Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Tell Me Lies

Let's face it:  Everybody lies.  Whether it's telling your mother-in-law her lasagna is the best in the world just as you're wondering how to swallow one more unpalatable bite, or agreeing with Uncle Joe's politics in order to avoid a pointless argument, we all have to glide over "the truth" once in awhile.  And it's exactly the same for your characters--with one big difference:  sometimes your characters have to go way beyond the social niceties.  Sometimes they have to tell whoppers;  big, huge, gigantic lies that could get them into so much trouble I don't even want to think about it.

Far from being the road straight to hell, lies in fiction are an invaluable tool for creating both external and internal conflict.  Untruths are also a great vehicle for "showing, not telling" who your characters really are at heart.  How they lie (blush, stammer, or look you straight in the eye), and the lies they choose to tell (tall tales, or deceitful rumors calculated to cause the most possible harm) can deliver more impact to your plot than pages and pages of truthful--and dull--good behavior.

While many genres routinely depend upon lies to provide the bulk and basis of the story, e.g.:
  • Mystery fiction ("Wasn't me, guv.").
  • Thrillers ("Tell them you are a visiting anthropologist from Bulgaria.").
  • Romance ("I hate him!")
...any type of good fiction can benefit from a good dose of dishonesty.  For instance, with a few well-placed fibs you can:
  • Establish tension:  Will the liar be found out?
  • Create sympathy:  But he did it for his family!  I.e., when a "good" character tells a lie to serve a higher purpose, we'll be desperate for him to get away with it.
  • Story justice.  Just as much as we want our hero's lie to save the day, we also want "bad" characters to get their comeuppance.  It feels good when villains and antagonists are found out as the evil-doers we know they are--and then receive their due punishment.
  • Plot development.  Characters who lie will do anything to keep from being discovered.  Characters in search of the truth will risk all to reach their goal.  Put the two together and your scenes will practically write themselves. 
  • Motivation, mission, and revenge.  Characters who have been lied to won't be happy campers...keeping those wily, no-good, double-crossing liars on the hop.
A good trick to see if your WIP will benefit from throwing in a lie or two is to simply try it out.  On a sheet of paper, take each one of your characters and give them three secrets.  Now give them three possible reasons for needing to keep those secrets.  Finally, invent three lies they could tell to keep those secrets private.  Even if you don't want or need to use any of these secrets and lies in your actual plot line, knowing what they are will go a long way to making your characters real and vivid--even when they're telling the truth.

Tip of the Day:  Make a list of some of your favorite books and movies.  Ask yourself:  What lies do the characters in these stories tell themselves and/or each other?  How did a lie maintain the story tension and keep the plot moving?  How were the lies resolved?  What can you learn from these examples to add more conflict to your own fiction?

1 comment:

thelittlefluffycat said...

Don't forget the lie by omission - the news/concern that should have been shared but wasn't! There's a House saying, "Everybody Lies"; my jaw dropped when I realized that was probably from a Mark Twain essay.

Why? Well, he never told me that...