4.26.2018

Your Lying Scoundrels

Everyone knows you’re not supposed to lie, but we all do it. You may want to cover up a trivial mistake, such as accidentally calling the wrong number and then making an excuse why you called. The reason might be more serious, such as why the car has a new dent in the rear. (You still can’t believe you missed seeing that light pole.) We use lies to protect ourselves, among other reasons. So, how come your characters never lie?

The reason I raise the question stems from a preliminary phase I frequently use during a developmental edit. I like authors to write out suggested new material before I get started with the full edit. Many times that process involves asking for new clues, since all sorts of books benefit from mystery tension. You would think, if a character is in any way associated with a crime, he would have a good reason to lie. That’s a lot more serious than a fender bender. Yet time after time, the author has the character blurt out some truth that will wreck what’s already in the manuscript.

Let’s rewind: we all lie. If a character lies, no doubt for good reasons, think about all the delicious possibilities that open up from it. The character has to keep track of the lie. She may worry about having lied, scolding herself for ending up in a false position. She might have to pile more lies on top of that lie, drawing further disbelief and/or suspicion (both from another character and the reader). At some point, of your choosing, the truth has to emerge. The character ends up being shamed or even damned. In other words, false pretenses create tension. That’s what you want in your story.

As the author, you know what the truth is. You also know that withholding information from the reader until a chosen moment is good storytelling. So why aren’t you using an activity that would serve your purposes?

Exercise: When you realize a character needs to play a bigger role, consider having him lie about a key point. That lie has repercussions, and you can plot out each stage of them. How many times is the truth nearly revealed? What happens if another character knows about the lie? How does the lying character compound the problem? When you consider these successive waves, you should be eager to drop a lie into your pond.

“It's no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.”
—Mark Twain

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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