that nighttime without artificial lighting is incredibly dark, even under moonlight. Riding a horse all day, even for someone with experience, makes for some sore muscles. Dealing with any moderate length of hair, out on the road, is a huge pain. Clothing gets dirty and worn, especially when roughing it, and shirts tend to get dirty around the armpits, collar and cuffs first. Have your characters get cold, and wet, and tired. If they injure themselves in Chapter One, even if it’s just a cut on their finger, it probably still hurts in Chapter Two. Things like these can make your people feel real, and by extension, your story.
Hanging a Lantern
Chances are, if you’re writing fiction–especially genre fiction–you’re going to have some pretty remarkable things happen. You will have your share of coincidences and near-misses. Ideally, you don’t want to hinge the outcome of your entire plot on coincidence, but there’s generally some coincidence involved in actually getting your characters where they need to go–either literally or figuratively.
So, how do you manage it without setting off everyone’s BS meter?
First, make sure all your coincidences have a drawback. Maybe your character and their cohorts are in a tough spot, and you want a friend to provide a convenient getaway when they just happen to drive by. Assuming you don’t have a more plausible option to hand, make sure the convenient coincidence isn’t quite ideal. Instead of having the friend arrive in their SUV that can comfortably seat all four of your characters, have them show up in a compact with the backseat so incredibly stuffed with junk that one or two people have to do some lap-surfing and pray a cop doesn’t drive by.
Second, hang a lantern on it. This is a device used to great effect in movies. When something convenient happens, one of the characters will acknowledge what a wild coincidence it is. Somehow, that acknowledgement makes the audience more willing to accept it. I’m not entirely sure why this works, psychologically speaking, but it works! Knowing that the writer also knows how crazy this coincidence is makes us more willing to go along with them.
So what does this mean for your story?
A story with realistic events is very different from a story that feels real–one with verisimilitude. You can get away with a lot of crazy stuff if you can convince the reader to suspend their disbelief. Without verisimilitude, a true-to-life account can feel much less plausible than a story that takes place on another world.
Make sure your characters behave in a real, human way.
The sequence of emotions in any situation is important. This is where your powers of observation come into play. Pay attention to how people behave, and draw from that when writing.
DO YOUR RESEARCH
If you’re going outside your personal wheelhouse, which most of us do as writers, do your due diligence. Find out from people who have experienced these things what it feels like, what challenges they face, and how they deal with them.
Incorporate relatable details
There are commonalities of life that we can all relate to. Make sure your characters experience those things; they’ll feel more real to your readers, and your story will feel more real as a result.
Acknowledge your convenient coincidences, and make sure they have drawbacks We’re more willing to swallow a convenient coincidence when we know the author is also aware of how far-fetched it is. And when you rescue your characters, don’t do it in the lap of luxury. Make them struggle a little, even if their bacon is being saved.