A thin line between truth and lies

Readers are like the parents of teenagers. They want to believe your story. Really they do. But they have their doubts. And as you go about spinning your yarn about why it is you weren’t where you said you would be and why there’s a suspicious-looking stain on the ceiling, they’re listening and hoping that the story pans out, but they’re also looking out for the inconsistencies that belie your tale.

And that is why it is important to be able to lie well when you’re a writer, but also why it’s crucial to tell the truth.

These things may seem incongruous, but believe me, lying and truth-telling work hand in hand for fiction. The ratio of lie to truth depends on a few things, like the genre of the book. A memoir would have far less lies, one hopes. It may also depend on the motive of the writer. Vampire stories veer more toward lying. Then there’s what the reader brings to the table. In Dan Brown’s case, I’m sure there are different levels of belief in that yarn he’s spinning. Do you believe in secret religious societies? I don’t. Some do.

Some writers believe that to tell a good story, you have to make sure you lie well and don’t mess up the details. For example, if a kid buys a spaceship with a corndog, he’s probably not going to be too worried about facts like the physics of flying a spaceship through the universe. That would seem incongruous, and mess up the whole damn lie. Whereas other writers believe that to lie well, you have to rely on the truth, specifically, universal truths like the effect of longing and desire on us poor mortals. Say Harry’s married but in love with another woman, he most likely won’t go around telling everyone he meets. Harry, if he wants to keep his body intact, would try to keep his desires under wraps.

These writers are actually saying the same thing: in the context of your story, your lie must approximate truth so closely, that readers have no choice but to believe it. And whether you do that by telling a clever lie, or you do it by parsing the truth is a matter of dexterity and your ultimate goal. But do it, you must. Or else readers are going to walk away.

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