What a good old-fashioned lie can do for your story.

L is for Lies

The power of a lie.

In real life, we know lies can hurt, destroy, and basically ruin a relationship. We don’t like it when people lie to us. I train my children to tell the truth. But somehow, dishonesty creeps in. Face it. It’s a part of life.

We want honesty from our families our friends. And we want emotional honesty from our loved ones. And from the characters in our story.

Notice I said emotional honesty.

But any and all other kinds of dishonesty and lies – bring it on. And bring it good.

What can lies and dishonesty do for a story?

  • Lies create dramatic irony.
  • Lies in the form of hidden backstory create mystery.
  • Lies create conflict.
  • Lies can be the start of a moving character arc.
  • Lies set-up a powerful midpoint or Act III twist.
  • Lies create story tension, which can cover a multitude of other writing sins.

As you can see, I’m talking about more than one character lying to another character. Lies can be in the form of keeping truth from the reader. Or a character can be lying to themselves, in denial.


TWILIGHT and the dramatic irony created when the reader knew Edward was a vampire, but Bella didn’t.

CRACKED UP TO BE by Courtney Summers. I’m reading it right now and something big happened in the main character’s past to change her life. And I’m turning the pages as bits of backstory are dropped in because I want to know what happened.

THE LIAR SOCIETY by the Roecker sisters. The main character’s friend died and once we care, we turn the pages to find out how and why.

ACROSS THE UNIVERSE by Beth Revis. The main character wakes up fifty years too early after being cryogenically frozen. Let’s just say that big lies are revealed at the end that made a terrific twist!

HOLES by Louis Sachar. The main character is sentenced to Camp Green Lake for his prison term. Except the whole camp is a lie. This created incredible story tension.

I’m sure there are many others. Can you think of any? Do you use dishonesty and lies in your writing?

26 Responses to What a good old-fashioned lie can do for your story.

  1. mooderino April 14, 2011 at 10:15 am #

    I can’t leave a comment right now, I’m late for a meeting with the President.
    Moody Writing

  2. anne gallagher April 14, 2011 at 12:12 pm #

    My first book is FULL of lies. It’s great fun because only the reader knows the truth and putting the characters through hoops right until the very end is pretty cool for me.

    My second book is full of lies by omission. Another devastating circumstance for the protagonist.

    I love lies (in writing), they can twist and turn a story into so many different angles. I love it.

    I do not lie in real life. I used to get caught and got burned too many times. Do NOT ever ask me if you look fat in those jeans. You know what the anwer will be.

  3. Kris April 14, 2011 at 12:12 pm #

    Ha! Lies set up great conflict! Great post. I’m struggling with the middle of the alphabet… 🙂

  4. Laura Marcella April 14, 2011 at 12:35 pm #

    These are great examples! Lies are a terrific tool for creating conflict and tension…wish it was only in fiction, though, and not real life, lol!

    In “To Kill a Mockingbird” a great big lie sets up the entire courtroom drama. In “Gone with the Wind” Scarlett tells lots of lies to get herself and her family out of poverty. And she lies to herself the whole time about her feelings for Rhett but she doesn’t know it until the end.

    Love HOLES! That’s one of my favorite middle-grade books. I can’t get over how clever it is!

  5. Angela Felsted April 14, 2011 at 1:36 pm #

    I live with a man who cannot lie, not about anything. And I can tell you, deceit is given a bad rep.

    You’ve no idea how happy I’d be if he’d say my cooking is good, even when it is bad.

    • Laura April 14, 2011 at 1:46 pm #

      Yes, I think most writers use it without even purposefully setting out to do so!

  6. Donna Weaver April 14, 2011 at 1:48 pm #

    Too funny, Laura. I wrote my L blog post on lies, too.

  7. Joyce April 14, 2011 at 2:00 pm #

    Liars are great characters. They are unreliable and can be used to add tension when it is needed.

  8. Margo April 14, 2011 at 2:18 pm #

    I think its always interesting when characters lie to others or to themselves in the form of self-justification or refusing to seeing the truth of the situation… because that’s the point where they are in their character arc.

    Good point about emotional honesty. And Across the Universe is a GREAT example.

  9. Elena April 14, 2011 at 2:38 pm #

    I love figuring out which character in my novel is going to be the secret-keeper, the one who betrays them all. Really keeps the drama high, especially in that big “reveal” moment where the truth comes out.

  10. Kelly Polark April 14, 2011 at 2:42 pm #

    Lies in real life: bad. Lies in fiction: good. 🙂

  11. Anne N Kenny April 14, 2011 at 3:03 pm #

    My new WIP revolves around all of the characters keeping things from each other. It makes for great tension.

    Another random place I’ve noticed this is Jersey Shore. (haha) Half the times I’ve seen it, it seemed all of their troubles would have been non existent if they were just honest with one another.

    I guess they wouldn’t have a show then, hey?

  12. Lisa Green April 14, 2011 at 3:14 pm #

    Would you BELIEVE me if I said “no”? He he he

  13. LynNerd April 14, 2011 at 6:19 pm #

    Great post. Yes, lies add so much tension and drama to our stories. After reading your post, I realize how there are lies all through my WIP, the good friends lying to protect the MC and themselves if she found out what actually happened. She lies to herself to justify staying with the bad boy, who’s a chronic liar.

    Let’s see, an example that comes to mind is the wizard in The Wizard of Oz lies to Dorothy and her friends, telling them he can help them, but only after they get him the broom of the Wicked Witch. So off they go, facing terrible danger just because the wizard lied to get rid of them, never planning to help them at all. Sure made for lots of great tension!

  14. Jill Kemerer April 14, 2011 at 7:41 pm #

    Lies–oh yeah! My main characters usually aren’t deliberately deceiving, but maybe holding back information for some reason. And I love to have a character blatantly lie about something small–for humor reasons. Great post!

  15. Jenny Lundquist April 14, 2011 at 8:08 pm #

    Great post, Laura. And I agree with Jill Kemerer that small lies for humor’s sake rock! BTW- I finally broke down and joined Twitter today after all of the urging from my writer peeps. Thanks for the encouragement and great posts!

  16. Karen Lange April 14, 2011 at 9:02 pm #

    Oh yes, great stuff! Conflict, intrigue, and all those other good things. You are one smart chick. 🙂

  17. MG Higgins April 14, 2011 at 10:15 pm #

    Now I think my characters are much too honest! Well, except for one. She lies big time and it creates lots of tension. You are so right!

  18. erica and christy April 14, 2011 at 11:39 pm #

    YES! I love the lies an author can tell the reader, especially now that I’m the one doing it! It’s one of my favorite parts of writing a book! (Except right now I’m battling a problem with the lies I tell. I may be being a little too vague. Now I need to find a happy medium with my lies. And that kind of has taken the fun out of the whole thing.) :0) christy

  19. Leslie Rose April 15, 2011 at 12:47 am #

    Fabulous examples! I love the pressure cooker situation that lies bring on in a story. They grab me every time.

  20. Susan Kaye Quinn April 15, 2011 at 12:52 am #

    Oh so interesting that you posted this. Lies=awesome for YA – but what about MG? I’m plotting up an MG and seem to keep looking for lies to twist and add tension, but it feels more … dishonest, I guess, for the younger readers. Not sure. Maybe it just needs to be handled more lightly.

    Also pet peeve of mine: writers who use close POV, but keep information from the reader that the character knows…like the POV character is an alien, obviously knows he’s an alien, but we don’t find out till the end….he’s an alien! (Mostly this is in short fiction.)

  21. Jolene April 15, 2011 at 3:57 am #

    What a GREAT post. It really got me to thinking about my manuscripts. I have a lie of omission I’m working on right now. Those are my favorite.
    In writing. Only. I’ve NEVER actually done that in real life…

  22. Samantha Vérant April 15, 2011 at 9:03 am #

    I now have the Thompson Twins song in my head: Lies, Lies, Lies, yeah…they’re gonna get ya. Hmmm. More books with lies? I think most YAs have some sort of false truths in them…if you look. For example, in the Hunger Games – the entire government is a lie.

  23. Samantha Vérant April 15, 2011 at 9:03 am #

    I now have the Thompson Twins song in my head: Lies, Lies, Lies, yeah…they’re gonna get ya. Hmmm. More books with lies? I think most YAs have some sort of false truths in them…if you look. For example, in the Hunger Games – the entire government is based on lies and misleading people.

  24. Tony McFadden April 16, 2011 at 12:35 am #

    If the lie cheats the reader (a deux a machina result because of the lie) than I can’t support it. But if a character lies and the READER knows about it, or has the information from earlier in the book so they should know about it, then yes, all for it. Use it extensively. It’s part of a character’s second dimension.

  25. Cally Jackson April 16, 2011 at 1:06 am #

    Great post. You’re absolutely right. Lies are a powerful tool for writers. The Memory Keeper’s Daughter is built on a huge lie. If you haven’t heard of it, the premise is ‘On a winter night in 1964, Dr. David Henry is forced by a blizzard to deliver his own twins. His son, born first, is perfectly healthy. Yet when his daughter is born, he sees immediately that she has Down’s Syndrome. Rationalizing it as a need to protect Norah, his wife, he makes a split-second decision that will alter all of their lives forever. He asks his nurse to take the baby away to an institution and never to reveal the secret.’

    I felt physically ill while reading this book due to the enormity of the lie and its far-reaching ramifications, which made for intense, emotion-provoking fiction.

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