Lies, and Fiction

by Intermittent Rain ~ June 24th, 2015

Fiction is a lie, or at least an untruth. A good storyteller can make an untruth believable within the world or reality they construct.

To become a good storyteller perhaps one needs to be a good liar. To become a good liar perhaps the starting point is to avoid clues that you are lying.

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If you Google “Forensic Statement Analysis” you find lots of garbage; courses and workshops you can sign up for (after paying a reasonable fee) to learn how to detect liars. These may or may not have elements of legitimacy. To me, they seem as likely to improve your life as the books about body language; some potential value, but it’s not the equivalent of X-ray vision or mind reading some make it out to be. Crime fiction writers may find it more useful than the rest of us.

One source I found is a book with a preview available on Google books:

Forensic Interviewing

Some of the author’s comments apply to writing fiction.

 

Information gaps, in victim or suspect statements:

  • “ … 1) the action was interrupted and if the statement is credible, the interruption should be described or 2) the writer is intentionally omitting time and information from their statement, indicating deception.”

If you leave out information, your statement becomes suspect. The same applies to the story you are fabricating. Don’t leave gaps in the logic, or skip events, or miss chunks of time, unless you do so intentionally to raise suspicions in your reader.

 

And sensory gaps:

  • “False statements provided by an alleged victim may reveal a lack of sensory details because the person could not perceive any sensory data from a fictitious account.”

and,

  • “A statement written by a deceptive suspect may disclose the same lack of sensory details, but for different reasons — either to avoid providing a truthful account that would implicate the writer or to refrain from supplying detailed false information that a competent investigator could refute.”

Summarized, a truthful statement is more likely to include a variety of sensory elements (not just sight) than an untruthful one, and a deception will give less detail and volume of description to avoid offering some that might be challenged and found to be false.

Our fiction often lacks sufficient sensory details for the same reason as the lie; we weren’t actually there. To help convince the reader that we are telling the truth we need to include lots of sensory description, like an experienced liar might.

 

Writers know passive voice should be used carefully, for reasons I won’t rehash here, but also:

  • “The passive voice becomes significant in investigative statements when it is used to evade an issue.”

and,

  • “An important point to know regarding passive voice/language in a statement is it is used to hide the identity of the actor of the story is a fabrication, and the writer uses the passive voice in order to not identify or give a name to the imaginary person he is writing about.”

“Jeff left the safe unlocked” raises questions about Jeff. Change it to passive voice; “the safe was left unlocked” and we remove the doer of the action, and hide Jeff.

It’s more distasteful to falsify events, to state an outright lie like, “Jeff did not leave the safe unlocked” or “I saw Jeff lock the safe” than to use passive voice and say “the safe was not locked” and shrug our shoulders when asked if we know who left it vulnerable. Passive voice allows us to (attempt to) avoid lying by telling an incomplete truth. But like cookie crumbs in the corner of a five year old’s mouth, using passive voice may raise suspicions that we’re not telling the whole story.

 

For criminal investigators, elements such as information gaps, sensory gaps, and passive voice are potential clues that a story is false or incomplete. All of us, including our readers, are vaguely aware that this makes sense. If we want to extend our readers’ suspension of disbelief, it helps to avoid the mistakes of inexperienced deluders.

Write your fiction as if you are a virtuoso con artist.

Writing Review: Nine Dragons and Burning Angel

by Intermittent Rain ~ February 24th, 2015

I’ve recently read (some of) two novels: a randomly selected detective novel, Nine Dragons by Michael Connelly, and a cop novel that came recommended, Burning Angel by James Lee Burke.

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First, Nine Dragons. Grammatically fine, but the writing is not much beyond high school. The internal monologue is probably the best part, but the dialogue is flat and colorless. Often there are long stretches of dialogue with no action, no gestures, no change in facial expression or vocal inflection, and little internal monologue or review of the developments. The only way we are aware that the characters might possibly be experiencing any emotion is when someone says something ‘curtly’ or ‘in a sulking voice’.

For example, after pages and pages of dialogue with no emotional clues,

Bosch was growing excited.

“Then, why don’t we do it?”

So at least we know he’s now feeling something.

And you also get writing like this:

“… If you think there is any danger involved in talking to us, then we can protect you.”

“Absolutely,” Chu chimed in.

“Chimed in” is not wrong, but it’s not good either. It’s something you’d expect in a Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew novel.

“What is this?” Chang protested. “What I do?”

He had a strong accent.

In case you didn’t notice or thought there was a typo, Chang has a strong accent.

Contrast the writing with this, from Burning Angel:

He had been born to an exclusionary world of wealth and private schools, membership in the town’s one country club, and Christmas vacations in places the rest of us knew of only from books, but no one could accuse him of not having improved upon what he had been given.

I doubt that there is any sentence this length in Nine Dragons, though I can’t say for sure because I didn’t finish it. I was a third of the way through when my wife handed me Burning Angel.

A little further along in our introduction to the character above, we get this paragraph. A nice balance of a short sentence with a longer one, while we see more of the character, his manner, and the location.

We walked under the trees in his backyard. His face was cool and pleasant as he sipped his iced tea and looked at a motorboat and a water-skier hammering down the bayou on pillows of yellow foam.

Whereas Connelly says things like:

As the two women got closer Bosch saw that the younger woman was in her midthirties and attractive in an understated, hair-behind-the-ears sort of way. She was Asian. She was dressed in blue jeans and a white blouse. She walked a half step behind Mrs. Li with her eyes cast down on the floor. The initial impression Bosch got was that she was an employee. A maid pressed into services as a driver. But the deskman downstairs had said they were both named Li.

Here we’re getting what I think of as the faux-Chandler style of short, abrupt, incomplete sentences, used when a writer wants to represent a no-nonsense tough guy. (And note: three sentences in a row that begin with ‘She’). In the last two sentences in particular you can imagine a Bogart caricature; teeth clenched, dressed in a fedora and trench coat, maybe a toothpick dangling from the corner of his mouth.

Compare this with:

His race was a mystery, his biscuit-colored body almost hairless, his stomach a water-filled balloon, his pudgy arms and hands those of a boy who never grew out of adolescence. But his comic proportions had always been a deception. When he was seventeen a neighbor’s hog rooted up his mother’s vegetable garden. Sweet Pea picked up the hog, carried it squealing to the highway, and threw it headlong into the grille of a semi-truck.

This one is not even the most elegant of Lee Burke’s descriptions, but it’s from early in the novel and since I didn’t finish Nine Dragons I wanted to be comparing similar sections.

The difficulty I have with Lee Burke is his obtuseness. Often his characters are saying things that don’t make sense because the other character—and you the reader as well—are supposed to be reading between the lines. It’s part of the wise-guy, I’m-just-as-smart-and-tough-as-you attitude and everybody knows it, but it slows the reading down because you have to interpret as you read.

And the emotions of his protagonist are obtuse as well, particularly when he suddenly loses control and beats someone up. I guess the anger was there, veiled, but more than once I didn’t understand why he suddenly started smashing a glass pitcher or his fists into someone’s face. I’m not sure whether this abruptness is obtuseness, or the narrator didn’t want to give away the story by showing the building emotion, or whether the character has anger management issues and didn’t expect the violence himself, or whether the author doesn’t feel that the build up is missing.

And though the writing is lovely, sometimes it’s too descriptive and too much. Every new character has unusual physical traits, and every setting is described poetically.

Somehow because of this, though the mystery is large and has big implications, it has that slice of life feel that literary works sometimes have, though it’s a particularly large slice for a character that is not himself larger than life, like say a James Bond or a Jack Reacher. The story ends by petering out without explosions or violence that match the rest of the novel. Two principle characters are found dead after a non-violent murder/suicide. A mystery character reveals herself and is quickly dispatched by someone who received a phone tip. All the loose ends are tied up, but it feels as if the character and the author (and maybe the reader too) are worn out.

But it is nice to read a genre writer who likes words, who views writing as more than a plot, who writes about characters who are more than just an amalgamation of traits, and settings that are more than just city and street names with temperatures and the occasional leafy tree.

Micro-Fiction

by Intermittent Rain ~ February 13th, 2015

There is a contest running on EveryDayFiction. The site gives ten words, you must use at least four, plus there is a saying which is optional as a theme. The maximum word count is 250 words. The contest is open for submissions for eight days, and I’ve decided to write a new piece each day. At the end I’ll select one as my entry.

What I’ve learned so far:

  1. There is a tendency to write all dialogue, skipping and implying the action and description, or, no dialogue and all description or inner monologue. This is the result of the pressure to cut words.

  2. It’s not hard to force the key words in, but it becomes like the theatersports game where you have random items or words and you must justify them in the scene that you are improvising. Then it becomes silly, or at least the logical connection becomes thin and forced. Getting the words to integrate seamlessly is not so easy, especially when I’m trying to write something entirely different each day while restricted by the same ten words. In other words, if I find a nice thread connecting a few of the words, I can’t use that thread again next day because I would write almost the same story again.

  3. Integrating seamlessly and balancing dialogue with description and telling a story with a beginning, middle and end, and, trying to get it to say something meaningful too, is not easy. I can end up with slice of life miniatures, which is okay, but I don’t want them all to be like that.

And it’s hard, and getting harder. My expectations are rising as I learn from this experience. I’m aware of the weaknesses and imbalance of my writing as I’m doing it. Plus, the further along I go, the more I run out of ways of combining four of the ten words within the realm of my personal experience and knowledge. Just putting those first few words down gets harder each day.