And here I thought I had this verisimilitude thing down. I even remember Tony Ardizzone’s lecture on it from the first fiction workshop I took with him at Old Dominion University. (Never mind how long ago that was.)
For straight realistic fiction to engage the reader, it needs to be like real life, to suggest real life, but not transcribe real life. Contrary to the “show don’t tell” edict, what happens when you show a character’s boredom too realistically? You bore the reader. Faithfully transcribe actual conversations as dialog with all the false starts, pauses, repetition, ums and ahs? Barely intelligible and maddening to read. Phonetic representation of regional and ethnic dialects, in the Uncle Remus vein? Cringe-worthy.
So, if I know all this, why am I worrying about it now? Well, the fact of the matter is that just because I know a convention doesn’t mean I know enough to follow it when I need to.
Several years ago, I wrote a story, “The Chet Arthur Five Play Jeffersonville,” based on a real-life experience I’d had in high school. I was very pleased with the story because I had faithfully represented everything about that experience in perfect “show don’t tell” detail, including a whole series of excruciatingly repetitive drunken conversations. Did I mention that “The Chet Arthur Five Play Jeffersonville” is a coming-of-age story?
So I sent “Chet Arthur” out to make the rounds of literary magazines, and every time it came back with a rejection slip, I reread it to confirm just how good it was.
Until it wasn’t.
Much to my dismay, I discovered that the whole thing was hackneyed and boring. What to do? The first order of business was to stop sending it out to bore other people and embarrass myself. Then I moved on to other projects.
Last week, I started thinking about the story and wondering whether it might be salvageable after all. My memory told me that the problem was a hackneyed coming-of-age storyline, and I was trying to think of ways that I might experiment with form to put a different spin on it. I even considered setting the story up as an algebra equation (Never mind.)
However, when I opened the story this morning to work on it, I discovered that the problem wasn’t with the plot. The problem was how faithfully I had rendered my real-life experience, particularly the excruciatingly repetitive drunken dialog.
As well as I understood the concept of verisimilitude, I had fallen right into the trap of letting the actual experience that inspired the story drive the fiction. I also discovered that the story started and ended in the wrong places: it began too soon and went on too long. Needless to say, I’ve revised the story. Only time will tell whether I’m still deluding myself that it’s any good.
Have you ever had a similar experience with a story? You’re bound and determined it’s good–until it isn’t?