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On Writing Rules: How to Maintain Verisimilitude

This week I’m talking about inviolable writing rules (and ranting against the storytelling in The Da Vinci Code). Yesterday I provided a list of rules that I said you should never break, then I admitted that most books break at least one of those, and I closed by saying, “Well, fine, you can break any or all of them, but only do it early in the book.”

And I said all of that waffling is a simple lesson to learn, and an easy thing to get right in your own storytelling. I still believe it, too. At heart, all you need to know is one basic storytelling principle:

The premise.

Premise and Verisimilitude

I spent some time yesterday introducing the concept of a “premise,” but I don’t think I ever named it directly. It’s a standard aspect of fiction, though. A premise is essentially just a list of the rules that govern the way things work within your storyworld. It can be as simple as “magic works” or as complicated as “Pigs can talk and they desperately want to be Marxist revolutionaries.”

For the most part, your premise can be anything you want. There’s nothing wrong (just to pick an example completely at random) with telling a story in which the historical Constantine behaved in a way entirely different from the way we know he behaved, and in which Roman religious culture was completely different from everything we know about Roman religious culture. In fact, there’s a whole genre for stories like that. It’s called “alternate history.”

The Da Vinci Code isn’t alternate history, though. Or…well, it’s not alternate history until 2/3 of the way through the plot, and by then it’s too late. When I sat down at the beginning of the first act ready to discover the rules of this particular story, they involved the unlikely-but-given-for-granted plausibility of a world-renowned curator, a cryptography specialist stupid enough to think anagrams were a secure or remotely effective form of communication, and a murderous cabal within a well-known charitable society.

I know people who take real issue with all of those things. It’s pretty flimsy material for a story, but it’s fiction. All of that is fair play. It’s also all exposed in the first act. I put on my “willful suspension of disbelief” hat, accept that this is the premise the author’s story is based on, and then we move forward with the understanding that in every other way this story takes place in a world just like Earth as we know it.

It’s critical to get that out early, though. Why? Because you respect your readers. I’ve said several times that no writer is beholden to write a particular style, and no reader is required to enjoy reading a particular style. There’s a wealth of different tastes out there, on both sides of the page, and that’s a good thing.

As a writer, that means you have to be prepared to accept that lots of readers won’t like your story, simply because they don’t appreciate the type of story you tell. There’s nothing wrong with that.

It becomes a problem, though, if you try to trick them into reading a story they don’t want to by hiding the things they’re going to object to. That’s why timing is such a big part of the definition of premise. If you spring a game-changing revelation on me two-thirds of the way through a story, you could easily change a book I’m reading into one I would never, ever put in the time to read. That’s bad form.

We’ve got a name for it, too (and it’s a good one).

Deus Ex Machina

I know, I know. “Always with the dead languages with this guy,” huh? But we’ve got another one of those inviolable writing rules rearing its head here, and it’s all part of the same discussion.

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “deus ex machina” (or the common foreshortened version, “deus ex”). I’ve even talked about it here before, and my advice at the time was to keep all your big revelations constrained to the first act.

If you didn’t understand why (or what exactly I meant by that) the first time around, you certainly should now. That’s exactly what I was talking about above. Revealing rule-breaking “premise” material late in the story is deus ex machina. That’s precisely what the phrase refers to.

Most of the time you don’t hear “deus ex” explained that way, though. It’s much more common to get a big list of examples: the unlikely and inexplicable arrival of a hero to save the day, a sudden and apparent violation of physics that conveniently resolves a tricky plot complication, or the ever-popular option of giving your character hitherto unmentioned magical powers late in the story.

If you’ve established a premise that supports the sudden revelation, that’s fine, but if you throw it in out of nowhere, you’re going to lose readers over it. The most popular examples are ones that miraculously save the protagonists from an otherwise inescapable fate, but the same goes for changes that sweep in to rescue an otherwise unworkable plot. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a conflict or a resolution, if a new development late in your story changes the rules of your world, it’s sloppy storytelling.

I’ve ranted about Dan Brown more than a little, but he’s certainly not the only (or even worst) offender. Can you think of any other good examples? What about in your own writing? What do you do to avoid breaking the inviolable rules of storytelling?

Thinking through questions like that can be one of the best answers to that last one, really. Because all of us writers are readers, too. In the end, it comes down to respect for the reader’s experience, so spend some time thinking about how you like to be treated by your favorite authors, and put in a little effort extending that same kindness to your readers.

6 Responses to “On Writing Rules: How to Maintain Verisimilitude”

  1. Carlos Velez says:

    “There’s nothing wrong (just to pick an example completely at random) with telling a story in which the historical Constantine behaved in a way entirely different from the way we know he behaved”

    what about sparkly vampires? anything wrong with that premise? 😉

    • Aaron Pogue says:

      You knew that question was going to get a really long reply, didn’t you? Please tell me you knew that.

      Okay, here’s the problem: here premise is vampires, and then she very gradually, over the course of several books, admits that they’re not vampires at all. They’re just lusty angels, some of whom happen to be a little bit bloodthirsty (and not, I should point out, the ones we actually spend any screen time with).

      Her bigger sin, really, is the premise she set up about these two forces on an unavoidable collision course, destined to do horrible battle, and four straight books of cramming down her readers’ throats that “this is the rule of this world” and then at the very last moment, at the anti-climax of all anti-climaxes, she says, “Meh, never mind. It doesn’t have to turn out that way.”

      I’m just sayin’, is all.

      • Carlos Velez says:

        Isn’t that the point of setting up these rules though, to be able to make the breaking of them a significant event in the plot, or the whole point?

        At the end, the hero usually accomplishes something that goes contrary to the expectation, the rule. they make the impossible happen.

        Sounds like good story telling to me 🙂

        • Aaron Pogue says:

          You’re talking about two different things, Carlos.

          And, to be fair, that could well be my fault. I haven’t read all the way to the end of the series, so I probably shouldn’t have weighed in on it. I have heard it much maligned by people who liked the books, so I feel like I’ve got a pretty good idea where she went wrong, but I can’t speak from any real authority.

          That said, there’s a difference between “reader’s expectations” in the sense of what a reader expects to happen in a particular story, and “reader’s expectations” in the “contract between the author and reader” sense I described in this series. Stories should contain some good surprises for readers, but even those surprises should be well-grounded in the story. (That link is to a pretty good article on that very topic I just read yesterday.)

          “The rules” I’m talking about in this series aren’t the rules as your characters understand them, or the anticipated plot as your readers understand it, but the actual framework that makes your plot possible. Breaking those rules at the end breaks the whole plot retroactively — and breaks a perfectly good book.

          Now…as I said, I’m not really in any position to evaluate whether or not Stephenie Meyer did that. But going back to your original question, no, there’s nothing technically wrong with using sparkly vampires as a premise. As long as she’s up-front about it, I can pick up the book, realize in the first chapter that it’s not a story for me, and put it right back down. And that’s fair play in storytelling.

          It’s also precisely what I did.

  2. Liz McElroy says:

    For full disclosure, I wouldn’t consider myself a very good writer. That said, here are the problems I have with this issue:

    When you change the premise in the middle of a story, the average joe reader will probably not notice that you’ve just pulled a fast one on them. i.e. using a zillion historical references to build your story, and then, say about half way through, making alot of it up. Yes, I’m looking at you Dan Brown.

    I once had a friend majoring in journalism who was very aware, and a bit scared of, the power his writing could hold over public knowledge and opinions.

    So I suppose my question is this- beyond being really irritating, might there be some kind of ethical responsibility authors have in regard to the premise (or switcheroo thereof) they present to their readers?

    Just as a side note, we recently listened to ‘the Lost Symbol’ on a road trip. (Yeah, I know I know, but who has the brain power to take in something like War and Peace for 20 hours in the car?) Anyway…really, the expert symbologist is going to be skeptical EVERY time there’s meaning in one of the codes? Seriously?

    • Aaron Pogue says:

      Thanks for the comment, Liz! That’s actually an issue I take very seriously.

      For all I know, Dan Brown could feel a genuine moral compulsion to bring down the Catholic church, and if that means embedding some patently false history in his blockbuster novels, that’s a small transgression on the path to a noble end. I’m not suggesting that’s the case, just pointing out that what’s “ethical” can be deeply subjective.

      My concern — and one that I think could be taught pretty easily regardless of any one writer’s personal agenda — is the breach of trust. Sure, most of the folks picking up Dan Brown’s book won’t bother to question the facts he tosses out…but every one who does loses a little bit of respect for his claims, even if they decide they still like his stories.

      That’s a huge opportunity lost, for any writer. Not just lost, but squandered. It’s a variation on the boy who cried wolf, because I deeply suspect Dan Brown isn’t on a crusade to bring down the Catholic Church, but when the day comes that he spots a true historical travesty and he bends his considerable reputation and extraordinary platform to try to get the message out…well, he’ll find people anxious for the story, and entirely uninterested in the message he wants to get out.

      As writers, we spend our lives positioning ourselves to get our messages out, in a way businessmen and advertisers everywhere couldn’t help but covet. I’d hate to sacrifice all that for a little bit of sloppy storytelling.