Recently on The Gist podcast novelist and storytelling coach Matthew Dicks offered his four useful lies of telling true stories. He believes that these careful manipulations of the truth work in the service of the audience. Dicks offered that “All the lies I tell on stage are never told for my benefit, or for the story’s benefit, but for the clarity of the audience”. But as I’ll explain this is a tricky line to hold for any storyteller.
First, here are as his four lies:
- Lie of Omission. On the show Dicks tells a true story about running out of gas for his car and having to walk door to door pretending to be collecting for a children’s charity. What he doesn’t include is that the entire time he had a hitchhiker with him. To include this detail would, in Dicks’ opinion, complicate the story and take away its power (and in turn, I have omitted many details of his example story about the lie of omission).
- Lie of Assumption. When you can’t remember a detail of the story, but you invent specifics to ground the story and help the audience share a vision for what is happening. As an example one of his stories involves a car, and even though he couldn’t recall what model it was, he took a reasonable guess (“brown Station wagon”) and used it in the story. He says “A lie of assumption is okay as long as it is a reasonable assumption… you assume details when you feel they are important but you have to make reasonable assumptions.”
- Lie of Compression. When you want to shift time or space together for the sake of the audience. Whenever you skip an hour or a day of a story, you’re compressing it for the benefit of the audience. You can also have a lie of expansion, where you slow a moment down and spend far more time talking about it than it took to experience in real time.
- Lie of Progression. When you switch the order of things for the benefit of the audience. The classic three act structure or any narrative arc is using progression to create suspense or keep the audience interested. Sometimes the most powerful segment of a true story happened at the half way mark, not at the end, when it was experienced in real life. For a more powerful story, the payoff needs to be placed carefully at or near the end.
There are many other manipulations that good storytellers use and I’ve used many of them in my books, even if I never called these techniques by these names. Dicks’ list is good but I don’t like referring to them as lies. A lie is defined as “a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive” which isn’t generally the goal of storytelling. Instead a good story conveys something that feels real to the audience and careful manipulations like those in this list help a storyteller achieve a kind of truth, even if it’s only a metaphoric truth. To tell or write a story involves having a point of view and editing events, which means there is no purely true story. But the goal of a writer is to try and get at some kind of truth. I’d rather call the techniques of storytelling manipulations, or tactics, rather than lies.
The ethical danger is in Dicks assertion that “the audience does not want a story that declines”, which suggests that a good storyteller gives the audience what they want. This is the moral trap of storytelling. What about the important experiences in life that are messy, complex, ugly, and confusing? These experiences don’t conveniently fit the narrative bias that wires our brains. Messy and confusing stories that stay with us despite their lack of resolution, or clear heroes and villains, might be more important to us than the satisfying ones. We’re not well equipped to deal with ambivalence, ambiguity and existentialism despite how deeply effected we are by events in our lives that causes these feelings. Shouldn’t this be what our best storytellers help us explore?
“All the lies I tell on stage are never told for my benefit, or for the story’s benefit, but for the clarity of the audience”
There is a pocket lie here – all storytellers benefit from popularity. Telling satisfying stories makes any storyteller more popular, even if their stories stray from literal or metaphoric truths. To be exclusively in the service of an audience is a slippery slope (and to be clear I’m not familiar enough with Dicks’ work to accuse him of this). To want to entertain is a reasonable goal, but as important moments in life are not necessarily entertaining, it excludes many important kinds of stories central to the human experience. Storytelling is powerful which means people who are good at it have some responsibility for how they use that power.
Many talented storytellers slide towards the same selfish manipulations of advertising, marketing, and political propaganda. Simple lies travel faster and wider than complex truths. And someone who is a good storyteller can easily use the four lies, or any narrative system, to their own advantage. We all know that rationally there are no get rick quick schemes, or 7 day weight loss miracles, but our brains are wired to love these kinds of stories independent of their truth (see clickbait). Next time you hear a great story, ask yourself if it’s more than just the narrative machine in your brain that’s satisfied.
- Truth, Myths and Lies (What is a fact? What is a true story?)
- On Truth, Mike Daisy and This American Life (Mike Pesca pointed out in his podcast that the expectations of truth differ depending on the medium the story is in. A hollywood film provides one set of expectations, an Atlantic cover story another and a format like The Moth (“True stories told live”) or This American Life a third. But I doubt audiences pay as much attention to these nuances as storytellers and journalists hope they do).
- We Are All Politicians