The Four Lies of Storytelling

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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.
  4. 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.


21 Responses to “The Four Lies of Storytelling”

  1. Yves Hanoulle

    a few years ago, I dry run a presentation at home with my family (as I always do)
    halfway the presentation is a story about my son that broke his arm.
    I tel the story, exactly as it happened (or at least how I remember it)
    yet in my slides I have used a few slides of my son at that day.
    for dramatic effect I have reversed 2 pictures.

    When I dry run the presentation, my son starts to yell at me “liar, this is not what happened….”

    1. Scott Berkun

      You have a smart son :)

      I’d like to see a documentary film that deconstructs how even documentary films manipulate the truth, or more precisely, can’t avoid manipulating the truth. The question is how self-aware they are of it, how balanced they’re trying to be, and how fair they are to points of view they don’t want to agree with.

      1. Yves Hanoulle

        For the last seven years we make a new years video, with (a selection) of the pictures of our year.

        creating the video is a lot of work, and it is nice to se back all the pictures we take in a year. And yes we love watching back the video’s of the previous years.

        For my seven year old daughter that were her first 7 years.
        yet that is not true. The video’s only show a part of the year

        A) we selected interesting landscape pictures
        B) they should fit the music somehow
        C) we can maximum use 60 pictures or so per year.

        every year some really nice pictures are not used. simply because we can not use all the selected pictures. (We select about 200 out of a collection of 5.000)

        so even a small documentary of one year of a 5 member family is fake
        and that is ok.


      2. Nancy

        Truth here is subjective. I studied and have worked in documentary for years. I may be mis-reading your comment, but all true documentary starts with the point of view of the filmmaker. Journalists are obligated to be objective (in theory), but that is not true for a documentarian. If a documentarian strays into a “balance” scenario, she or he is really practicing journalism (unless the filmmaker chooses to take a stance of seeing things from all perspectives). For years I have been working on a documentary that explores how biased journalists really are. For all his flaws (and who doesn’t have them?), this is the criticism of Michael Moore that drives me crazy. Why does he have to present the other side’s story? Let them tell their own. The best documentarians tell the truth as they see it.

        1. Scott Berkun

          I’m interested in that documentary you’re working on.

          I reject the pretense of objectivity in journalism. Even where an article is printed changes how we view the article, or what assumptions we make about the posture of the person writing it. And as a reader we don’t know what biases the journalist has as they pretend they don’t have any.

          I agree about the difference between documentary work and journalism, but the distinction is lost on most people who consume these things.

          My frustration with Moore has always been his willingness to take the cheapest shots possible – he’s his own worse enemy in many ways as there are better ways to make his points that aren’t so easily dismissed because of their shallowness. I often disagree with him, which is fine, but the quality of the arguments he makes is more frustrating than the point of view itself.

          1. Nancy

            I understand what Michael Moore is doing, but agree he can be his own worst enemy. He put documentary back on the radar and I love that.

            Today I think just about everyone might acknowledge there is no objectivity in journalism, with the rare exception of the “old-schoolers.” Which is why I’m trying to find my POV for the doc. Is there anyone left who would feel outrage that journlists are subjective and biased?

            I’ve been digging way back, and in high school I had a teacher (a nun by the way) who spent one term teaching us how to read and question the news we were fed. I learned something in that class that I carry with me and practice to this day – I always look at the other side of the story, even if I agree with the original one. I ask what is in it for the writer. What does the writer want me to think and feel, and why?

            What I’m going to do with that and the reserach I’ve done, I don’t know. The news world is changing so rapidly (though staying the same in so many ways). I also don’t want to do something that preaches to the choir.

            That is where I think Michael Moore shines – he gets the attention of those who may not have known about an issue before.

            So there’s my rambling on my doc. Onward!

      3. Lloyd

        Have you seen Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell (2012)?

  2. Phil Simon

    Good to have you back, Scott.

    Far too many of us seek easy answers. We don’t accept messiness. We want to hear about the Eureka moments, though they might be apocryphal. As you probably know, soundbites are declining in length.

    On a personal level, a friend of mine liked Message Not ReceivedM and gave it a nice review on the Interwebs. In private, though, he lamented the fact that the book just didn’t tell him how to write a better email. Why write all of this extraneous material about the evolving nature of communications? Why give a history lesson? Historical context? A pox on you!

    Big ideas can be messy ones, and not everyone is willing to wrestle with those. Maybe I’d sell more books if I “lied” or at least made things more soundbite-worthy. (Don’t even get me started on listicles.) I suppose that I’d rather reach a smaller audience honestly than a larger audience in a way that’s not true to who I am.

  3. Scott Berkun

    Coleridge described the suspension of disbelief for fiction – the state a good writer keeps a reader in where they don’t notice that the story they’re reading is an invention.

    There’s something similar for non-fiction. The difference is that it’s the artifice of storytelling that hopefully goes unnoticed, rather than its unreality, which I wrote about here:

    Coleridge described the suspension of disbelief for fiction, and I believe in something similar for non-fiction: the continuation of curiosity. The title of the book itself generates a certain curiosity for the reader and my job as the writer is to carry that through an entire 8 to 12 hour experience. The job of each sentence is to make the reader want to read the next one and to ignore the machinery at work. If I can repeat this for every sentence in the book I’ve done well.

  4. Matthew Dicks

    I read your piece and appreciate the balanced way that you approached it considering that you’re not familiar with my work. It would’ve been easy to simply attack me and my position. I appreciate your delicacy.

    A couple comments:

    I agree that the manipulations that I describe are not necessarily lies, but I use the word “lie” in my workshops because I want to be clear that these manipulations should be used as infrequently as possible and with great consideration. If I label them as lies, I hope that my students (current and future storytellers) will better understand the gravity and dangers of using them.

    Tread lightly because you are about to tell a lie. Is it really necessary?

    In truth, I use these manipulations rarely onstage. Actually, I use omission all the time, but it’s the least egregious of the four and must be used to whittle stories down to digestible segments. But I have used a lie of compression in two of the more than 60 different stories that I have told onstage (both times to compress time). I’ve used a lie of assumption in three of my stories, filling in a probable detail when I can’t remember the actual detail but want everyone in the audience to see the same thing. And I have never used a lie of progression, though I have advised a handful of my students to consider using it.

    So even though I advocate the use of these “lies,” I also advocate great care in using them.

    In terms of the dangers of the slippery slope in terms of storyteller popularity and the desire to lie in order to eliminate the messiness of a story, I understand the concern but don’t worry about it personally because I just can’t see myself actually fabricating something onstage for the sake of a story. I just know I wouldn’t do it. I write novels, and I am able to make up stuff for hundreds of pages in those books. The challenge of storytelling is to identify real-life events and frame them in an entertaining and moving way. Simply inventing a story and portraying it as the truth or engaging in wholesale fabrication in an otherwise true story strips the challenge and power away from storytelling.

    I also have an outstanding checks-and-balance system in my form of my wife and siblings, who are constantly fact checking my stories. I advise my students to do the same. I stepped off stage recently and was accosted by my brother, who was angry that I had left out ‘the best parts” of the story. He was right. I had just forgotten those parts until he mentioned them to me.

    Last week I told a story about conceiving my first child with my wife. In the rough drat of the story, I talked about how I had burned my hand on a skillet in the kitchen and had sex with her while clutching a bag of frozen corn. She almost smacked me when I told her the story, because it was my wife who had burned her hand. Not me. I remembered it wrong. And it was actually a much better story if she burned her hand.

    “You don’t even cook!” she said. She was right.

    We don’t always remember correctly, and that’s okay. As long as our inaccuracies aren’t deliberate.

    It’s also a lesson on the slipperiness of memory. Science has shown us how unreliable our memory is. The more often we tell a story, the less we actually recall the events correctly. Eyewitness testimony has been shown to be unreliable. We struggle to find the truth, and there is nothing wrong with asking friends and family to help when possible.

    I guess that in the end, some storytellers (and I like to think a tiny, tiny, tiny percentage of them) are going to fabricate and tell real, egregious lies regardless of what you or I say. If I can help the honest storytellers improve their stories with an occasional, slight, judiciously applied manipulation – eliminating a distracting detail or pushing two days closer together to keep the audience from getting confused or wondering about an irrelevant aspect of the story – I think I’m doing more good than harm.

    1. Scott Berkun

      You’re welcome and thanks for commenting so thoughtfully here.

      This particular line of debate is endless (but nevertheless important and possibly fun) as the very idea of truth itself is debated endlessly by philosophers and artists and as you point out memory does not work the way most people assume it does. We were all fast to attack Brian Williams, but we all make similar unintentional lies of convenience about our past often without even realizing it.

      Perhaps my greatest complaint is the the very idea of a “true story.” At best a story can only be partially true as for the story to have an ending end there must be many things omitted, things that might be important to the other people involved.

      Stories, including true stories, live in a grey space of unquestioned truth, and certainly for stories that aren’t for entertainment (like The Moth), I wish more people understood the machinery of storytelling and what questions to ask before taking lessons from the story and applying it to their real lives.

  5. Annette Simmons

    Scott, thank you for bringing up the subject of ethics! It is a complex issue but in general I feel if you can’t tell a true story to make your point…are you sure you have a point. When the story “doesn’t fit” as is, it’s an opportunity to learn something you don’t already know. In this way stories are diagnostic, investigating the 100% true story often reveals a problem you need to solve anyway or an opportunity to see unexpected solutions. On the other hadn, manipulating a story to change it’s meaning in a way that exploits someone is a line I think we should never cross.

  6. Vicki Brown

    Perhaps, rather than lies, we should call these “useful fictions”.

    Fiction is a well-known element of storytelling. Most stories (even biographies) are filled with fiction. It’s what makes them stories rather than a dry recitation of facts.

    1. Scott Berkun

      I like that term. However I don’t think most biographies are filled with fiction – by definition a biography has to be *based* on facts, and while some scenes might be dramatized they’re based on evidence, either from letters, conversations or interviews, with the people involved.

      For example a book like The Agony and The Ecstasy, about Michelangelo, is labelled as a biographical novel, and not a biography as there is a fair amount of invention, where as Lincoln: A Biography is labelled a biography as it’s based on historical evidence and documents.

  7. Mike Nitabach

    I agree with you that these artifices are not “lies” in the usual sense of the term. But I think for an even deeper reason than what you point out. Human memory is so fallible and malleable, and so well designed to generate coherent narratives where none exist. These features render it incoherent to privilege one particular narrative as truth and others as artifice when that distinction is based on human memory and not on verifiable physical evidence (photos, etc).

    1. Scott Berkun

      Indeed – things get messy once we admit how much more fragile human memory is than we pretend. And even verifiable physical evidence can often be explained with different narratives.

  8. Sean Crawford

    As for combining characters, best-selling writer Rita Mae Brown in her book on writing professed that combining characters made you a “hired gun,” rather than you “riding for the brand” of journalistic ethics.

    Speaking of Michael Moore, I can’t remember if I’ve read any of his “important” books but his autobiography made me laugh out loud a lot in a donut shop. I recommend it.

    Philosophically speaking, It’s queer how some people get resentful if you are laughing. My waitress just comes over to hear the joke, but others, I know, get resentful.



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