Stories Reveal the Truth Without Meaning To

In sixth grade I was riding the school bus home, and I turned to a boy and told him that no one in the world could hold their breath longer than four minutes. He did not believe me. He proceeded to “show me” I was wrong. I waited until I felt it had been long enough and then told him, “You’re breathing.” He asked, “How did you know?”

I knew because I was certain of my “fact.” But arguing that I knew what I was talking about would not convince him, so I told him I could see his nostrils moving.

This is typical of children. I once asked my mother how she knew I was lying all of the time. I truly remember not understanding how she could possibly know that there wasn’t a mermaid in our pool. There was no way to prove there wasn’t; she hadn’t looked. It alarmed me.

I believe that most humans, at some time in their life, trust that, “If you don’t have evidence, you can’t possibly know I’m lying.”

This is an important concept in the literary world for authors to understand: People can recognize lies.

Humans often have similar motivations. People can learn from experiences. Plus, American communication is based off of manipulation. Thus, it can be assumed that the listener can know what a speaker truly means despite the speaker doing his best to hide it.

What this means in the literary sense is this: Joe writes a story that is based on an ideal version of himself—a superhero who saves the world, gets the girl, and everyone loves. He names the character Kabookie, and gives him blonde hair instead of Joe’s red. Yet when Jill reads it, she can “tell” that it’s secretly supposed to be Joe.

Jill doesn’t have to be told. She may not even talk to Joe about it, believing that he’ll just deny it. She is content in her knowledge and Joe believes that he has been convincing in his lie.

Jill “knows” because of the subtleties: the way he describes the character—“handsome,” “rugged”—the idea that he favors this character over every other—he’s always right and they’re always wrong. But most importantly, if Jill wrote a story, it would probably be about herself.

Now some may argue that people assume every writer always writes about themselves. Even if the character truly is not supposed to be Joe, Jill will still think it is. And I have seen that. But this concept lingers in more contexts than just this one.

A man once made a poster for a production in my school. I took one look at it and I said, “He traced a photo on Photoshop.” My friends didn’t believe me—they didn’t believe I could possibly know that—but when I asked him the artist laughed and admitted it.

How did I know? Because I’ve done it.

Again, I had no proof other than my experienced recognition, and if asked, I could not prove it if the artist hadn’t admitted to it.

It can also be seen in little things. A student wrote a story in which he called a ‘door’ a ‘portal,’ and I knew he had needed a synonym for door and used Word’s thesaurus. (Back with an older version of Word, the only synonym for ‘door’ it had was ‘portal’ or ‘doorway,’ but they’ve since fixed that.)

People can tell a writer’s opinion on a subject without the author intending for it. They not only can recognize tricks of the trade, but emotions, (such as being in love with a character) or moral views, (Christian writers who write science fiction or fantasy, such as Stephanie Meyer, are often criticized of inputting their religion into their work).

The point is this: People often know what an author is doing, even if he doesn’t explicitly say it. What does this mean for the writing? Nothing if you’re not trying to lie.

We often do write about ourselves, fall in love with a character, pretend we know more about a subject than we actually do, and do other typical things that, well, makes a story sound like a self-petting fantasy more than a reality to convince others of. Often times it is important to hide what one is really trying to do because otherwise the reader might recognize it, and if she recognizes it, then she is very much likely to put the author inside of her peer group, which, considering the amount of self-loathing Americans tend to feel, is not a good place to be. Our worst criticism is towards things we see in ourselves.

To get to the gist, it is important to realize that truth gets through to the reader without our intending. An author must make a greater effort to lie and cover up his motivations.

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