Being a better liar

Scientists say that if you want to write fiction you need to be a good liar.

According to Matthew Newman and James Pennebaker of the University of Texas, liars speak and choose their words differently from those telling the truth, and this affects how we write.

Sometimes it's not just words that show when someone's a liar

The truth

Seeing as fiction is essential one big lie – as Albert Camus put it, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth” – writers need to know these words.

Well, fiction’s mostly a lie – writer Diane Sherlock makes a good point that no one reading a book believes it is real, lies have a deception behind them.

Storytellers aren’t necessarily trying to deceive, but they are trying to create a false world and keep their audience there, which is close enough.

The theory

According to Newman, Pennebaker et al’s paper Lying Words: Predicting Deception From Linguistic Styles, the words chosen and how they’re used are key not just to a lie but, most importantly for storytellers, a convincing lie.

The whole paper is worth reading, if just for nuggets such as the fact that poets who use a lot of self-references and few references to other are probably suicidal, and that students who frequently use cognitive words (such as think, because) are likely to have better health and grades.

Words reveal the subconscious.

The words

How can you tell a liar by his words? Well, liars tend to use a high number of simple, concrete words and phrases – “I walked home” – rather than evaluative and judgmental ones – “usually I take the bus, but it was such a nice day”.

While they use more concrete, simple words, they use fewer exceptional words – except, but, yet. Instead, they use more negative emotion words – hate, despise and the like.

Finally, liars use fewer self-references, as if they’re distancing themselves from the action. They also use fewer third-person pronouns, he, she, they (although this is inconsistent with other studies).

Pants on fire

Creating believability

However, liars can make their story more convincing by presenting their story in a style that appears sincere, but they must control their story – if they’re not in control, the truth and their real feelings will leak out.

This makes sense – the mind still tries to show the truth even if the mouth is telling something completely different. There is tension at being found out or guilt simmering inside and it manifests itself in word choice.

Likewise, the reason self-references show honesty is because when a liar distances themselves, it shows that the mind is distancing itself from the words.

Overall, liars were less forthcoming and less convincing than those telling the truth – hardly a great surprise.

Context

While the words do count, the context is the most important thing, after all, we all use simple sentences as part of our speech(politicians excepted). Most importantly, any judgment on whether something is a lie has to include the motive – and motivated liars can be more fluent.

We see this from others who search for liars. A detective examines a written statement to check if phrases are in the past tense or distanced, whether it is “my wife and I” or “we”, before asking the questions.

Caveats

Language and grammar are idiosyncratic and I’m very much aware of this. Personality makes the difference – I don’t like answering questions if I’m not 100 per cent convinced of the answer, but if I pause it’s because I don’t want to be a liar, it’s that I want to be certain of facts that can make me distant or hesitant.

But bearing this in mind, Newman and Pennebaker have given us way to spot liars: “Liars can be reliably identified by their words – not by what they say but how they say it.”

The practice

Writers are liars, and they’re not liars. They intend to deceive, to draw you into a make-believe world, but they have your consent.

Audiences may know what you’re doing, but it doesn’t mean they can switch off their mind, the parts of their brain that knows when it’s seen a lie. This is why storytellers must know how to tell a convincing lie, for that is what good fiction is.

Liars as characters

Billy Liar

If you as a writer want to create a deceptive character or unreliable narrator then this will also help your liar ring true.

Yes, you can label a character a liar because, say, they are revealed as the murderer all along, but it may not ring true to the audience because their behaviour is not what they ‘know’ as lying behaviour. In effect, you are telling us that they are liar and not fully showing it.

In practice it means paying attention to the little details and checking your phrasing, particularly if you’re writing in the first person.

Smooth illusion

The job of the writer is to create the context of a new world and not have the reader destroy it. The best way to form the illusion is to not just ensure that the ‘big things’ are present but that the little things come together.

If we treat a writer as a professional liar, then they need to act like one – they need to stop the truth seeping out, they need to remove distance and embrace the lie they are weaving.

To do this they need to think about the little details that add up to a whole.

Good fiction is a lie spun as the truth with all the exceptions and details that go with it, while bad fiction is plodding, uniform and centred on the main character.”

Adding the details

It’s why I was drawn into Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, it paces itself with footnotes, often contradicting, questioning or adding to the story. Similarly, JK Rowling’s Harry Potter delights in part due to the seemingly trivial details of drinks, sweets and clothes, but you can also think of these as the exceptions that ‘truth tellers’ add to their story.

These universes show exceptions to the norm, not everyone is the same. But stories need not have footnotes or descriptions of daily shops to add details.

In the original Star Wars the dirt and general imperfection made a refreshing, exceptional, change to the sterile plain white of other sci-fi – this was a universe that was lived in. Once you can feel people living there, you can believe it more and accepting the Force is less of a leap of faith.

On the other hand, knowing that liars focus on simple actions and movements makes me squirm as I recall my early tales and the propensity to fill pages with sentences of how characters paced, scurried and strode across the landscape.

Good fiction is a lie spun as the truth with all the exceptions and details that go with it, while bad fiction is plodding, uniform and centred on the main character.

Keys of truth

There are caveats and qualifications but these are the key points on what liars do:

  • Use lots of motion words and directions, eg, “I walked home”
  • Rarely use exceptions or evaluative sentences, eg, “usually I take the bus, but it was such a nice day”.
  • Use few self-references or even references in the third-person.
  • Distance themselves from events.
  • Use more negative emotional words.
  • Often have the truth seep out in the phrases they use.
  • Have a motive for lying.

Let me know if it works for you? But tell the truth.