09 February 2019

True Lies

I've been thinking lately about what I do for fun (and a little bit of profit). I like to make stuff up. I routinely write about people and events, conflicts and conundrums, and barely a word of it is true. My stories are mostly cut from the whole cloth of my imagination.

And that said, people read what I write and believe every word.

Bless them. Note: Believe is a fluid term.

I'm no exception. Every writer of FICTION is granted this privilege. And it's a privilege we work with carefully, because if we stretch our fiction too much, too far, or too absurdly, it'll break. The reader will snort with derision and hurl our writing across the room at the wall; or worse, into the publishing house's rejection receptacle.

When people pick up a work of fiction, 99% of them will read and accept it, happily allowing for its inherent falseness; and as long as the writer plays more-or-less by the rules (of whatever field, genre he/she is writing in), everything will be fine.

But, of course, there is that 1% of folk who will pick up a book and actually believe the whole thing is a true story, i.e., not made up.

My percentages are also fiction, but based on a reasonable assumption. People really do send death threats to actors who play nasty villains on TV and in movies. And to pluck an excellent example from history; people really did cry when (PLOT SPOILER!) Little Nell died at the end of of Charles Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop. In fact, it's been said that readers in New York stormed the docks (in 1841) when the ship arrived bearing the last installment, shouting to the sailors, "Is Little Nell alive?"


"Little Nell" perhaps better demonstrates the power of a good story, rather than complete acceptance of a work of fiction in blind faith. But, you know, there really are people out there who totally, utterly, unquestioningly, believe there's a school in Scotland called Hogwarts. Right now, I have at least one friend who's saying, What the hell are you talking about, Stephen?!? You know who you are.

Liking a good story is why we will happily suspend our disbelief. We are consciously aware it's made up, but we allow for that. In fact, the more we like a story, the greater is our ability to suspend our disbelief, regardless of how ludicrous the story might be.

(I am very tempted to segue into politics at this point, but I will not.)

Liking a good story is part of human nature. We've been liking a good story since man could talk and could string enough sentences together to say something interesting. And let's face it, there wasn't much else to do of an evening in prehistoric times, when sitting around the fire, after having swallowed the last mouthful of woolly mammoth. There was nowhere to plug in the TV, to start with, and the wi-fi was lousy.

There is something innate in the human mind that can easily latch onto, like, and believe in a good set of characters and reasonable plot. Were there not, books, plays, movies, and so on, would not be a thing. We'd still be sitting around the fire. Counting the stars.

Speaking as a writer, there's something nice about being able to send made-up ideas into the heads of other people. To make them see things that don't exist. To make them feel. And to keep doing that, possibly forever, or until the stars burn out. Think about it, every time someone picks up one of Dickens' books, the ideas of a man who's been dead for nearly 150 years come through clearly into the reader's head. Natürliche, you need to be someone as good as Dickens to achieve that kind of longevity.

Stephen King, in his book On Writing, talked about this. From memory, I think he referred to it as a form of telepathy—transmitting ideas from the writer's mind into that of the reader's, with, some times, years apart between the writing and the reading.


Anyway, back to the next chapter, and making up more stuff.

Thanks to @nubikini for the photo!



  1. I an tell truth from fiction most of the timebyt whena favorite author dies I do find myself wondering what is Dortmunder, or Nero Wolfe, or Jimmy Flannery doing now that I'll never geto to know about?

  2. Are you telling me that my diploma from Hogwarts is bogus, Stephen?

  3. Rob, yes, and I wonder what Philip Marlowe is up to these days. Probably staring out the window, down at the street, watching the traffic go by. Waiting for a new case.

    Paul. Every year, I put in an application to be the new potions master. Every year, another owl of rejection.

  4. Si, signore. We make up stuff. When my kids were small, they would warn their friends to watch out - Daddy makes up stuff.

  5. In fairness to naive readers, Little Nell has lived longer - in the curious way that good fictional characters do live- far longer than her creator, her initial readers and detractors.

  6. Great post.

    I've heard the same Dickens story about when Bill Sykes beat Nancy (Is that Oliver Twist? I've only read about half of Dickens).

    My favorite story along this line comes from Art Buchwald. In one of his comedic columns he said that J. Edgar Hoover was a fictitious character created by Reader's Digest so they could publish several stories. After one of his lectures, a woman accosted him and demanded to know where he got his information.

    He told her it was a joke and he'd made it up.

    She replied, "I know that, but where did you get your information?"

    It's amazing to me how many otherwise good stories fall apart with an unbelievable plot twist near the end. And people won't even blink at them. Depressing, too.

  7. That's the nice thing about fiction - all the characters we create do take shape in someone else's mind, and live there. Live on.
    Of course, there are those who are determined that they're not fiction. Since I set a lot of stories in small town South Dakota, and lived in small town South Dakota, I have a certain constituency who's always determined to figure out who I'm writing about this time. Sigh.

  8. Buchwald! I remember that. He said that "Edgar" was the editor's nephew's name. "Hoover" was for vacuum cleaners (cleaning up crime). "J." stood for jail. Gotta love Buchwald.

  9. Well said, Stephen! "To make them see things that don't exist" is the essence of craftsmanship, and not only in writing. Or as W.C Fields put it, "If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit."

  10. Stephen, I'm one of those pathetic readers who choke up when a story whuffs emotional pepper spray into the air. Damn, I hate that. Enjoyed your column though.

    Your opening paragraph reminded me of an Atlanta radio talk show host. He opened each program by saying "I will lie to you," and went on to tell listeners they had to sort out truth and lies for themselves. Sadly, his fanboys believed everything but that disclaimer.


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