NF – Lying to your audience

I wonder about lying. Not like in people-to-people interactions, but just in storytelling. Lying as a storyteller is odd, because unlike every other kind, you want your audience to know that you’re lying. I find it’s a useful tool in engaging the reader in what’s going on. If you get your reader to argue with the page, that’s a total and complete win in my book.

Having any kind of perfection in the opening sequence of your book falls into this category. If the character thinks all is right with the world, you know that idea’s about to change. Things couldn’t possibly get any worse? Challenge accepted.

It’s an advanced concept to execute well, though, but if you can, man is it fun.

I think that’s why so many authors love writing plot twists. It’s a thrilling dance to know the truth and (successfully) mislead the reader. Take any murder mystery as an example. The author knows who the murderer is from the get-go, but it’s the journey of the character figuring it out that makes the whole ride fun. Every red herring, every superfluous character, anything that keeps the reader guessing is a lie to the audience.

I also wonder about characters lying to each other. “Everything’s going to be okay.” “We’ll see each other again.” Even an “I love you” or “I hate you” can be a lie to each other. In my own experience, these come in the form of simple statements from a complex character. “I’m fine.” No, you’re not.

Pulling it off can be a chore to learn, though. The last thing you want to do (in any circumstance) is to confuse your reader. A good audience will buy into whatever you tell them. The suspension of disbelief is essential for storytelling in any format. Yes, the audience knows that Captain America can’t be frozen for 75 years and re-emerge without the slightest bit of brain damage. But we buy into it because we care about the story. Casting doubt on anything the author says is a dangerous line to walk.

The trick, I think, is to make the first bit of information you give to the audience the truth. Then, when something comes up to challenge that first assertion, the reader gets to weight the information and assess for themselves. Disagree with the characters, even. Engagement. Win.

The next question that comes is why we lie at all. Why not be forthright with your audience? You could go your entire career and never lie to your audience, and it would not be a wasted career. There’s the meme that states something like: “I’m fine! I can totally handle my alcohol.” Narrator: She could not handle her alcohol. Amusing, yes. But why not write that way?

My question, instead, is why do we need the narrator’s part at all? If your reader is tracking with the story, they should be at least thinking that already. Prove it before the character delivers the line, and it’s all the more powerful and entertaining.

Like almost everything I talk about here, it’s another tool in the toolbox. Another thing to think about as you’re crafting your story. It doesn’t have to be used every scene, or even every story. But lying to the audience is one of my great joys, when the occasion arises.




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