Monday 18 November 2013

A Good Liar Makes A Good Writer

Stories are filled with unlikely occurrences. It’s hard to avoid unless you’re writing about very mundane events. But no matter how fantastical things get, and how willing the reader is to suspend their disbelief, it’s the writer’s responsibility to make what’s happening on the page feel believable.

And there are plenty of attributes of the good liar that can prove useful in doing this.

A lot of which comes down to not what you say but how you say it.

Some people find lying very easy. It usually takes a lot of practice and a sociopathic personality, but a confident manner and a smooth delivery can fool a lot of the people a lot of the time.

Most of us, however, get very uncomfortable about the whole thing well in advance. Will we get caught? Are we doing a bad thing? Is it too blatant? Does it sound plausible? What if we start sweating and stammering like that other time?

Once you allow doubts to creep in, the dread of being found out can very easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So, what makes a good lie?

Well, you have to sound like you mean what you say.

The less sure someone sounds about what they’re saying, the less convincing they’ll be. The more they hesitate and dither and beat around the bush, the less inclined anyone will be to believe them, regardless of the veracity of what they’re saying.

On the other hand, ever ask someone a simple question and get a long, involved answer with lots of exact dates and times? It may feel like providing all possible details will make for a more convincing case but it usually ends up sounding like a desperate cover-up.

A person telling the truth can only tell you what happened to them as they experienced it. It’s not The Truth they’re telling you, it’s their truth.

A person telling a lie may need to invent things and keep stuff hidden, but they don’t need to provide evidence from independent sources, they only need to relay their own personal view of how things panned out. Telling a story from that one persistent perspective makes it a lot easier to believe.

A clever liar will put themselves inside their invented scenario and treat it like a real one, not just in terms of what they know, but also in terms of what they don’t.

And even though a liar may be forced to make stuff up, it helps to use as much of the truth as possible. They will surround the made-up stuff with undisputable facts. Even the most outrageous lie can seem plausible if everything leading up to it makes perfect sense. The more convincing the whole, the less obvious the flaws.

Or, to put it another way, write what you know to be absolutely true and you’ll be able to slip in all sorts of flights of fancy without raising any eyebrows.

Ultimately, the person who can fool a lie detector is the person who believes their own lie. While self-belief is a key component in making a story sound real, it can be a two-edged sword. There are plenty of people who only manage to convince one person of their nonsense, and that’s themselves.

Not of much use to fibbers or scribblers.

You need to be able to gauge the response to your words. This is obviously a lot more immediate for a liar who can see suspicion blossom in their victim’s face and make the appropriate adjustments to their fabrications.

For a writer it takes a little outside help. If you possess complete confidence in what you’ve written then you have every right to ignore everyone else’s opinions. But it usually pays to at least be aware of why certain things might be proving problematic for some people.

Sometimes it’s the part of the story that happened for real that draws suspect glances, makes no difference. There’s no point being honest if no one believes you.

Feedback won’t necessarily tell you how to fix your story but it will tell you which areas need work, the rest is up to you. And since most liars don’t get a second chance, it’s an opportunity worth taking.

If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.
Over at Write To Done they're holding nominations for the best writing blogs of 2013. I was fortunate to be one of the winners last year (thanks to those who nominated me, hope you'll consider doing the same again). Please take a moment to leave a comment HERE for your favourite writing blog of 2013.  


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I am not a good liar. Just doesn't come natural. Can't fake enthusiasm either. But for writing, it's a necessity to learn for the characters' sakes.

Sarah Foster said...

I'm a terrible liar. Ironically, my narrator is a very good one. I think it's important to spend a lot of time crafting your characters and making them believable, even if they're the opposite of who you are.

Kimberly said...

I'm definitely not a good liar myself, but you're right about them being confident - I've seen them in action and I can still pick them out, most of the time. :)

mooderino said...

@Alex - writing about events that didn't happen to characters who don't exist is all the lying I want to do.

@Sarah - believable is much more important than real or true, although there's no reason why you can't have all three.

@Kimberly - you can get away with a lot just by acting like you're right. Can be tiring to be around those people, though.

21 Wits said...

Being a perfect liar, can absolutely assist, but enthusiasm is key for getting as many on board with your story as possible.

mooderino said...

@Karen - I think a story can benefit from both.

Weaver said...

Congrats on the nomination. Interesting about the liar comparison. I guess the bottom line is intent, huh?

Saumya said...

Great post and so true!!

mooderino said...

@Donna - I was nominated last year, haven't been nominated this year.

@Samya - thanks.

Unknown said...

I've never thought of it that way. I usually think of it as acting and improvisation. Sounds much nicer than that I'm really good at lying. lol I love the Pinocchio pic! :-)

mooderino said...

@Lexa - if anyone's good at lying it's an actor. They should give the Oscar to liar of the year (and best supporting liar).

Unknown said...

Very nice post, Moody, with many great points. I especially liked this one:

"A clever liar will put themselves inside their invented scenario and treat it like a real one, not just in terms of what they know, but also in terms of what they don’t."

M.L. Swift, Writer

Shah Wharton said...

Well that's it then, I need to quit! I'm a rotten liar. The guilt always reveals my lie in he end. :(

Crystal Collier said...

Nope, can't lie. BUT I have one heck of an imagination, and therein lies the real power of storytelling if you ask me. :)

Unknown said...

I subscribe to Maya Angelou's edict: Tell the truth without telling the facts.

mooderino said...

@ML - thanks very much.

@Shah and @Crystal - it's not so much the lying as the techniques used by liars that can prove useful.

@Lisa - I'm not entirely sure what that means, which is pretty much how I feel about all of Maya Angelou's writing (my fault more than hers, I'm sure).

Sarah Allen said...

It's like that Neil Gaiman quote that goes something like, "A reader who tells you how to fix everything is almost always wrong, but a reader who tells you what to fix is almost always write." Something like that.

Sarah Allen
(From Sarah, with Joy)

mooderino said...

@Sarah - i think it's more along the lines of someone who tells you something doesn't work it nearly always right, when they tell you how to fix it they're nearly always wrong. (I could be wrong).

Kim Van Sickler said...

Embellishers of the truth. My kids are great at that! They start with a premise I know or believe is true and add stuff to it in such a convincing way that I don't know whether to believe them or not. But I want to believe them. And they want me to believe them. It's a great skill to have. I've always been more unsure of myself in real life. I think I'm more convincing on paper.

Unknown said...

"A clever liar will put themselves inside their invented scenario and treat it like a real one, not just in terms of what they know, but also in terms of what they don’t."

And that's where the parallel between being a good liar and a good writer is complete in my estimation. :)

Unless you're writing academically, it's unlikely you'll posses in-depth knowledge of the things you write about. So you have to sell what you do, and mask what you don't--all with a slide of hand. There's a writer/magician comparison in here somewhere as well. :)

You're THE writing blog in my opinion, so of course I'll jump over and cast my vote for you.

mooderino said...

Kim - kids, you can't trust 'em.

@EJ - thanks very much, greatly appreciated.

Anonymous said...

My first novel was/is called 'A Good Liar': I liked the ambivalence, and it works well, I think

mooderino said...

@sutton.ruth - sometimes lying is the best way to get to the truth. And sometimes it's just someone trying to pull a fast one (which can at least be entertaining).

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