This is going to sound horrible and no one is going to want to trust me or any other fiction writer again but I need to get this out here and it is the TRUTH! All, or at least most, fiction writers are GOOD LIARS! It’s a true fact, for our job it is a requirement. If we can’t successfully lie to people we can’t make them believe our stories. I want to tell you the secret to telling a convincing lie in story form. I do not condone lying for harmful purposes, but it is a cold hard fact that when we write fiction we are lying. None of what we are saying has ever happened, most of what we write never existed, and the worlds we create don’t exist except for inside our heads, which could also mean that we are completely insane. But that is a discussion for another time.
Now, back on topic… fiction writers really are liars, and we’re good at it. That makes us scary people. When people read your writing they believe it, they should be immersed in it, become a part of it and while they are reading it they must believe it is real, or at least that it could be real. We lie convincingly enough that they believe us. Did you ever lie to your parents while growing up and convince them that your brother or sister was the one that broke the vase or whatever. I know I did crap like that and I got away with it because I was good at lying. Heck I would talk circles around my sister until I had her believing that she really did it and would fess up. I will admit that I have since either gotten in trouble for that or apologized to my sister and told my parents about a few of them, not all mind you but a few.
I once read a really good book for my high school English class that I thought was real but then I found out none of it had ever happened. If you haven’t read The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien I suggest that you do, it is an amazing book about the Vietnam War. O’Brien really is a veteran of Vietnam and has written quite a few books about it. In this one he wrote it from the perspective of a writer named Tim O’Brien and I thought it was actually him, but it turned out not to be. This book is a very good example of the lying that fiction writers do. (No offense meant to Mr. O’Brien.)
Here is why that book and so many other fiction books are good and others not so much.
1. All good lies are based in truth! No one will believe your lie if there is no truth to it. Something has to be true. It can be the characters or the setting, or even the psychology of it. If you are writing a historical fiction I suggest the setting be real. In The Things They Carried O’Brien captures the real setting of Vietnam based on his own experience, but he stretches things and some he completely makes up. He never killed a man, as far as I know he was never shot, though you may correct me on that if you know better, and he has no daughter named Kathleen, and Linda is completely fictional. (If I am ruining this book for you or spoiling it before you read it I am truly sorry, and I still recommend that you read it.) The reason these lies work out is that they are based in the truth of the war. People really did die this way; soldiers really did carry things like this, physically and emotionally. Some soldiers really did have this kind of reaction to the end of the war. In the book it is stated that a good war story has no happy ending and no moral and O’Brien really did do that, the book, though good, is also rather depressing in that there are no morals and no happy endings. The only moral one might even think of taking from it is that war is brutal. This is a very good example of basing your lie in truth.
2. You must believe your own lie. If you can’t believe your lie then no one else will. It is a simple psychological fact; the truth is in the perception. It’s how sugar pills sometimes cure an illness or how people fool lie detectors. If you teach a child that blue is green and green is blue then they will believe the sky is green because what we perceive, what we call, blue is what they call green. For the same reason they will think the grass is blue even though we all know that the sky is blue and the grass is green. If we hook up that person to a lie detector and they say the sky is green they will pass the test because they believe it is true. When you tell a story you must believe your story the same way that that person believes the sky is green. Now, before I go farther I don’t want you to lose yourself completely and go insane, because that is another part of it, you have to be able to pull yourself out of the lie and know the difference between fact and fiction. In order to believe your own lie, or story in this case there isn’t much I can really tell you. All good writers are slightly insane so it’s easy to believe the lie, but for those of you that aren’t nuts I’d say that the best way to believe the story is to, as I said earlier, base it in truth. Use people you know as models, use things you understand. If you’re writing say an alternate history, where say Hitler was never born find out what life was like and then consider if Hitler was never born would the holocaust or WWII have never happened or would it still have happened with a different leader? Make it realistic and something you can believe. That is my opinion on how to believe your own lie, if you have another idea I’d love to hear about it.
3. Don’t get too crazy. Unless you are writing about an alien culture that you will be thoroughly explaining or already have explained don’t have something like say when somebody gets their mother killed in front of them when they are oh… about say… six for this purpose. Don’t have this person remain calm and happy and go on laughing with friends and playing ring around the rosie three feet from the body. It is simply unrealistic. Eventually they will be angry and sad and there will be emotion or they might become a sociopathic killer but to sum it up they will not be okay! There will be emotional damage. If you aren’t doing a steam punk, sci-fi time travel book, or extremely alternate history don’t put flying cars in 1684. It just isn’t believable. Let me say however that if you want to do something with the future pretty much anything is possible so all you really have to worry about there is the psychology. Make it believable. Don’t make Jack the Ripper a cripple who can’t walk or raise his own arms. (Unless you have some way that he can fake it or something else cool. If you do and write it let me know. I want to read it.)
So those are my tips for fiction writers to make your stories better if you find that they lack, but there is one thing I can’t teach you or tell you how to get and that is soul. If your writing doesn’t have heart and soul to it not very many people will like it. There is no formula for good writing; though others may tell you different, because it isn’t just something you do it is a part of you and who you are. You can tell a lot about a person from what they write. When a good writer writes she or he bares their soul for the world to see, they let you into their mind for a little while and it is a truly amazing thing. If somebody tells you they have a fool-proof method for good writing don’t believe them because odds are it’s just a scam.
Let me tell you there are some amazing authors out there that don’t have the raw talent that others do for writing but they bare their soul and people love them and there are others that have a talent with words but they can’t or don’t bare their soul and while their lies are good on the surface they are hollow on the inside and a lot of people can tell. Those are the authors that you read their books and love them while you’re reading them and when you’re done you say, “Why did I read that?” (Although sometimes that might be because it was really just stupid.) or “What was I reading about?” Books with soul will stick in your mind and you’ll remember them and love them for as long as you live. I hope that my writing is never one of those soulless pieces and I hope you can believe my lies. (Ha! And once again I don’t condone lying for harmful purposes.)