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.