Definition: the illusion of being real
A big SAT word. I’m not much a big word guy, but I love this word. Why? Probably because I love the magic behind movies, especially sci-fi and fantasy movies which at face value are completely unrealistic. Spacefighters flying through space with ease, dragons flying around the world, laser guns, magic… none of these things are real, but the world the stories take place are built in a way that we believe them.
I am willing to bet that 90% of the time when someone likes or enjoys a book or movie because of its realism, more than likely it is because of the verisimilitude it provides instead. They believe the world is real and the characters act in a way that is believable. But transforming robots aren’t real, you don’t know how you would act if big giant robots started fighting in downtown so how do you know it’s realistic? People with superpowers aren’t real, so how do you know how people would react to someone like Superman existing? It’s not the realism, it’s the fact we believe it’s realistic.
I’ll give you an example: The movie Cloverfield is what I feel a perfect example of a movie being not realistic at all but giving you verisimilitude, and even at a point, breaking the verisimilitude.
People who liked the movie talked about how realistic it was and I am over here thinking “Realistic? A giant monster is attacking New York! What is realistic about that!” What they really like is how the movie was presented in such a way they believe it is real. They believe in the verisimilitude of the movie, the ILLUSION that is real.
For me at least there was a part where they broke the verisimilitude. The main character, Rob, is trying to rescue Beth, a girl he likes, from a building that is about to collapse. A piece of rebar has impaled her shoulder, this is a major injury, yet after they rescue her she runs around like nothing had happened.
Now, not much about the premise of this movie is “realistic” but they told the story in such a way that I believe in the verisimilitude. But that rescue was just too unbelievable, too implausible for me believe in the illusion anymore.
Giant monster ravaging New York City? Sure why not. Young woman being impaled by a thick rod of rebar and running around like it never happened? Sorry, you lost me.
So as a writer or filmmaker, remember you are not trying to be realistic, you are trying to maintain verisimilitude. When you are trying to maintain that, it doesn’t matter how fantastical or futuristic you setting is, there are still rules you have to follow or else you will lose the illusion you need for people to enjoy your story.