Image: Ralph Richardson and Michèle Morgan as Baines and Julie in ‘The Fallen Idol’ (1948)
What is “verisimilitude”? Verisimilitude means “seeming real or life-like”; it comes from the Latin vērus meaning “true” and similitūdō meaning “similitude” or “resemblance”. Verisimilitude is used as a literary term referring to the believability of a narrative: how much the narrative appears realistic, likely or plausible.
David Hare discusses how to complicate your scenes to achieve verisimilitude; i.e, to make them feel more like life.
…the second of these beliefs I am going to illustrate with a clip from a movie… It illustrates the second of my rules which I call ‘Who is the third who always walks beside you?’
The film is The Fallen Idol and it’s by Graham Greene and directed by Carol Reed around the same time as The Third Man, the most glorious time of British filmmaking, and I called it ‘Who is the third who always walks beside you?’
I could also show you the scene from Brief Encounter [with] exactly the same strategy: Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson meet and every time they try to have a conversation about their love affair, Joyce Cary and Stanley Holloway provide the working class entertainment in the background and say things like ‘I’m sure I don’t know to what you’re referring’ and ‘These rock buns…’ It’s exactly the same principle; if someone wants to write a thesis on tea shops in British love stories they can do it because there it is. The complicator is that there is a third person, and what is extraordinary in Greene’s writing I so admire is that, faced with the prospect of just writing a love scene, instead he writes it through the presence of the third person and it’s the complicating factor which means that it begins to feel like life.
Now when you begin to talk about these things, people and so-called screenwriting techniques which are taught at technical classes, the idea is meant to be that somehow there are tricks and you work these tricks in order to make your screenplay more interesting than it would be if you just laid out the story. But, on the contrary, ‘Who is the third who always walks beside you?’ is what makes you begin to feel that something is real.
How to apply David Hare’s advice on verisimilitude
This is great advice for writers of stories in any media who want to achieve verisimilitude (make their scenes feel more real). The underlying story principle is that what makes life harder for your characters makes life easier for you as the writer–and makes the story better, too. (This never fails me.)
- Who is the “third person” whose presence complicates your scene?
- How does his or her presence change the scene?
- How could more complication make your scene feel more real?
- If you added a third person into the intense, important, high-stakes scene you’re writing, what could happen?
Don’t worry if you didn’t think to add or retain a third person in your first draft: these are great questions to ask when rewriting or troubleshooting a scene.
What are some of the scenes–from films, TV or fiction–that stand out in your mind for adding a “thrid who walks among us” to complicate the scene?
Watch the David Hare: Screenwriter’s Lecture video here or read the full David Hare: Screenwriter’s Lecture transcript here.
[Many thanks to writer-director Mystery Directrix who inspired me to post this.]