"What is Verisimilitude?": A Literary Guide for English Students and Teachers

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"What is Verisimilitude?" Transcript (English & Spanish Subtitles Available in Video, Click HERE for Spanish Transcript)

By Gilad Elbom, Oregon State University Senior Instructor of Literature

1 May 2023

Verisimilitude is the idea that literature should somehow be true to reality: the idea that textual elements—characters, dialogue, settingimages—should be believable, plausible, authentic, lifelike. Aspiring writers, therefore, are likely to hear the following advice: characters must be convincing; lines of dialogue must reflect the way people talk; different characters should speak in different styles; descriptions of places must ring true; literary images must evoke familiar thoughts, sensations, emotions, memories; and so on. In short, writers have to get it right, so to speak.

Here’s an example. Cody and Katie are driving across Nebraska. Their names should sound real, appropriate, fitting. They have to ring true. The car must be described: make, model, color, condition. Is Cody the type of character who would drive a Japanese car or an American car? If Cody and Katie are in New York, readers should be able to feel the city: the skyscrapers, the yellow taxies, the smell of Chinese or Italian food, a man with a beard yelling in the middle of the street. When they stop at an old-fashioned diner, we need, once again, some verisimilitude. It’s not enough to know that they had lunch. What did they order? What did the waitress look like? Did a fly perform a little dance on their dusty table while they were waiting for their food? Did Katie ask for extra butter with her pancakes? Did Cody flood his hamburger with extra ketchup? More importantly, did the ketchup remind him of the first dead animal that he had seen, when he was six years old, on his uncle’s farm, on a cold November morning? And don’t forget to name that uncle and describe him.

Here’s an example from a famous American novel: Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney:

The novel takes place in New York, and every little detail is meticulously described, to the point where readers feel that they are actually in New York. In fact, the entire novel is written in the second person—the main character is essentially you—which accentuates the whole idea of verisimilitude: the ability of the text to convince us that it’s believable, that we can trust it. We can look at page 9 of this novel, for example, and see all those little details. The main character remembers the apartment in which he used to live with his now estranged wife, and we get to see everything: the imperfect ceiling, the windows that don’t quite fit the frames, the smell of bread from the bakery downstairs, which reminds him of the croissants that he used to buy for her. We can also see random characters: in this case, a woman with a hive of rollers on her head walking a German shepherd on Seventh Avenue. All these details, all these characters, are there for the sake of verisimilitude: the realist qualities of the text.

As a counterargument, other approaches emphasize the idea that literary elements do not represent things outside the text. Art, by definition, is artificial, including literary art. Poetry, for example, is beautiful, truthful, or moving precisely because its formal features do not accommodate verisimilitude: meter, rhyme scheme, stanzas, enjambment. Nobody speaks in broken lines of trochaic feet, and different characters in the plays of William Shakespeare, for example, do not display individual patterns of speech. They all speak the language of Shakespeare, which is exactly what makes it so beautiful.

By the same token, the beauty of music stems from the fact that the sound of the piano—or the violin, or the saxophone, or the electric guitar—is completely unnatural. There is nothing in nature that sounds like these instruments. Similarly, when we go to the museum, we are not necessarily looking for paintings that reflect reality. When we go to the museum, we stand in front of the canvas and look at its textures: the shapes, the colors, the brushstrokes, the composition.

If we apply this principle to literary fiction, the point is not to make it believable, so to speak, but to emphasize the formal features of the text: style, structure, tone, syntax. In other words, the textures of the written page. Paradoxically, this rejection of verisimilitude often allows us to see things clearly, experience intense emotions, and come to some new, profound, meaningful understanding of reality. In other words, fiction becomes truthful precisely at the moment its artificiality is acknowledged.

Want to cite this?

MLA Citation: Elbom, Gilad. "What is Verisimilitude?" Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms, 1 May 2023, Oregon State University, https://liberalarts.oregonstate.edu/wlf/what-verisimilitude-definition-and-examples. Accessed [insert date].

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