Musings on... Verisimilitude / by Ben Frost

You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.
— Abraham Lincoln
…Unless you work in Musical Theatre.
— Me

When is a yoghurt not a yoghurt? When it’s a Marks and Spencer’s yogurt. When it’s a Greco-Roman Mega-Posset raddled by citrus blossom, tempered with essential oils and studded with the crystalized remains of sixty-seven sun-blushed Mediterranean Lemons. An M&S yogurt is more that a yogurt, is better than a yoghurt, is somehow more desirable and damn sight more appetising than a plain old “yogurt” because it conjures up images in our minds and tastes on our tongues; it is an altogether more acceptable and convincing proposition. Bottom line: I believe in it and, I’m guessing, given our mutual fondness for Musical Theatre, you believe in it too. M&S knows a thing or six about gentle persuasion; St Michael wields the power of verisimilitude. 

Drama is a bunch of ugly lies dressed up pretty to look like the truth. How convincing any piece of drama is depends upon the performance of the actors, the insight of the directors, the budget, the subject, the venue, and (of course) the wit and wisdom of the writing team. As a humble writer (and I use the word “humble” quite wrongly), I am in control only of the very first sheen of truth applied to the myriad fibs of a brand new story. I do the words but, although they come out of my head, they’re destined to reach the audience from the mouths of other people entirely. I therefore have my work cut out for me to convince anyone at all that I mean what I say. Fortunately for me (and others like me [there are no others like me]), there are little tricks I can use to add verisimilitude, the illusion of truth and reality, to my work. Which is to say, things I can do to help you believe in the unutterably illusory world that I’m creating.

Names are important. Shakespeare said, something along the lines of, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” But would it? Really? Even if it was called a Bum Flower or a Rotten-Guts Weed? Far be it from me to disagree with the Bard of Avon, but I ain’t convinced. A name should fit the character, because that just makes life easier for everyone. A bouncer outside a nightclub should be called Massive Craig, say, and not Lionel St John Ffolkes-Coupling. Unless the whole point of the character was that he was playing against type, in which case, I can’t think of a better name for him. (“You can’t come in with those shoes, sir. No trainers, no sandals, no Giuseppe Zanotti.”) More importantly, a name should sound like it was given to the character by her or his parents at her or his birth. A forename should fit with a surname, and both should be relatively interesting in their own right (and, as far as my particular job is concerned, both should rhyme with practically anything I want them to). 

Proper nouns are the liar’s best friend. (A liar is also chummy with verbs, participles, prepositions and conjunctions, but they’re more like Facebook Friends than bosom buddies.) Using brand names, nicknames, obscure county towns, trademarks etc. all help to convince the listener that you know what you’re talking about. In drama, the prodigious use of proper nouns (real or imaginary) can be the difference between a clichéd line of dialogue, muttered by a character in a third-rate soap, and a quotable sound-bite of gospel truth, delivered by a three-dimensional human being, standing under a proscenium arch but living and breathing in the fragile frame of a two-hour window on the world. Here’s a little something from Doctor Who (just because, and also because if anything is a difficult sell, it’s the wacky work of the good Doctor)…

An evil scientist from the 51st Century has travelled back to the 19th to escape justice. His method of transport: a rickety time machine based on a dangerously unstable technology. The Doctor explains how the experiments which led its construction were (or rather, will be) an abject failure, and he does so with a lot of proper nouns:

“[correcting his friend] Unsuccessful time travel, Professor. Findecker's discovery of the double nexus particle sent human science up a technological cul-de-sac.”

(from The Talons of Weng-Chiang, 1977)

He goes on to identify the scientist as one Magnus Greel, “the infamous Minister of Justice, the Butcher of Brisbane,” a Mengele-type figure from a future World War, forced to flee after the “Filipino Army” made its “final advance on Reykjavik.” Sure, it’s all nonsense, but it’s richly textured and well-written nonsense, peppered with proper nouns all of which serve to conjure up in our minds images of exotic locations, horrific atrocities, and infinite scientific possibilities. These words have nothing whatsoever to do with the story, or even the plot. Both of which can roughly be summed up by: evil bloke with a laser gun wreaks havoc in Victorian London until  someone with the balls and the brawn steps up to stop him. The words are there only to make this ludicrous story more palatable, in much the same way as M&S might advertise their pots of rotten cow’s milk with a list of romantic ingredients similar to those spelled out at the top of this article. The proper nouns somehow make the lies more believable. And, I would argue, that nobody knew this better than one of my favourite writers of the last 100 years, Robert Holmes (author of a number of Doctor Who stories and a plethora of other television show in the 1960s, 70s and 80s) –more about him another time. For now, back to product placement… 

People don’t eat “chocolate bars” they might, “go for a Snickers” or “fancy a Mars Bar.” People don’t run out of “bubble bath”, they run out of Radox (or, in this house: Matey.) Proper nouns, when it comes to comestibles and consumables, lend not only verisimilitude to dialogue, but they tell us about the character, her or his likes and prejudices. Last year, Ben and I put together a rehearsed reading of one of out shows at the Dominion Theatre. The biggest laugh came not from any of my carefully wrought gags, or any one of Ben’s many musical flourishes, but from a proper noun. It’s unlikely to work out of context, but I’m getting to the end of this article, I’ve got to stop somewhere, and I’m off to Fitness First in a minute. So, picture the scene, an old woman, matriarch of a decaying household has struck the gong for dinner. Tonight, a young man is in attendance, a very special guest. Grandma has this to say to him:

GRANDMA:                  Dinner is served! In fifteen minutes. I suggest, Mr Austin, that you go and wash your hands. Straight down the hall, second on your left. 

Somewhat taken aback, SAM squares his shoulders and makes for the exit.

SAM:                             Right, yeah. OK. Thanks.

GRANDMA stops him at the door.

GRANDMA:                  Was my daughter telling you about her “shotgun wedding”?

SAM:                             Yes. Well, almost-wedding. There wasn’t a ceremony.

GRANDMA:                  But there was a shotgun... Feel free to use the Molton Brown

[Cue Riotous Laughter!]

SAM:                             Thanks.

SAM, unnerved, wanders off to find the loo.

NB: If any of the manufacturers of any of the products mentioned in this article want to give me free stuff, I can be contacted at the usual address, or emailed on the link above. Thank you kindly in advance.

Rich Hough

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