I haven’t taught a fiction workshop in a while, but one of my favorite exercises when i did teach was the following. On the first day of most workshops, there’s the inevitable “Go around the table and introduce yourselves” exercise, which i liked to mix up by saying:
Go around the table and introduce yourselves by speaking for approximately one minute, during which time you’ll share two anecdotes from your own life that are true, and one anecdote from your life that’s completely made up. The false anecdote must be believable, and you need to give no hints or clues as to which anecdotes are true and which is false. Then when you’re done, everybody else around the table is going to try to guess which anecdote was the lie.
The point of this exercise is twofold. First, if you’re leading a workshop, you should be aware of the fact that everyone taking the workshop absolutely freaking hates having to go around the table and introduce themselves, so anything you can do to jazz that up will be appreciated.
Second, and more importantly: Fiction writers are people who turn lies into truth for a living. And as such, we need to be good at it. Writers need to embrace the complex boundary between truth, lies, and believability. We need to understand better than anyone else the warped-mirror relationship between the truth and the best-told lies.
Now, if you’re the sort of writer who does any reading about writing (which is to say, if you’re a writer), you know that nothing said above is particularly original. Virtually every fictionalist who’s ever written about the process has made this point, including my own favorite variations from Charles de Lint (“I’ve always believed the lies we use to make our fictions reveal the truth with far more honesty than any history or herstory or life story.”), Italo Calvino (“Novelists tell that piece of truth hidden at the bottom of every lie.”), and Stephen King (“Kids, the fiction is the truth inside the lie, and the truth of this fiction is simple enough: the magic exists.”).
But what does all that actually mean? It sounds like sage advice, but in the same manner as a lot of writing koans, it doesn’t actually grant any insight in how to apply the rule to your own work. Hence, the value in the exercise in lying at the top of the page. Because for most of the people attempting the exercise, the one lie is almost immediately spotted by those listening — but in way that can put truth, lie, and believability into sharper focus.
As most of us discover as children, lying is easy. As most of us learn a minute or two later (if we’re lying to our parents, at any rate), lying believably is hard. But being forced to lay down a spontaneous lie alongside true details from our own lives points out an important fact about lying. For the most part, it’s not the specific details of what happened that make a lie believable. Most people doing the exercise have no trouble coming up with details, because they’re writers. Lying well isn’t about the accuracy of events. It’s about the sensation and resonance that events produce — the qualities of a story that anchor it in the living world, and the echo of those qualities that create a sense of empathetic induction in the listener.
When told a bad lie, most people will react with “I don’t believe that could happen.” An average lie provokes a reaction of “I guess that could have happened.” But in response to the best lies, a listener has no choice but to say “I need to believe that did happen.” And this sense of empathic connection is the key to crafting the true lies that make up the best fiction.
All writers know what empathy means in the narrative sense — the ability of an audience to get inside the skin of a character. An empathic connection between character and audience is the single most important factor in creating believable fiction. The idea that if we’re engaged in reading or watching a character’s story, it’s not important to be able to say “Yeah, the same thing happened to me and that’s exactly what I did.” But the reader should always be able to say “If that had happened to me, that’s exactly what I would have done.”
Our experiences and memories are grafted onto a framework of sensation and resonance. Details are what we remember. Sensation is what we relive. We can repeat back to ourselves the details of some tumultuous event in our own lives easily enough. We recall the events, we know what was said, what was done. But those events and words always stay at a safe distance. We remember in a detached fashion — at least until we hear the song that accompanied those past events, at which point, we’re back in that past whether we want to be or not. We feel a specific chill in the morning air that shifts us back to some other morning when everything changed in our lives. We catch a scent worn by a person lost to us now, and suddenly we’re living through that loss all over again.
When we write, we tend to spend a lot of time on details. Especially for those of us who sail the narrative waters of fantasy and speculative fiction, the details of our fictional worlds can take on huge importance as we worry about making those details believable. But as with any lie, the details of fiction aren’t where believability is made or lost. If we look at the books that mean the most to us individually as writers — not necessarily the classics of our chosen genres, but the stories that we carry with us — it’s not the events, not the words that stick with us. It’s the sensations. The dark scent and gritty feel of a specific place, the soft or callused touch of the characters who inhabit that place, the unique music that the lives of those characters create.
The truth that lurks in the heart of every fictional lie isn’t about the details of the world as the characters see it. It’s not about the details of the plot as the characters engage in it. The truth of fiction resides in the sensations that the world and its events create in the characters. It’s about how sensation and emotion resonate in your readers, pushing them past “That could have happened” and into “I need to believe.”