Lies and the Lying Liars That Write Them

Last night was a total comedy of errors.

The only thing worse than being told the night before that your daughter has a performance at school tomorrow night is to find that she needs to wear a white top and black bottoms, discover that she has no black pants that fit, drag both kids out at 7pm to buy a pair of pants, call around to ask someone if they can pick up your daughter so your son will keep his first appointment, cancel your son's second appointment, get home late and pop the kids into bed, receive a call from the school the next day at 2:50pm that your daughter is curled up on the floor with a headache, have daughter insist she still wants to go to the friend's house, agree, drive an hour to get to the school early, eating dinner with son in the car en route, sit for an hour in the assembly clapping for other peoples' children, try to ignore squirming son screaming that he wants to play Angry Birds right NOW! just in time for daughter to sneak up and say she feels really sick and wants to leave. Leave (but not before she throws up (twice) and then drive the hour home...without ever seeing the kid's performance).

Yes, that's real life. It really happened. However, there's no point including such malarky in a book because basically, it's so unbelievable, only a sitcom would run it.

When I do workshops or attend writer's conferences, especially critique feedback, I hear a lot of "But that really happened!" and "That character's based on a real person!" and I don't doubt that it's true, but the problem is, it's too true to be believed and therefore, it reads like a lie.

Ever hear that clichés are clichés because they have a grain of truth in them? Well, that tiny little grain of truth that makes it resonate with the reader is also the bit that we can choke on if we don't have enough of sugar coating to swallow it. Only Non-Fiction writers have the audacity to write the unbelievable truth and get away with it (or not)*; fiction writers have to invent half-truths even--or especially when--they deal with the truth.

And speculative fiction writers have to write things that are totally unbelievable in a believable way.

Whoa.

Fiction is not about being strictly true-to-life, fiction is when we get to live the lies we wish were true. When I was struggling to make one of my MCs believable in that first scene where she was facing some pretty surreal and bizarre stuff, the feedback I got was that it didn't sound realistic. Excuse me? "Realistic"?! NONE of this stuff was realistic! It's fantasy for heaven's sakes! But that's when Better-Than-Boyfriend (a.k.a. the karate instructor) said something brilliant: people don't want to imagine how a person would really react in a tough situation, what people want to imagine how they wish they would react. We'd like to imagine that we got to throw that knock-out punch, made it in just under the wire, delivered that last parting shot, or said the perfect thing that made the love of our life finally get what we'd been trying to tell them all along.

Do those things ever happen in real life? Sure. But we all know when it doesn't and that's when we, as authors, have to lie in order to deliver the truth: no one said life was fair, that's why we read books.

* I actually went to high school with this guy. True story.

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