Lies, Damn Lies, and Story Telling

Writing fiction is, at root, an exercise in attempting to expose some deeper truth about life through a filter of things that never happened, people who never lived, and, sometimes, non-existent places. It is a common joke for fiction authors to say they “lie for a living.” (Well, in my case it would be a lie to say I make a living at it, at least so far, but that’s another story…)

But it is important, especially for new authors, to understand that even within the web of “lies” that an author is spinning into a story, it is generally critically important for the author to never lie to their reader.

Wait, how can I “not lie” if my entire story is a “lie” in the first place?

There is an unspoken contract between the person who is telling the story, and the person who is reading the story. That contract goes something like this: “I know this story is all made up out of whole cloth, but I am still willing to read it, with the expectation that the story will be internally consistent, and that within the context of the story itself, the author will not rely on duplicity to deceive me into believing one thing, only to learn that something else is the case.”

While the story itself is a “lie,” if the author breaks that trust in order to create what they consider to be a “twist,” then the reader will view that not as a mere “lie,” instead that will be seen as a “damn lie” and once a reader encounters a “damn lie” in a story, they may never trust that author again.

Today, aspiring authors are frequently told that their story must have a “twist,” or something unexpected and potentially shocking to the reader. Of course, the easiest way to do that, is to spend the entire story making you believe one thing, only to contradict that thing at the end just to create a “gotcha” moment for the author.

I won’t lie, I hate books that do that.

“But wait!” you might be saying. “Isn’t deceiving the reader the entire point for certain stories?”

In a sense that’s true. But usually those stories aren’t about lying to the reader, they are about creating an impression by allowing readers to make certain assumptions, and then (sometimes, gently, sometimes abruptly) guiding the reader to realize, at some point, that their assumptions were wrong.

But, at that point the reader must be able to smack themselves in the head and say: “Oh, yeah! I get it now, the clues were there all along, and I just didn’t put them together.” Because if they don’t, their reaction will be more like “What the frack!? What the heck is this?”

The clues being there all along, and the reader finally putting them together, is the heart of story telling. That’s why story telling is not a one-way activity. For a good book to really reach and speak to a reader, that reader must put some effort into reading it, figuring out what the author is doing, and putting it all together at the end. And no reader wants to put that effort into something, only to discover that the author just broke the unspoken covenant, just for a quick “gotcha.”

Authors Lie to Tell the Big Truths

When we pick up a work of fiction, we are seeking to lose ourselves in a beautiful lie. While some readers are driven by the need to escape their reality, most use fiction as an emotional exercise, a way to live vicariously through the adventures of another and stretch the limits of what is possible in our own lives. This latter sort of reader won’t be satisfied by fantastic worlds and flashy plots. While they may be entertained by these elements, they want to sink their teeth into some deeper meaning, a truth that resonates not only with the story, but with their own experiences.

The first step in delivering this deeper human truth is establishing a sense of empathy between the readers and the characters. No matter the culture, or even the species, of the protagonists and points of view, their motivations and choices must ring true. Would we be willing to accept a teratogenic dwarf that cons his way into the admiralcy of a space mercenary fleet? Sure, no problem. However, if Miles VorKosigan were to suddenly give up his military dreams and decide to become a farmer? We’d call shenanigans. Readers invest in characters, not stories. We must see them struggle against impossible odds and make choices that lead them to victory. No matter how fantastic the persona, it is only when our characters are true to their natures and goals that we as readers can invest in their struggles.
Once our readers invest in character, they will begin to look for a link between the protagonists’ fictional journey and the questions and struggles they face in their own lives. Sometimes these truths are topical and current. As an example, I can write countless blog posts about racism, discrimination, prejudice, and fear, but for the most part will have a hard time convincing those who disagree with me. Rather than arguing with my audience, I could make my characters argue for us. Furthermore, by couching my argument in the terms of a fantastic lie, I remove ego and defensiveness from the equation. After all, I am talking about my characters, not about them, right? I could make my protagonist an anthropomorphic bunny who is trying to break a species barrier and fulfill her childhood dream of being a police officer. I pair her with a fox conman and force her to question her own views of predators and foxes in particular, with whom she has had bad experiences in the past. As she questions her prejudice and preconceptions, so will the audience. In so doing, I use my fantastic lie to proxy larger, current social struggles and make an argument for diversity and inclusiveness that is more likely to achieve meaningful success than a thousand angry blog posts.

However, as writers we aren’t limited to current social questions. There are some truths so profound to the human experience that variations on their stories are repeated across generations and cultural barriers. We want to believe in a world where a hobbit from the Shire can face and destroy the greatest evil of his world because sometimes we feel small and powerless. We want to see Aragon and Arwen marry because if they can find a way for their love to survive war, distance, and hardship, then our own romantic futures aren’t hopeless. We want to return to the Shire with Sam because we need to believe that all the chaos and pain of living is for a greater purpose – home and family. Though we might not have the perspective to see the arc of our own lives, we can spend hours, days, or weeks with a story to gain the catharsis we need to push through our own struggles.

As writers, we rely on our readers to willingly suspend their disbelief in order to work our storytelling magic. However, no matter how fantastic and entertaining we may be, our stories must ring true on a deeper level for our readers to commit to the tale. It is only when our characters are believable, empathetic, and when their decisions and struggles resonate with our own experiences that we can truly connect with a story. Readers want to believe the lie, not only because they seek to escape reality for a time, but also because in so doing we seek to understand the truth of our own world.

Lies New Authors Tell Themselves

Nothing makes a professional author chuckle like listening to potential writers deciding to get into the field. Far too many think it’s easy to write a book and then have publishing companies dump shipping containers of hundred dollar bills on your front lawn. While this is a theoretical possibility (E.L. James comes to mind), it’s not probable.

I thought I would pick a few common lies that wanna-be writers tell themselves. Enjoy!

Writers Make Lots of Money

If only this was true. The best advice any professional author can give you is “don’t quit your day job.” You will need the income stability for yourself and your family, plus you may need the healthcare benefits if your day job provides them. Other benefits include life insurance and retirement contributions.

A study in the United Kingdom showed the average income for a professional author was £12,500, or $15,400 per year. That’s up from $11,000 per year, but only because the British Pound has declined in relation to the U.S. Dollar ever since Brexit was approved. Either way, fifteen grand and change will not go much further than paying some of your bills.

Is it possible to get rich writing? Yes, but again, not likely. You may have similar luck playing the Powerball and Megamillions lottery twice a week.

My recommendation? If you feel the call to write, then write and publish. Don’t go in with the idea you’ll get rich. If it happens, congratulations. Maybe you want to switch over and write full time, now that you no longer have to worry about money. You can work towards that goal, and you can change the odds with improving your craft and continuing to publish.

Writers are Experts in Language and Grammar

I have yet to meet one, although I would hedge and say that J.R.R. Tolkien is probably one of the closest. Every author I know makes a ton of mistakes when writing. After all, that’s why editors were invented. Editors typically have a better grasp of the mechanics of language…or at least the great ones do. The editors will comb through your work and fix all of those comma splices and split infinitives, vacuum out the extra commas, and polish the correct letters when you use to, too, or two.

The purpose of an author is to tell a fascinating story in a logical methodology. Things have to happen and destinies and lives should be changed. Focus on that while doing your best to learn more about using proper grammar. At the very least, your editor will appreciate the effort.

You Can Never Become an Author

This is the saddest lie one can tell themselves. You’re basically convincing yourself not to even try, although you want to. You might be the magic lottery winner (and not Shirley Jackson’s version) if you start to curate your thoughts and words onto a page.

Is it hard work? Hell yes, it certainly is! It takes a lot of writing, editing, re-writing, and re-re-writing to put out a decent story. You can’t wait for your muse to inspire you if you’re gunning for the professional author title. Writers write, and that means there is no time for things like “writer’s block”. Can you imagine not selling coffee at your day job because you’re not feeling your coffee muse? Writing is just that, a job. That means you need to learn to be productive. There are a lot of suggestions and recommendations on how to do this on The Fictorians. In fact, this October and November, there will be a NaNoWriMo theme that stresses productivity.

In the end, focus on the craft. Notch out some time from your busy schedule, even if it’s only an hour, and use that time to write just as if you were going to your day job. Produce new words. Edit old ones. Learn new skills. Read new books outside of your favorite genre. Improve yourself instead of lying to yourself. One has to realize that most of the time we’re our own worst critic.

I believe in you, for one. Now go earn some more fans.


 

About the Author:DeMarco_Web-5963

Guy Anthony De Marco is a disabled US Navy veteran speculative fiction author; a Graphic Novel Bram Stoker Award® nominee; winner of the HWA Silver Hammer Award; a prolific short story and flash fiction crafter; a novelist and poet; an invisible man with superhero powers; a game writer (Sojourner Tales modules, Interface Zero 2.0 core team, third-party D&D modules); and a coffee addict. One of these is false.
A writer since 1977, Guy is a member of the following organizations: SFWA, WWA, SFPA, IAMTW, ASCAP, RMFW, NCW, HWA. He hopes to collect the rest of the letters of the alphabet one day. Additional information can be found at Wikipedia and GuyAnthonyDeMarco.com.

 

Red Herrings and Other Fishy Thoughts

In literature, a red herring is an informal fallacy that typically uses extraneous or irrelevant information to mislead the audience. It’s used to give an astute reader several challenges during the telling of the tale.

In other words, they’re purposeful deceits the author employs to mislead the folks who read their stories.

Red herrings are actually dried fish that are kippered, or salted and smoked, which turns their meat a reddish color. In 1807, a writer named William Corbett wrote about using red herrings dragged along the ground to train hunting dogs. This wasn’t actually true, but the readers didn’t know and the concept of red herrings was born.

Red herrings are used extensively in mysteries and thrillers, and are a staple for noir detective stories. By employing these misdirections, the author can attempt to get the readers to believe something is the correct answer when it is not. The concept is to include little tidbits of irrelevant yet related information that helps to push the reader into thinking a particular way.

Agatha Christie was a genius at employing red herrings. In Murder on the Orient Express, almost everything is a red herring pushing one away from focusing on the killer until you realize everyone was the killer. In her novel And Then There Were None, there’s a list of how people are going to get bumped off. Victim number four doesn’t seem to be a red herring until you realize that she told you flat out they were in the poem.

Employing red herrings should always be logical in some ways, but the information that incriminates should be irrelevant to the final solution to the mystery. Always give your readers the information that can dismiss the new clue somewhere in the text without making it obvious. For example, discovering the killer must have used their left hand to kill the victim might seem to clear a woman who always uses her right hand. But what if she was actually ambidextrous? Half the readers will wander off on the path that clears the woman, while the others might not be fooled by the accurate but not complete information. That’s the fun behind reading a mystery!

So how do you incorporate red herrings into your work? I’m glad you asked. They should be blended into the overall information you give to your readers. If it’s too straight-forward, the readers are distracted by the fumbling attempt to mislead them. Focus on giving the reader a reason to believe that something is the correct answer using information that is related yet does not factually implicate. Try reading some of the older mysteries such as Poirot, Miss Marple, and Perry Mason. You can even see them in old mysteries and detective shows on classic television.

A fascinating red herring example is Professor Snape in the Harry Potter series. He’s constantly shown as a bad person throughout seven books until the last few chapters, where we finally learn that he has been trying to help Harry survive. All the red herrings are cleared up as we learn the truth, and the readers discover that the person they despised the most was the bravest person of all. That’s why Snape and, by extension, actor Alan Rickman went from evil villain to beloved savior.

 


 

About the Author:DeMarco_Web-5963

Guy Anthony De Marco is a disabled US Navy veteran speculative fiction author; a Graphic Novel Bram Stoker Award® nominee; winner of the HWA Silver Hammer Award; a prolific short story and flash fiction crafter; a novelist; an invisible man with superhero powers; a game writer (Sojourner Tales modules, Interface Zero 2.0 core team, third-party D&D modules); and a coffee addict. One of these is false.
A writer since 1977, Guy is a member of the following organizations: SFWA, WWA, SFPA, IAMTW, ASCAP, RMFW, NCW, HWA. He hopes to collect the rest of the letters of the alphabet one day. Additional information can be found at Wikipedia and GuyAnthonyDeMarco.com.