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Introduction: Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire

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Why does language use differ in fiction versus nonfiction?

We might point fingers in several directions: the goal of the writing, the intended audience, the nature of storytelling, etc. But it turns out that the answer is completely basic.

Language use differs between these two disciplines because we use different parts of our brain to create them.

A Bit of Physiology

computer graphic image of a brain: red lines against a black background (topic: introduction to brain activity)

Telling the truth is easy. Our temporal lobe accesses and regurgitates our memories. There’s nothing to pull from thin air. We might have moments of pause as we reflect on the memory-soup and how to form it into a linear account, but that’s about it.

Fabrication, on the other hand, requires more mental power. Creating something from nothing activates 3 different parts of the brain:

  1. The frontal lobe suppresses the truth so the imagination can run free.
  2. The temporal lobe retrieves memory and creates mental imagery.
  3. The limbic system triggers increased anxiety that someone will call us out for lying. (YAY! /s)

That’s right. For writers, anxiety can be an occupational hazard. I don’t know a single author who doesn’t suffer from it in one form or another. It feeds Impostor Syndrome, which affects creatives of every variety.

But forewarned is forearmed.

Interrogators monitor this limbic reaction in polygraph tests when they’re trying to discover a liar. However, liars pass polygraph tests often enough to make this method unreliable. The more comfortable a person is with their fabricated stories—the more they believe their lies or just don’t care—the less this limbic reaction affects them.

As a writer, I want to be that comfortable someone.

Specific Conditions Required

So we’ll start with a very basic definition: What constitutes a lie? According to Pamela Meyer, there are 4 criteria:

1. A lie must include a false statement or appearance.

2. A lie must have a recipient; otherwise it is self-deception.

3. A lie requires the intent to deceive; otherwise it’s an honest mistake.

4. A lie requires a context of truth.

(from Pamela Meyer, Liespotting, p. 41 – 42)

Fiction doesn’t qualify as a lie because it doesn’t meet Condition #4: by its very definition, it doesn’t involve true events. The audience knows this, and they’re willing to suspend disbelief.

So, if anyone ever asks you what it’s like to sit around making up lies all the time, you can tell them you wouldn’t know.

(Or perhaps something more colorful. I won’t judge.)

However, even though fiction writers aren’t lying per se, the process of crafting fiction does involve fabrication. That extra brain activity engages, and our language use reflects as much. In other words, it does us well to look at patterns of deception and eliminate them in our work.

Up Next: Dialogue and Deception

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2 thoughts on “Introduction: Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire”

  1. Has anyone actually asked you “What’s it’s like to sit around making up lies all the time?”
    Because dang, that seems an excessively rude (even angry) way to think of an author.

    I’ve never thought about the possible physiology differences of writing fiction vs nonfiction, but it is apparently fascinating. Especially the anxiety part. Even for people without anxiety problems, there are a lot of odd and unexpected things that can provoke anxiety.
    (Your Julian St. John Audley character defense was interesting too, but I’ve never read the book, so I didn’t have anything of substance to contribute)

    1. I actually haven’t been asked that question. Some of my writer friends have had the pleasure, though. The “fiction is a pack of lies” mentality is old school but still occasionally rears its head. In my case, I internalized it when I was young (from reading L.M. Montgomery, of all things) and spent the next dozen years in a moral dilemma over whether my chosen path in life violated my ethical and religious beliefs. (I was a deep thinker, haha.)

      Learning the connection between fabrication and anxiety was huge for me. I had started looking into the creation of fiction vs. nonfiction, and when I came across that tidbit a lightbulb went off. I deal with multi-generational anxiety, and knowing what can trigger it is key to my self-management.

      I’m so glad you found the post interesting. Thanks for your comment!

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