Credibility. Verisimilitude. The willing suspension of disbelief.
These are what authors strive for and what readers demand. And for good reason.
Every author attempts to create a story world that draws in the reader, that takes him or her to an unfamiliar place or into a fascinating and suspenseful situation. A place where the reader, page after page, will ask, “What happens next?” But if the author stubs a toe on the details, the reader will fall out of the story and will no longer trust the author.
Writing a credible story requires an understanding of the story’s world. In crime fiction and thrillers this often involves various types of science, arenas that are foreign to many writers and readers. Until the writer does the research and imparts this new-found knowledge to the story in a palatable and believable way, that is. Then, the writer and reader are on the same page—pun intended. If the writer doesn’t get the science right, how can the reader trust that anything in the story is correct?
Verisimilitude is the appearance that something is true and real. It doesn’t necessarily have to be true but must appear so. It must “feel” right. That said, the best way to maintain verisimilitude is to get the facts right. Then the story elements not only appear to be true, but actually are.
Take the STAR WARS and HARRY POTTER series as examples. Obviously, neither is factual. Each bends truth, physics, and about every other science you can think of into pretzels. But do we care? Of course not. The reason is verisimilitude. These stories came alive and became real because the creators built a believable world with believable characters and told us believable tales. To heck with facts. We bought into these sagas because we became immersed in an unbelievable world that was absolutely believable.
This didn’t happen by accident but rather through a marriage between the skill and knowledge of the author and the imagination of the reader. This union is often easier to accomplish in film where everyone sees the same story, than in a novel where everyone reads a different one. Unlike watching a movie, reading is a truly collaborative process. A mutual trust. The writer must trust the reader and vice versa.
But how many times have you read a story and came across a passage that simply did not ring true? It might be as simple as getting a real location or street wrong or perhaps having your crime scene techs carry guns, interrogate suspects, and even treat the injured. Sound familiar CSI fans? Maybe it’s a hero taking five rounds in the chest yet chasing down and subduing the antagonist. Or a character taking a blow to the head and being out for hours, only to wake up and be completely normal. Could this happen? Maybe. Likely? Not very.
I have been consulting with authors on medical and forensic science story issues for the last 15 years and over that time have answered over 6000 questions. As I have said many times, I am constantly amazed by the creative mind of an author. This is particularly true in the crime fiction and thriller genres. Equally impressive to me is that these are the authors who do the research, who try to get it right.
So, what are the most common things that I get asked? Poisons and rendering someone unconscious for varying periods of time are near the top of the list.
Many of the all-time great murder mysteries dealt with poisons. Why not? They are often excellent tools for murder. Fictional, of course. They require no physical confrontation and can even be set up so that the deed occurs days, weeks, or months later, when the perpetrator is far away. Clean and simple. No mess to clean up.
But poisons do have limitations. For one thing, there are no untraceable poisons. It might not be found but if it is looked for diligently enough and with the most sophisticated techniques, it will be found. Common poisons such as narcotics, amphetamines, barbiturates, and sedatives of various types are part of virtually every drug screen and therefore are easily found by the toxicologist. Others such as plant toxins, and many unusual chemicals, are more difficult. These require that the medical examiner and the forensic toxicologist have a high “index of suspicion” that a particular toxin is involved before taking the time and expense required to uncover it. These suspicions are often aroused by the symptoms that surround the victim’s death.
Often, for plot reasons, the author would like for the victim to receive the toxin but not have any symptoms until the next day and then suffer a quick and dramatic death. The problem? Poisons don’t have timers. Those that kill quickly and dramatically do so quickly and dramatically. Right here and right now. Not tomorrow, or next week. There are of course toxins that require several days to work their mischief but the victim almost invariably will become ill and spiral toward death over a period of time not suddenly collapse on cue.
In other scenarios, the author needs for a character to be struck in the head and to remain unconscious for an extended period of time. You’ve seen it before. The character is whacked on the head, placed in the trunk of a car, taken to some remote hideaway, remains unconscious for hours, and finally awakens when someone throws water in her face. Hollywood has been doing this for years. Unfortunately, medical science dictates that this is extremely unlikely. A blow to the head that causes unconsciousness but without significant brain damage is called a concussion. Boxers face this with every bout. The key here is that there is no significant brain damage in a simple, single concussion. The victim might go out but usually awakens very quickly and certainly by 10 or 15 minutes. Think about that boxer. He gets knocked unconscious and two minutes later he’s complaining that he was struck with a lucky punch. In order for the victim to remain unconscious for hours, there must be some degree of brain injury. A cerebral contusion (brain bruise) or a cerebral hemorrhage (bleeding into or around the brain) are two situations where unconsciousness can last for hours, days, or much longer. But here, the victim is truly injured and typically requires medical treatment in short order.
So as you sit at your desk pounding out your next story, don’t assume that what you believe to be true is indeed true. This is particularly true if you don’t have a scientific background or if you get your understanding of science from television. Do your research. Ask questions. Never under estimate the power of the word author. People like to talk about what they know so give them the opportunity.
Regardless of how you do it, get the facts right. That’s your job.
And for the reader, just know that authors are not infallible. We all make mistakes. We all have assumptions, which unfortunately can be erroneous. And though we authors should not make mistakes that harm our credibility and verisimilitude, we do. We all have. Please forgive us and read on.
D. P. Lyle is the Macavity Award winning and Edgar, Agatha, Scribe, and USA Best Book Award nominated author of the non-fiction books FORENSICS FOR DUMMIES; FORENSICS & FICTION; MORE FORENSICS & FICTION; and HOWDUNNIT: FORENSICS; the Samantha Cody and Dub Walker Thriller series; and the ROYAL PAINS media tie-in novels. His short story “Even Steven” appears in ITW’s anthology THRILLER 3: LOVE IS MURDER.
He has worked with many novelists and with the writers of popular television shows such as LAW & ORDER, CSI:MIAMI, DIAGNOSIS MURDER, MONK, JUDGING AMY, PEACEMAKERS, COLD CASE, HOUSE, MEDIUM, WOMEN’S MURDER CLUB, 1-800 MISSING, THE GLADES and PRETTY LITTLE LIARS.