Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, March 4, 2010

What Writing and Lying Have in Common

I am a terrible liar. I'm bad at platitudes, I can't tell people I like their writing when I don't, and I was never able to get myself out of trouble as a kid. Let's just say that if I were captured by stormtroopers and held in the Death Star and I knew the location of the hidden rebel fortress and all I had to do to hold off Darth Vader for just a little while longer was to lie that the base was on Dantooine........ the Empire would have won. The Empire would have definitely won.

All the same, lying and writing actually have a whole lot in common - in both cases, you're trying to get someone to believe something that isn't true and using words to try and pull the wool over their eyes.

What makes a good lie? Key details and believability. When a good liar spins a yarn they're able to fill it with details and tell it in a way that seems to make perfect sense. A good liar can make you feel the sun on their face and the cool splash of water on their arms as they're catching the big one that got away.

Perhaps the very most common mistake in writing is failing to establish the illusion of reality. The necessity of maintaining this illusion stretches across all levels of the story: from the prose the author employs to the presentation of the emotions and dialogue of the characters to much broader concerns, like the logic of the world and the motivations of the characters based on what we've already learned about them.

On the prose level, authors can get tripped up on the minutest of details that take the reader out of the story and make them think, "Oh yeah. There's someone writing this." I see this often with imprecise prose and tiny errors of logic that can add up to a world that the reader doesn't believe: metaphors that clunk and turns of phrase that puzzle the reader and make them remember that they're reading an invention rather than something that's real.

On the dialogue and action level, the characters have to look and sound like we know people act (or how robots or aliens or monkeys act). Their reaction to events shouldn't be so shrill or over the top or muted that we don't believe they're real.

And then on the meta level, the world and characters have to obey the internal logic the author establishes throughout the book.

My wife and I have recently gotten hooked on Battlestar Galactica, which is a seriously amazing show and also automatically extended my Nerd Pass for an extra three years. I don't want to give away any spoilers, but at the end of Season 2 Commander Adama seems serene and complacent at a crucial juncture even though that hadn't been his M.O. for the entire show up until that point. His entire being had rested on being prepared and competent. I just didn't believe that the Commander Adama I know would behave like that.

The irony, of course, is that the creators of Battlestar Galactica have successfully convinced me that it is plausible that an evolved race of self-replicating robots have driven humans to the brink of extinction aboard ships that move faster than the speed of light....... but no! I'm getting hung up on a character's complacency. That I don't believe.

A good storyteller can make you believe just about anything, as long as the details make you believe someone was there and as long as the internal logic of the world stays consistent.

Or maybe that's just what the Cylons want us to think.


Christine Macdonald said...

I love it when you share your brain.

Jason Black said...

Good advice, but I would quibble a bit with your premise. Both lying and effective storytelling rely on using the tools you discuss to create the illusion of believability, but beneath that there is a BIG difference between the two.

Lying attempts to use words to get people to believe things that are not true AND keep the person from understanding that they're being lied to.

Storytelling relies on the "willing suspension of disbelief." The reader KNOWS you're lying to them, but they're cool with that. For the duration of the book, both you and the reader agree to pretend that you're not lying to them.

That makes all the difference. In one situation you don't have the listener's cooperation, but you don't have their un-cooperation either. You to lie very convincingly in order to prevent them from realizing that they have the option of withholding their tacit cooperation in your lie.

In the other situation, you have the reader's full and willing cooperation, so long as you don't screw it up.

And that, at heart, is what all of your advice goes to: it's great advice for how to enable the reader to maintain his or her suspension of disbelief easily, willingly, and happily.

JoAnn said...

It's like Maxwell Smart!
"I jog one hundred miles every day! Would you believe it?..."
"I find that hard to believe"
"Would you believe fifty?"
"How about two push ups and a deep breath?"

Avery June said...

I stopped at "they're". Just kidding. I love your blog.

T. Anne said...

Well done Nathan! These examples rock. Your geekdom rules.

I once wrote a novel that involved a psychiatrist dating his patient. My beta reader was outraged because this legally cannot happen. So of course I sought out advice on how to remedy this, BUT the advice never sat well with me. In the world of my novel it was totally plausible and in my opinion in real life as well.

Nevertheless, the reader has to trust the author to lead them through the story.

Anonymous said...

Eddie Izzard - "Death Star Canteen"

(caution: language)

Thomas Taylor said...

What's a Death Star?

Thermocline said...

Your post gives me hope that there is actually an expiration date on my Nerd Pass. I haven't found one yet.

lora96 said...

I'm going to ignore the Battlestar Galactica tangent--I'm still suffering through my husband's Babylon 5 dvd collection.

As far as lying and writing, my favorite quote from East of Eden (and there are lotsa good ones) is something like this:
A story is told for the enjoyment of the listern and the teller, while a lie is a piece of fiction told as truth for the benefit of the teller. So based on that definition, a writer is a liar if he is financially successful."


Liz said...

This is a great post, but it can give fiction writers a bad name.

Christi Goddard said...

I don't lie on principle. Successful liars have to have a good memory. Mine's not so hot, so to keep from getting caught in a lie, I just don't. This, unfortunately, often leads to brutal honesty. I'm a woman of extremes.

Nathan Bransford said...


Interesting take, though I don't know if I agree completely. I don't necessarily agree that authors have the cooperation of their readers right off the bat, at least not until the reader decides they are definitely going to keep reading. Readers do eventually willingly suspend disbelief, but only once they've decided to trust the writer. Otherwise they can just stop reading.

I think both listeners of liars and readers of writers start off from a skeptical place until they have been convinced of the lie/novel's believability.

Rick Daley said...

Let's just say that if I were captured by stormtroopers and held in the Death Star and I knew the location of the hidden rebel fortress and all I had to do to hold off Darth Vader for just a little while longer was to lie that the base was on Dantooine........

It doesn't matter. They blew up Alderaan and found the rebel base anyway.

WORD VERIFICATION: proesons. Esons that have risen above amateur status.

WORD VERIFICATION II: esons. An electronic son, also may be expressed as e-sons, but never eSons because Steve Jobs will sue you for infringement on the likeness of his trademarks.

Stephen said...

These are good thoughts (I'm not lying). In my years as an editor, I've seen plenty of writers make the "very most common mistake" you note above. I think one of the keys to avoiding that mistake is... telling the truth.

This might seem contradictory, considering the title of your post. But I think truth-telling is exactly what makes great fiction great. At the core of a compelling story you'll usually find emotional truth the reader can't help but relate to. If you get the core truths right (and you listen to your characters), the lies you write to reveal these truths tend to fall into place.

(I blogged about "truth in fiction" over at my temperamental blog recently. I won't provide a self-serving link, but feel free to click my name and stop by. Everyone who visits gets a free cookie. Okay, now I'm lying.)

Jason Black said...

True. There may be a "probationary period" of a few pages, in which a reader isn't sure he or she really will suspend disbelief.

But implicit in picking up the book to give it a try is the hope, the intended outcome, that the reader WILL suspend disbelief. It's what the reader wants, quite willingly, to do.

Real readers, as you suggest, are sometimes cynical enough to understand that not every book deserves their cooperation, but at the outset it's what writer and reader alike want to have happen.

Hence, it's up to the author to use techniques like yours in order not to screw it up.

Anonymous said...

ahh, Jason,

to add my bit:

A story, when it works, can convey the archetypal, in that on some level, it tells something that is symbolic of what is more true.

(And Nathan, I can't lie either. But I can tell a story, I think.)

AjFrey said...

As a child, I made up stories for show-n-tell. I convinced my kindergarten class that I had a twin sister; she even came to school the next day. Made them believe my family and I went lion hunting over the weekend when I returned with a scraped knee, which was actually from a tumble on roller skates. The teacher finally put in place the rule that we were to begin each story by stating if it was real or make believe.

Now, I write fiction.

Yep, I get what you're saying and my twin sister wholeheartedly agrees.

Linda Godfrey said...

But Adama is a complex, layered character! And we are learning why in Caprica.

Susan Kelley said...

I don't lie very well either and fortunately neither do my children. Sometimes I think writing is much like acting. Writing the world as experienced through another's eyes. And I think one of the reasons I don't read much contemporary fiction because I can't suspend my belief but when I read fantasy or watch it on TV, I can let go and imagine instead of saying that just wouldn't happen in real life.

Anonymous said...


I knew I had an evil twin!

Josin L. McQuein said...

Most bad liars make the same mistake as ineffective writers. They think if they bury the "truth" beneath details and minutiae, then their story is more believable. Actually, it's the opposite.

When someone is afraid you're not going to buy the truth they've created, they overcompensate and end up tripping themselves up in the process. Just tell the story and make it clear. Then people will believe you.

And -

THANK YOU for including the "fiction must obey the internal logic" point. The easiest way to tell if someone is a serious writer or not is to ask them about a plot hole that doesn't fit the rules of their universe. It bugs me to no end to hear published authors shrug off complaints by saying "It's fiction. I can do whatever I want."

NO YOU CAN'T!!!!!! NO! NO! NO! NO!

Well, you can, but you're liable to hear the thud of your book against multiple walls.

If you create a race allergic to salt, don't have one of them eating salted pretzels. If they can't reproduce, don't magically give them children. If they don't age, don't have one that looks 97. It is NOT that hard to follow rules you make yourself.

At least you'll never have to worry about your nose growing ;-)

Brett said...

"All artists are liars". Then why do childrens listen when we tell fairy tales? Why do children sponge up most unbelievable stories with fluttering hearts? And why would they yawn if you tell them stories with "realistic" details?
IMHO: I assume that the mind doesn't care if something is real or unreal but about how much it gets into motion. It's about involvement, emotion, getting your brain into going. Some readers get emotion from dreamy unrealistic fantasies, others from "realistic" fears and thrills. But it doesn't have to be a good lie. It has to be a good involving story. In other words: emotion beats details and accuracy. In fact, sometimes it's better not to confuse the reader with too much details in order to clear the way for empathy. And: to raise feelings in the heart of a reader is much more about using the right words while the right details are not so important. They should fit in order to touch. That's all.

Mira said...

First of all - great post at the Huffington! Bravo, Nathan!

And bravo for this post, too. Seeing your last several posts - I'd guess that reading all of these queries/first pages/partials, etc. is immersing you in good/mediocre/bad writing. And you are sorting out the differences, trying to define them and come to a place of clarity. I think we're lucky to have you share this with us. I predict that not only writing, but teaching writing will be one of your gifts.

Your clients benefit from this gift, and I'm grateful that the rest of us can, too.

That said, I actually agree with Jason. :)

I think you're absolutely right in that the reality of detail and consistency of a world make both lies and stories work.

However, I think lies are meant to cover up and avoid the truth. Stories are meant to reveal the truth through metaphor. When readers suspend disbelief, they do so in part because they know that a writer is really writing about what's true, they are just doing it through a disguise.

Great post, Nathan. :)

John Jack said...

Willing suspension of disbelief is one of three areas lying and writing have common ground.

Participation mystique, listeners, readers, audiences willing want to participate in a credible lie or a fiction.

Secondary world engagement, listeners, readers, audiences willing engage in a credible lie or a fictional scenario.

Successful scams depend on all three factors.

A young child caught by one parent with a hand in the cookie jar, invents a believable but not immediately verifiable story, "Mommy said I could." Daddy willingly wants to believe the child.

Why writing and lying have much in common in those three areas is a matter of knowing an audience's threshold for willing participation in supension of disbelief, a mystique, and an alternative reality.

Tamara Hart Heiner said...

great post. loved this.

I'm a total BG fan--but i'm old school. In fact, just today I told hubby that he has to sit down and watch the whole series (which only ran like 2 season) on netflix with me.

Moses said...

Advance warning: Nerd

First, I like your post.

Now, Adama. I don't know how far you've gotten past the second season Nathan, but one of the most unbelievable things about BSG for me (and you correctly point out the irony here) was Adama. After a while, he just LOVES him some cylons, even after all of the things they've done to entire human race *and* to him.

The writers had him doing things he really shouldn't have been doing, and even a great actor like Olmos couldn't always make it fully believable.

If you watch many of the special features on BSG, they reveal how they often didn't know what was going to happen next. They made a lot of it up as they went, and I suspect the series would have been better if they'd thought things out from the beginning. I know that's not always practical to do over 4.5 seasons, though--although I think the creator of Heroes had it all worked out before season one. It was an incredibly enjoyable series, but I also think it could've been better. And I think, sadly, they botched the last couple of episodes. For me, it wasn't a fitting ending to such an epic series. But there are still many great episodes and moments later in the series that make the whole series worth watching, IMO.

Editor with an Ice Pick said...

Yes, the small things can do it. I recall a manuscript, otherwise well written, whose author undercut her story's credibility on page 1. The setting was a hospital, and she used the phrase "neurology resident" when what she should have said was "neurosurgery resident." The dictionary could have helped her out. Also helpful would have been the eye or the ear of someone who worked in the real-world counterpart of her fictional universe.

Phyllis said...

I love the analogy between writing and lying, I mean elaborate lying as in fabricating information, not only the reflexive denial of a misdeed.

Liars and writers feel the pressure to be believable, and both need a good memory to keep their web of lies together. And I'm sure the joy of fabricating a good story is equally felt. I'm thinking of Harry Pendel, the tailor of Panama. The scenes in which he gives Andrew Osnard "information" perfectly show his joy of creation.

Oh, and liars make good characters, too, don't you think?

Kendra said...

So say we all. : )

Kristi said...

Nathan, I'm so glad you drank the BSG Kool-Aid. I don't know if you finished the series yet but my only issue was with part of the ending. My Nerd Pass is permanent so I freely admit to LOVING that show.

It's also refreshing to hear that you're terrible at lying but are a published author. My husband says I couldn't lie to save my life -- and he's probably right!

Anonymous said...

I recently read a mystery novel by a writer who apparently had no familiarity at ALL with how the U.S. legal system works. The arrest of a main character could not conceivably have happened in the real world (especially as the police did essentially NO crime-scene investigation and no follow-up investigation, there was not a scintilla of evidence against the arrested individual, and if such an arrest had happened nonetheless in the real world, a judge would have quashed it immediately and the police officers would have been shredded for incompetence. Oh, and every character talked aloud to himself or herself -- no internal dialogue for that writer. Sometimes passers-by overheard and commented on the outspoken internal thoughts. And yet, the book was oddly interesting, perhaps for the morbid attraction of what improbability would arise next.

J.J. Bennett said...

I think I just figured out why I like this writing "thing". Who doesn't like making up a good story? They always get bigger and better with time.

Nick said...

It's funny, in a way. I find my writing to be shite but I'm such a fantastic liar. I lied my whole way through third through eleventh grades. Completely made up personage. Oh that was a jolly time.

But then of course there's a few more critical differences. With lying, I can use my own voice and mannerisms to influence their belief, and yes, YOU are much more handy than your words when you're lying. If you want to pass a sack of shit off as a sack of gold, you have to make it seem like you yourself believe it's a sack full of gold. Yes, the details of the lie are important, but it's more in how you sell than in believability. So long as you don't go too over the top, you can usually sell some outlandish things, and of course, pander to your audience. In elementary school I convinced my classmates that my uncle, who is actually an engineer, was working on building a real-life Pod Racer. You could not sell that lie to most high schoolers, but to a bunch of fellow seven year olds? Oh yes you can. Another advantage afforded is, if telling a very large, elaborate lie, you have time to build it up piecemeal. With a story, sure, you don't reveal it all on the first page, but you need to be much more direct. With a lie, you reveal bits and pieces here and there, slowly painting the whole picture over a long period of time. I didn't convince ex-classmates I'm a Scot in one class. It took months of seeding misinformation and using my natural talent for accents.

Come to think of it, why isn't my writing better? I mean really. I have convinced people of some of the biggest shit before, but my stories always seem to be mediocre-at-best.

OhGoodnessMe said...

I am working on a Zombie novel. A friend who read the first draft had a problem when the main character's shotgun jammed. He argued that the character was too experienced to let such a thing happen. My response: "...but you're ok with the dead rising from the grave. Right?"

Susan Quinn said...

My belief suspenders were in overdrive just trying to believe the Cylons went from wicked-ugly robot-guys to totally-hot cylon-chickees, in just one robot evolutionary step.

But I'm a geek that way.

Let us know when you get to the end of that series! I'd really like to hear your take on it.

To your point: making the world believable is terribly important, and as Josie says, it shouldn't be that hard to follow your own rules. I think forgetting the rules can be a problem, but that's what those awesome betas are for.

Krista V. (the former Krista G.) said...

As I'm writing, I'm constantly asking myself, "What would [insert character's name here] do?" Because it's not what I would do that matters, even though it's so easy to stamp my thoughts or actions on my - the book is all about them.

Now, obviously, our characters are a part of us and we pretty much control everything about them. But it's the sort of control that looks like non-control - the same way mothers are so good at planting ideas and then waiting for us to discover them and decide they were our ideas all along:)

Amie Boudreau said...

one of the biggest compliments I got on my first novel was when a woman who read it asked where she could meet the people in the novel.

I pointed out they are not 'real' people but fictional as is my novel. She said, it was too bad because they were so interesting she thought it would be neat to meet them.

Anonymous said...

Wow Nathan! You are just 15 people short of having 1000 members on your forums.
Are you planning on a celebration?

Sarah Enni said...

I think what I take away from this post and many of the comments is that a story requires detail to make it believable -- but too much detail can actually have the opposite effect. (And now I'm going to have to reference yesterday's post to make sure I have that affect/effect right!)

I think the point is, the detail an author provides has to be telling in some way. I admit, this has been somewhat difficult for me. I'm working right now to weed out unnecessary details in my ms, and leave the ones that make the story more convincingly real. Anyone have any advice for someone editing with this in mind?

Margaret Yang said...

The very first how-to-write book I ever read, back when I was a baby writer, was the one by the great Lawrence Block called TELLING LIES FOR FUN AND PROFIT. I still love that book.

D. G. Hudson said...

Both writing fiction and lying are fabrications of the truth. Many of our traditions involve lying - the Easter Bunny and Santa. We consider those small lies.

Writing fiction is lying about the reality of the story, but it's done without malice for the purpose of entertainment. Lying to protect oneself may cause someone else harm or hardship.

I don't think of writing as lying when I'm creating my sci-fi story, it's just the words that I've used to answer that 'what if' question.

Your main point as I see it - 'make it believable' is taken.

atsiko said...

Writing is lying and don't let anyone tell you different. (When you write "John ate the apple", and John is not a real person, that is false, no ifs ands or buts.) But it's good lying.

Anyway, really liked this post Nathan. I wrote one similar a few weeks ago, but it wasn't quite as popular as this one... 'Cause the feds are trying to destroy me. (I swear! ;) )

I would say that readers do not automatically suspend disbelief. They build up a model of how the story world works by attaching each claim the author makes to a model of the real world plus known genre conventions. And if you don't jar them too badly in the first few chapters, they start giving you the benefit of the doubt.

Grimmster24 said...

Woo Nerd Pass! (I need to get mine renewed at the Nerdery).

Excellent post, Nathan! Thank you! :-)

abc said...

On that BSG tangent-- I watched it all alone in my house; my husband found it not worth his time. So I had to do internal debating on the philosophical themes. No fun. New forums post?

I hate it when television shows betray their own rules and character MOs, etc. They mostly due if for the sake of drama and plot. Should that be another post? Plot is important, but your fans or readers are going to know when you divert from the reality you created for the sake of drama. So often in Lost I want to yell at the screen, "Yo, what kind of stupid question is that? Stop being so vague!" But I understand that's what they do in Lost so I settle back down with my popcorn and coke and take a deep cleansing breath. The end.

Ink said...

I have this piece of property you might be interested in...

Phyllis said...

@ Ink

on the moon?

Linda Covella said...

Thanks for the post, Nathan. Coincidentally, I read the following quote today in "Writers Ask" newsletter along the same lines as your post--interesting: author Valerie Martin: "If poeple are questioning the details in your story, if they're saying something doesn't seem plausible, the real issue is that the voice isn't doing its job, because if the voice is strong enough, people will believe anything." :-) (smile from me).

Laurel said...

What writers and liars have in common: You'd better believe it while you 're saying it if you want anyone else to buy it.

What they don't: Readers aren't trying to find the place where the story breaks down. If it does, you've let them down. The lied to are looking for it.

Christina said...

Great post! Make your stories logical!!!

Ink said...


On a moon...

dylan said...


Excellent lesson.

Hate to nitpick but you made a grammatical error. At the beginning of the eighth paragraph I think you meant to say "My 'wives' have..."


Dawn Maria said...

OMG! You love BSG? I knew I liked you for more than your great blog and love of Star Wars. You're the best Nathan!

So say we all!

Claire Dawn said...

If you can see the writer in the prose, then it's not a good lie. :D

Nathan Bransford said...


Thanks, Dylan.

SB said...

I am thinking that you've just read a piece that inspired this very honest post. Indeed. I am not a great liar. Which is, I would love to say, why I only write in my blog: it is the honest depiction of all things me:-)! No lying there. Wish I could lie. Then I could write! Right? Does that mean you cannot write? Just curious.

not too serious i hope said...

Really talented writers can bring the reader hand-in-hand in on the lie.

The Red Angel said...

You highlight and make some very good points about writing. However, I personally think there is a big difference between lying and writing and that they should not really be compared or thought similar.

Lying is deliberately trying to make someone believe something that is completely false. A writer can definitely write without lying.

The Editors said...

No one that starts a post with a Star Wars reference needs to worry about their nerd pass ever expiring.

Marilyn Peake said...

I was thinking something very similar today as I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s NEVER LET ME GO, and chatted with my husband about it: how incredibly well-written novels establish their setting and then maintain strict control of the fabricated "reality" through writing skilled enough to mask the fictional devices being used. NEVER LET ME GO is one of those novels. With less skilled writing, the devices show through and weaken the illusion of reality.

I watched the entire BATTLESTAR GALACTICA series on DVD. It’s one of my favorite TV shows ever! The writing and acting are beyond awesome!

Ishta Mercurio said...

Yes - writing and lying are by no means the same thing, but they do have a lot in common. Writing is a lot like acting - your goal is to convince someone of something that is not true, like lying, but the difference is that in writing and acting you have the strength of emotional truth behind you. Part of the illusion of reality is rooted in the necessity of emotional truth.

Anonymous said...

Okay, you JUST discovered Battlestar??? That's not three years of nerd add-on, but five.

re: complacency. humanity has been nearly destroyed. you're flying blind around outer space, hoping not to bump into the U.S.S. Enterprise (and be mistaken for aliens), in a clap trap that resembles (is) the equivilent of a WWII battleship, your leader was a Special Ed teacher and the captain - this is the future where everyone, presumably, has superfree - advanced health care that include DERMABRASION - has a face that resembles a lunar surface. Complacency might be a logical reaction to your craaazzzzyyyyy life. In lieu of Valium which, by then, has been proven not to work anyway, and landlines phones which, strangely, still do.

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

Mira, thanks for mentioning HuffPo post - loved the last paragraph! It's like everything I'd like in an agent, all rolled into one.

If I may quote from earlier in article:

"Tomorrow's writers are going to have almost limitless ability to include beautiful color photos and art and interactivity and creative design even in the mass-est of mass market books..."

oh yeah!

richfigel said...

Funny, I was just about to write a blog post about THE INVENTION OF LYING movie with Ricky Gervais, and note how it applied to story-telling.

In the movie, his character is a script writer for movies -- except they are all non-fiction stories that are read by one "actor" sitting in a chair. Since lying hadn't been invented, there was no imagination or need to invent stories that required visuals.

If you haven't seen it, put it on your Netflix queue. The premise is funnier than the execution, but still worth watching!


Kaitlyne said...

I *loved* Galactica. They did such a great job with that one. :) I'm trying to get one of my friends to watch it at the moment.

Anyway, this post made me realize something really interesting. My current story is filled with little asides to the reader, all the things that take you out of the story and are supposed to be big no-nos, but for some reason it works. I just realized because yes, there's a realization that someone is writing it, but that someone isn't me, it's the narrator.

That's really fascinating, and ought to help a lot next time I'm trying to explain something like this to a new writer. :)

Simon Hay Soul Healer said...

Battlestar Galactica! Sorry, what was this post about?

Mira said...

Wanda - I agree. Great article. :)

Elie said...

When I was a child, people would say "s/he's telling stories," if they didn't believe what you said.

But I've never thought of writing stories as lying. There's a truth being told at some level, isn't there?

Ivan said...

Well, I just wrote this novel for which I sort of half invented a world, a few characters, nothing in depth or long winded. But now it's done, I find myself thinking about them, realising things that they would do or be interested in and wondering how they are getting on. Strange - that's my own 'lying' working on myself!

Jason said...

Interesting article...I started to disagree with your premise initially just remembering back to Steven King and his admonition to always tell the truth as a writer. But I think he meant truth in a different sense than we're talking here.

At any rate, I think the initial part of the story is important in getting people to buy into your world. I think the mind is still in the "let's see what this is about" mode and more willing to accept the unusual.

The movie The Matrix does a great job of this. You don't know exactly what's going on...they save the explanations for later...but you learn really quick that it's possible for 110lb woman to whip 5 armed police officers and that she can leap about 50 yards to the next building.

Elisabeth Black said...

"metaphors that clunk and turns of phrase that puzzle the reader and make them remember that they're reading an invention rather than something that's real."

This is why it's important to use simple words and phrases rather than always try to switch it up in an arty way. I think the best books are both elegant and a pleasure to read. Think "Hunger Games".

Wendy @ All in a Day's Thought said...

Such a fascinating take. Loved the examples.
~ Wendy

Anonymous said...

Adama is a Adama. As you progress through the seasons, you'll see that along with all the rest of the characters, he's got issues!

Matthew Rush said...

Why would you ever want your Nerd Card to expire?

Incidentally this is completely out of season, but still totally awesome (and even on topic, somewhat): Death Star Pumpkin

Anonymous said...

I enjoy reading your blog and comment on it frequently at my own,
I too, enjoy looking at the revolution of ebooks v. that vein...have you seen this article yet

Nathan Bransford said...

Great article anon, thanks for sharing.

M.J.B. said...

Your references to Dantooine and Cylons just made my morning a little bit brighter.

Thank you for all the work you do on this blog, Nathan! I'm new to this world of commenting, but thanks to you I'm making an effort. :-)

sharonedge said...

I'm a nerd and I can't tell a lie. Is there a connection?

I had a husband who thought my inability to lie was a character defect. He is no longer my husband.

"Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures." Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Fiction is the truth inside the lie." Stephen King

Anonymous said...

This has to be the most useful post you have ever written. It really made me think about what makes a book believable.

Nona said...

The Invention of Lying

Chuck H. said...

Robert Heinlein once detailed the many ways to lie in one of his books (I forget which one--it's been a long time and I'm old). According to the Grand Master, the best way to lie is to tell the absolute truth but in such a way that no one believes you. Don't think that would work in a novel. But what do I know. I always lie and that's the truth.

Word verification: tertally - in the manner of a tertle

Anonymous said...

This might work in sci-fi, horror, fantasy and other genres. But try telling too many lies in contemporary romance and the online romance reviewers will come after you with their broomsticks :)

Jade said...

Fab post! Although I remember some of my favourite thriller writers pointing out that the best way to spot a liar is through the unnecessary embellishments they make to the story...

Anonymous said...


I felt the same way about that scene!

The girl that played Starbuck now has a starring role in the show "24." In BG she was tough, but in 24 she's a total wuss.

Anonymous said...

Oscar Wilde had a bit to say on this subject in "The Decay of Lying."

Kitty Moore said...

I couldn't agree more Nathan.


J Decker said...

I love me the BSG. One of the greatest shows ever. On the topic of Adama, I would like to disagree that it's out of character. At least, I never got that impression. I happen to be re-watching the show at this point in time myself and got through the second season just a few weeks ago so it's still fresh in my mind. Anyway, I'd say that if you're chased ragged by a race of robots bent on your destruction and you find a plausible safe haven (the planet was cloaked by the nebula), then it's not unreasonable to want to rest. I think that would be the reaction anyone would have. But he wasn't entirely complacent either. He remained in the planet's atmosphere in case the Cylons did show up. And after awhile of not having them show up, I'm sure anyone might begin to believe that it's okay to let your guard down, if you're thinking you're finally home free. Anyway, that's just my opinion.

As for lying and writing, I wholeheartedly agree. I almost think that being a good liar would make one a good writer and vice versa. It's not so much about deception and circumventing the truth as it is about creating a plausible world wherein an event could conceivably take place or where a belief would conceivably be regarded as truth. It's being able to understand the details of what makes a good story/lie and putting them together to convince the reader/hearer that what you tell is the truth.

Perry Robles said...

Lying has always been difficult for me too.

In NFCW Workshops, as an example, I’ve written heavily about my mother and most of the time I end with the tag, “she said.” When my mother obviously said something. Some of my colleagues suggested that I end with: She said waving a spoon at me. She said tapping her foot. She said as she peered at me.

My mother didn’t do those things.
Therefore, I still consider that lying.
I know many people might think of that as texturing. I do not.

Right now in my NFCW Workshop: “Cesar” is too perfect, too smart and able to do many tasks without reason. My response to being perfect is, “there is nothing perfect in this universe and that most certainly INCLUDES me.”

As for doing a lot: I was the interpreter/translator for CPS, which embroiled me in many “situations” to which a normal secretary would not be privy. If you read my manuscript carefully, I am not doing something extraordinary, all of my functions are administrative. I am not solving world hunger, or designing the new space shuttle.

I am simply doing a lot to keep from sinking back into depression.

I am reminded of something a friend told me when she got a divorce and had trouble dealing: “throw yourself into work. It worked for me.” It worked for me also until I came out of my depression and realized that CPS was the last place I needed to be if I was to get better mentally.

I lament that you took a wrong turn because I needed clarification. My purpose was not to incense you. It was to work with you.

As for the dream sequence you read. IT IS MY FIRST DRAFT. Further, I “raced” thought it. It still scares me to go back to the time that I wanted to die. “Let me sleep=Let me die.”

Thanks for all of your help, Nathan. As I wrote in my first post, “thanks to you, I now have a clue as to how to write a query.”

the line

Nathan Bransford said...


The reason it didn't work for me is that at the beginning of the show Adama had the Galactica pretty well prepared for an attack even though the Cylons hadn't attacked in dozens of years. Then after a year of crazy war with them showing up out of the blue he goes soft after 9 months? I can see letting your guard down a bit and getting distracted, but it was that complacency that didn't work for me.

Moira Young said...

To me, writing doesn't feel like lying. "Lying" is too crass of a word for what we do.

Maybe this is just my fantasy-minded brain, but I feel more like an enchanter. (Apprentice enchanter, in my case.) If I'm doing it right, I'm weaving the spell so strongly that it can't be easily broken, and the reader is caught. That's certainly how I feel when I'm entrapped by a good book. When the text jars in a not-so-good book, the spell is more easily broken.

In mundane terms, I also tend to think of telling a good story as selling a strong argument. It's sort of like writing a college essay, but with many more nuances.

dan radke said...

Oh man Nathan, strap in for season 3, episode 4. A-mazing.

When you're done with the series, you should check out Moore's new show Caprica. It's one of the best on TV right now.

Nathan Bransford said...


Oh wow, almost there - we're on Season 3 episode 3. Looking forward to catching up with Caprica too, I've heard good things.

Matt Heppe said...

Battlestar Galactica episode "33" was FANTASTIC. What an intense experience. I'm also enjoying Caprica.

jessjordan said...

I want to love BSG, I really do. (Okay, I don't care, but since my hubby loves it so much, there MUST be something good about it, right?)

But ... I frackin' can't.

Not with words like "fracking."

Alyssa said...

I'm with you too, Moses. I loved the first season of Battlestar.. but I felt that as the series went along, the characters got more and more inconsistent with how they'd been initially established, especially Adama, and only Edward Olmos saved that character from being unlikeable. (I wouldn't say he was the worst though. I think they totally ruined Gaeta with that nonsense in season 3. He was never, ever an ends justify the means type of guy.) Interestingly, I think the most consistent character is also one of the most universally reviled -- Baltar. ;) I always had a soft spot for Crazy Ass Baltar in season 1, and while I was not immune to how detestable he got, he was, I felt, completely consistent all through. Simply because they established him early on as a character who'd do whatever self-serving action was needed to get him what he wanted. Also Roslin was pretty consistant, I think. Sometimes you forgot what a hardass she was and it surprised you when she'd put her air-lockin' face on, but I don't think the writers ever forgot about how quick she could be to space your ass. But everyone else spent some time doing stuff that just made me go, "Huh? Who the hell is writing so and so this week?"

Lou Freshwater said...

A lie is meant to hide the truth, a story is meant to show it.

If your writing is not honest, it will fail.

Catherine said...

I love the idea of this article, but I have to disagree with your description of lying being about details. It's actually more believable when you leave out details, because when a person recounts a real memory or event they're more likely to forget things than remember all the little details. Other than that, you've got a good point—pretty much all writing is trying to get your reader to believe that it's actually happened/happening and to draw them into the story as if it was completely real. That's why, personally, my favourite books make me fall head over heels into the world they're describing and building up in my mind with their words.

Also, I'm a huge nitpicker when it comes to the correct use of ellipses, and I thought it was only ever meant to be '...'? That's just me being my normal persnickety fifteen-year-old self, though.

Ciel said...

Lolz. Nikki Clyne is in Battlestar Galactica. I've never seen it, but I've seen Godkiller... with Nikki Clyne.

+5 or me on obscure apocalyptic horror card. Never getting rid of this one.

Anyway, I have to agree with the "writing is like lying" thing.

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