Lie! (to your readers)

by 12:07 AM 0 comments


The lie. The long con. Shading the truth. Pulling the wool over their eyes.

They all amount to the same thing. Lying.

Your parents told you to always tell the truth, then proceeded to ignore that advice at various points every year in order to bring magic into your life. Your parents were wrong, and even worse, they were hypocrites.

Is that a bad thing? No. Lying as human as emotion, an essential part of how we interact with each other. There are times when dishonesty is necessary, just as there are times when it is the worst thing you can do.

I tell you all of this to reinforce one point-a lie is a tool, an ends to a means, and it can be used for good or evil depending on the will of it's wielder.

But how to use it for good, and whats more, how to use it for good in your writing? Well, I'm certainly no expert on the subject, but I have spent alot of time recently thinking about just that, and would like to share my thoughts.

Fiction is, by it's very essence, a lie. None of that stuff in your book really happened. The literal definition of a lie is to convey inaccurate information. You may be shaking your head, disagreeing with me by saying that the fictional universe that you transport them to is disclosed as false right up front, before the reader even open the front cover. I would concede your point, then follow with a few of my own.

1. A good fiction author tries to craft a story that the reader can relate to on some level, to draw parallels to their life that allows them to see a bit of themselves in it. Good fiction teaches the reader something about themselves, and by showing what might happen in fictional situations, he/she imparts a fictional possibility that the reader will hold on to long after the reading. It will weave it's way into their logic patterns the way the unspun top did to the woman in the film "Inception". So not just deceitful, but manipulatory too.

2. A good fiction author often includes twists and turns in their stories. Some would say they are a necessity, since a story that is linear holds no surprises and thus a lack of enjoyment for the reader. Even if the characters are fake, if the consequences ethereal, are you still not being misled? Are you not led to believe that one thing is more likely to happen, only to have the rug pulled out from underneath you? Authors are world class liars.

There are of course others, which I invite you to share below in the comments section, but I would like to continue on before I run the risk of losing track of the point that I was trying to make.

Authors lie, that much I have covered above. But is it a bad thing? Of course not, it's necessary to provide an entertaining story, and psychologists would even argue that playing off of a readers preconceived notions can hardly be considered lying. Readers bring their own history to your stories, they bring their own impulses, memories, and imaginations. When the first Twilight film was released, a large portion of the reader base was upset over the casting of Robert Pattinson as Edward. Looking back on it, it seems really hard to believe, but they were.

Why? Because they had each brought their preconceived notions of what they thought Edward should look like to the theater. The only way to match everyone's expectations would be to film a million different copies of the film, and make sure that every person was able to see the version with the actor they had always envisioned as Edward. There is only one true vision of a work of art, and that is the one that gave birth to it in the authors mind. Until mind-computer interfaces are able to pull memories at high resolution, there's no way to truly share the 100% accurate story.

People even feel lied to when their favorite books are adapted into films. There is simply no way to please everyone, no way to translate a story conceived in prose, written from various perspectives with various levels of omniscience into something that people will be able to follow onscreen, and enjoy. Stephen King, one of the greatest writers of our time, spends a great deal of word count inside the heads of his characters, and the only accurate way to translate that is to have the characters all resort to lengthy voiceover or flashback sequences when the time comes to let everyone know what they are thinking.

The internal struggle of a characters mind is extremely difficult to show on screen, and that is probably the topiv that has me most worried about the adaptations of my favorite book and series (Altered Carbon-novel, and The Dark Tower-series). There's so much of those characters that the audience will have to be shown to them on the run as the film barrels towards it's climactic, high Box-Office grossing conclusion.

So, the story must be changed to give a large enough sample of that characters internal dialogue to approximate their personality in the book. And as an author and a reader, I know it's never enough. We grow attached to our characters, and want them to be who we think they should be, rather than interpreted by the director/actor thinks they should be. Even the author, who labored over every description, is insufficient to follow our own personal interpretation of the narrative. Books are amazing in their way they can provide a million subtly different experiences from the same 300 or so pages.

The author, despite their best efforts, gives up a form of intellectual license as soon as they allow someone else to read their work, as the reader will take their story, and their mind will change parts of it, adjust descriptions based on personal preference, and will be passed on as they talk with their friends about what they thought of the book. It;s the best kind of intellectual property theft, because while the base subject matter never changes, the story takes on a life of it's own and grows in a million different ways once liberated from the page.

And it is that process that is the basis of all literary lies.

Perception.

Perception is a tricky thing, baffling everyone from authors to physicists. As I already said above, we all bring our prejudices and preconceptions to the table when we pick up a new book. The only way to not lie to your readers are to tell completely true events, about people that are universally understood. If you tell a story about JFK that is 100% factually accurate, it's not a lie, and everyone understands JFK and what he stood for. Even then, if people choose to believe something untrue about JFK based on incomplete information, they may still think that they are being lied to, because our minds fill in gaps when truths are incomplete and the conclusions we draw are not always accurate. Our minds convince us that they are, eventually, and that makes the person telling the truth a perceived liar.

This happens in politics all the time, and it has gotten so bad that people never seem to be able to tell who is being more honest. I say more honest, because everyone lies, at least some of the time. Except maybe Ron Paul, but he's never going to be President.

And not to get political here (I'm making a point that is the crux of the entire piece, bear with me), but if a person who has stuck to the same positions for three decades, never wavering, and has never convinced a large enough portion of the populace to give him a chance to be considered as a realistic candidate, it forces me to reach one conclusion.

People like to be lied to, or rather, they expect to be lied to. The honest man has become the least trustworthy person in a world of liars. Everything about us is a shade of the truth. Makeup, Fashionable clothing, and personal style are often employed to give people a higher regard of us than we actually deserve. "Your boobs aren't that big", as Chris Rock once said, "Your lips ain't that red, your hair ain't that blonde/straight/long". And what guy hasn't embellished the truth of himself to impress a girl? What job applicant hasn't talked themselves up (or even lied outright) on their resume in an attempt to get a job?

Lies are all around us, and perhaps the biggest lie of all is to suggest that there is some larger truth out there, aside from mathematical equations. Everything is passed through our particular set of rose colored glasses, and somewhere along the way we must decide what to make of that. What we believe. I say believe because to believe in something is not the same as knowing a truth, though there are plenty of zealous people out there preaching "truths" that cannot be proven and as such are nothing more than mislabeled beliefs.

Further reduced down, what is truth? How do you know it when you see it? Can anyone here answer these questions definitively? I seriously doubt it. You can tell me what you believe, or what you hope to be true, but it's is to date unproven, and by extension falls short of the burden of proof.

So weave your stories, tell your tales, mislead your readers. Just make sure that there is a purpose for every one of your lies. If you have the best of intentions for your readers, to tell them an enjoyable story, as far as I am concerned you should feel free to take everything short of calculus and rip it's metaphorical heart out. If Dan Brown can blaspheme, so can you. (OK, maybe not the best example, but it's all I have at midnight).

Make the sky red. Make the ground of diamonds, just have a compelling reason why. Your readers expect a good story, and whatever other expectations they may have are impossible to fulfill, because each reader is an individual galaxy of preconceived notions.

It's like the old Stones lyric, "You can't always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need."

Your readers need good stories. Interesting, compelling stories. And while they may WANT the truth, they don't NEED it.

Chris Godsoe

Developer

Christopher Godsoe is a science fiction author in Central Maine. A single father, he spends his time enjoying video games with his son, cooking, and is an unrepentant film buff.