Recently, my boss lady rewrote her book, even though she’d rewritten it five times already—but this time was a bit different. The other rewrites included adding scenes, deleting scenes, and polishing sentences until they were so shiny she needed to wear sunglasses to keep from going blind. But that wasn’t enough. Dazzling sentences only made the rest of the book look crummy. So what did she do? She unscrewed all the bolts and took her story apart at the seams.
Yep, I’m talking about structure. And more importantly, theme. All this led her to…
Or rather, one lie.
And this is the sober truth. Even if you toss structure into a pit of lava, a lie is something most protagonists need for an impactful story. But a plain old lie won’t do the trick. Writers need a good one, or else you’ll want to toss more than structure into that bubbling pit. Believe me, lies are important—I know. That’s why I want to share four tips for creating the best lie in the world.
Not that I’m an expert at lying or anything…
Why is a lie important?
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the literary usage of the word lie, let me clarify before you think I’m advocating dishonest living. Most of us at some point have believed in a lie. You believe the ends justify the means. That lady over there believes she’s ugly. My readers believe I’m actually real.
Whatever it is, that lie can affect your whole life and will likely hurt you in some way. Your belief that the end justifies the means makes you employ questionable tactics that eventually land you in jail. The lady who thinks she’s ugly acts shy and this prevents her from forming relationships. The readers who believe I’m real are forced to read my blog and die from suffocation in laughter. Our lives won’t change until we reject that lie (except the one about me being real) and accept the truth.
That’s what almost every story is about—a character living out the consequences of that lie until they embrace the truth that will set them free. Without a lie, you have no internal struggle. Without internal struggle, the outer struggle loses its meaning. Without meaning, what’s the use of writing the story in the first place? Occasionally, a story can be purposeful without a lie, as in the case of flat arcs, but generally, a lie is the only way to portray the truth (plus, it’s the best way to make things interesting).
Now, before I bore the people who already know what I’m talking about, I’ll proceed to my next section.
1. State the Lie in Clear Terms
Back in the prehistoric days when I didn’t know how to write a book but was writing one anyway, I still had enough common sense to saddle my protagonist with a lie. My problem was that I took that lie for granted. The character believed in a lie sure enough, but I was never completely certain as to what that lie was. Why? Because I never took the time to specifically write it down. I thought it was sufficient for me to simply sense the character’s false belief. Was it really necessary to state the lie in black and white terms? As writers, we need to know beyond a shadow of a doubt what the character believes.
Grab a slip of paper (or switch on your smart phone) and state your character’s lie in the plainest language possible. Don’t fret about sounding profound or beautiful. This is for you and you alone. Simply focus on one thing: clarity. Write down every possible way the lie could be interpreted. How many ways can the lie be reworded? Which way fits best? Could it be made shorter or simpler? If you are unsure what the character believes, write down all the lies they might be believing and ask yourself which one is really causing the problem.
It’s amazing how complex a simple question like that can be. Sometimes what we think the character believes isn’t really what they believe at all. For example, in my WIP, my character gives up his life’s work because his only friend dies. I thought the lie was that he couldn’t carry on the project without his friend. In reality, it was because he thought too much of society’s opinions and that is what instigated the problem. His friend’s death was merely a coverup for the real lie.
Once you’ve settled on your character’s lie, set that lie in front of you every time you write. That will help you make sure your character’s every action, word, and thought is in according to his lie. The same concept applies to theme. Readers may not see all your mad, behind-the-scenes scribbling, but having a clear picture in your head will help you to portray a clear one for readers.
2. Make the Lie Unique
I know I advised you to simplify your lie, but don’t let that simplicity become monotony. Make the lie simple and specific. Your lie, like your story, needs uniqueness. Craft the lie in such a way that only that character would believe it and any other character would go bleh and pass it by. For example, let’s say your character is a Tyrannosaurus named Stinky and he believes humans can’t be trusted. That’s too generic. Instead, have him believe human dentists can’t be trusted. That’s a little better. Ask why dentists can’t be trusted. Try this: dentists can’t be trusted because they earn all their money by exploiting the ill.
Now we have a specific lie. Sometimes we won’t be able to pinpoint a lie quite to that degree, but we should try to narrow it down as much as is writerly probable. However, that’s still not enough. You need to ask yourself why your character believes this (*hint* *hint* backstory). A character who believes in a lie for no reason is entirely unacceptable and thoroughly unrealistic. Everything a person believes—good or bad—must have a reason. Sometimes it’s due to how they were raised, their past personal experience, or their recent interaction with certain people. For example, Stinky didn’t always think dentists were bad. But one time a dentist pulled out one of his perfectly good teeth just so he could sell it to a museum.
3. Create Sub-Lies
As I already mentioned, one of things I struggled with in my book was that the protagonist seemed to be bouncing between two lies. Which meant the story was bouncing between two themes. Which meant I was bouncing between confusion and authorly anguish. Now, it’s most certainly possible for characters to believe in more than one lie and for a story to have multiple themes. But regardless of how complex or simplistic the plot is, you need to have one major theme and lie underlining the story. Otherwise, the other lies and themes will fog the true meaning and leave readers scratching their heads as to what your story is about.
When I decided on the one lie, I realized the other lie was a result of believing in the main lie. Oftentimes the main lie will lead the character to believe in another. For example, Stinky’s view that dentists are evil causes him to believe toothpaste is sinful and floss should be banned. This also makes him be wary of doctors and veterinarians.
Interestingly enough, these sub-lies are actually very beneficial. They help define your main lie and bring it to its fullest potential. Write down all the lies that your character could believe as a result of the main lie (you don’t have to use them all) and pick the ones that best highlight it.
4. Become Familiar with the Lie
You can’t fully develop the lie until you take some time to get acquainted with it. Flip the lie inside and out until you feel the force of it the way your character does. How would this lie affect your life if you were the one believing it? Ask yourself how the lie will color your character’s world. Will it make them see the world as a dark, scary place? Does the lie make them love or hate their life? Don’t just focus on how the lie affects the character’s life as a whole, figure out how the lie affects their small, day-to-day activities. For example, every time Stinky passes his reflection, he stops to stare at his teeth. Whenever he goes grocery shopping, he speeds down the dental aisle without giving it a second glance.
Another question to ask is: what habits does/can this lie cause? Maybe the character believes they’re incompetent so every time he’s around people he babbles on about the weather to distract others from his clumsiness. Or in the case of Stinky, his lie makes him form a habit of gnawing on old toothpaste tubes whenever he’s irritated.
Also, try making a list of all the side effects and emotions that result from believing in the lie. For example, Stinky’s hatred of the dental society makes his teeth rot. The teeth rotting makes him grumpy, which makes everyone dislike him and keeps him from making friends.
Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire
A lie is crucial to your story, so don’t pass it by and craft a lousy one. All this note-taking and familiarizing may seem like a waste of time. After all, readers won’t see it. Yeah, they’ll just see a lie covered up in a patch of fog because you didn’t take the time to clear the air in your head. Readers may not see, but believe me, they will see the lack of it.