Monday, March 1, 2010
Persnickety Penman: How to be a Good Liar
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?
Posted by Arlee Bird at 2:00 AM