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Monday, March 1, 2010

Persnickety Penman: How to be a Good Liar

          Are you a good liar?  If you are writing fiction you need to be.  One of the definitions of a lie is something that is not true, which is essentially the same as fiction which is a made up story.

          The difference from a moral standpoint is that the liar is intentionally twisting the truth in order to deceive others in a way that will be pontetially be hurtful to somebody if the lie is discovered.  And even if the lie is never discovered the character of the liar is weakened, making it easier for that person to fall into a habit of deception. The story teller of fiction, however, is pretending, playing with untruths as those who play along willingly suspend their disbelief in order to pretend that the lie, the story being told, is true, for the purposes of entertainment and mental stimulation.  The story teller tells untruths with fingers crossed and knowing winks to his or her audience as they consent to play along.

          Last Monday we looked at accuracy and fact in our writing.  I pointed out that fiction should contain enough fact to make it believable.  Writers should present their material in a way that it appears to be believable if they want readers to take them seriously.  Even the most far-fetched fiction should be grounded in something that the reader can relate to.  If you want to take a reader to a fantastic realm where they've never been, then you have to provide them with a touchstone from which to begin, otherwise you may as well write your story in your own made up language and hope at some point the reader will figure out what you are saying. 

        When I attended the University of Tennessee in the early 1970's, I was very fortunate to have taken two writing of fiction classes led by the notable Southern fiction short story author and Flannery O'Connor scholar, Robert Drake.  At that time, my writing interest often leaned toward surrealistic fiction.  On one of my stories his notes read, "Boo! What is this all about? Even fantasy must keep one toe on the ground."  Other stories that he returned to me had similar notes, and in retrospect I understand why.

        How does a con man-- be it a politician, a religious leader, a crook, or what have you--win us over?  They have to sound like they know what they are talking about.  In order to do that they must have a fairly good grasp on facts and figures, they must be reasonably familiar with their topic, and they must come across as sincere experts in their fields.  If you can see through a conman it is difficult to be duped.

          As writers we are like actors or magicians or any master of illusion who is trying to win an audience to believe that what we are doing is real.  We are pulling a con to deceive the imagination of the reader to believe in the worlds, the characters, and the situations the we have created so that they walk away amazed with what they've just read.  We scare them, thrill them, or move them to tears because we have made the imagined so real that the reader really wants to believe that our story is true.

       How good of a liar are you?  What do you think makes your made up stories more believable?  Can you think of a fiction that has seemed so real to readers that it has been mistaken for truth?


  1. Well, my friend, I think I am a good liar - can pull the leg of another- quite well. :) But when I sit down to write, the mechanics of writing get in the way of my lying.

  2. I think you called it - readers must identify with something in our stories. I aim for realistic situations and characters, although I'm going for a positive, feel-good story as opposed to a Jerry Springer episode.

  3. I agree! You have to be able to tell a story to the point that others ask "Is that a true story?". I guess I have written some short stories that seem true- even my family will ask, "Did that really happen?" or "I don't remember that!". LOL.

  4. I am not a good liar, therefore I don't attempt to lie.
    A fiction that people believed to be true was "War of the worlds", I heard when Orson Welles read it on the radio many people thought it was true.

    Take care.

  5. Interesting post! I'd like to think that I create imaginary truths rather than lies. :)The circumstances of fictional stories are certainly the author's creations, but the human elements we all relate to and identify with are universal truths. It's the honesty in the lie. My characters seem real to me and I believe that brings authenticity to my work.

  6. I Know i am not a good liar....and i dont try it also....but definitely if my true words hurt others then i try to lie....i dont kn whether i m convincing in it or nt...but try to....

  7. I’m a lousy liar in person, but I like to think I’m a fairly good one when I put them down on paper in the form of fiction. To me, believable characters make for a believable story.

  8. >>[How good of a liar are you?]<<

    Ooh, Brother, I am one of the best!

    It's a good thing for others that I accept the Bible's condemnation of lying, because if I had the character of a scoundrel, I could undoubtedly separate a lot of people from their money.

    But since I rarely write fiction, my ability to tell a good fib doesn't have much of an impact on what I put on paper or on the worldwide web.

    Years ago, I used to get together with a group of coworkers after hours and we would play the game "Balderdash." The challenge was to tell such convincing lies that the other players would believe them. I guess having the ability to tell a good lie isn't anything one should boast about, but I was undefeated in the game of "Balderdash."

    And, no, I ain't lyin'. ;o)

    ~ "Lonesome Dogg" McMe

  9. If you have characters that people care about and something happens to them, you have the basis of a good story. If you have only plot points, then it's not a story but a sequence of events.

  10. I always think of "War of the Worlds" (original) when I think of people believing in something unreal. No better example than that.

  11. My screenwriting teacher Scott Gould gave me one of my favorite writing quotes ever: "Don't 'write what you know'. Write what you know well enough to lie about."

    Great post, Lee!

  12. Teresa -- Is that on your excuses not to write list? You can do what you need to do.

    Diane --Appearing real requires knowing something about the reality.

    Dee -- sounds like you've got the knack for telling a believable story.

    Yvonne -- I don't think you need to lie in your poetry. The War of the Worlds broadcast is a great example of making people believe fiction is real.

    Roxy -- Yes, I don't think the imaginary truth is breeching any moral values as long as it is used for good intent.

    Rohini -- I wonder, when we dream is our brain lying to us or merely disguising the truth?

    Jane -- I think we lose readers when they aren't willing to believe what we say.

    Stephen -- Well I would have figured as much. And not only are you a good liar, you are boastful as well. Oh, what a sinner!

    Carol -- I agree with that. Even a good journalist needs to shape the characters they write about otherwise they are merely reporters, which is fine for the news but not great for good fiction.

    Mason --- another War of the Worlds vote.

    B. Miller -- Thanks, and that's a great quote. Did you see your "award" on my Saturday post?
    Did you get my email?

  13. I've never thought of writers of fiction as liars. Unfortunately I think I am a good liar, and I think the more you do it, the easier it becomes. Explains a lot about certain people, doesn't it?

  14. Sandy -- Yes, it sounds rather bad to call writers of fiction liars, but they do have to share the same quality of making an untruth believable.

  15. What a great post.

    You're right!

    We must be liars. In many cases we must be willing to lie to ourselves - to deny what we believe to tell the story 'truthfully' from the viewpoint of a character we find abominable.



    from the desk of a writer

  16. Interesting points! Outside of writing I'm a horrible liar, but that's only because people can read my face like a book (pun intended, ha, ha).

    Thanks for stopping by my blog today!

  17. Lee, great insight into writing my friend.
    I've written a book and a play. Don't think I even know what happened to the play, and the book was boring...LOL...I think I lost the play on an older computer...
    No matter. Life goes on and the stories keep happening.
    Love God. Live life. Be free.
    Blessings bro.
    DJ GlenMC

  18. Glenn -- you gave me a laugh. Why did you say your book was boring? Maybe it only seemed boring to you because you had lived with it and gotten too used to it. But thanks for the compliment.


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