Character Truth Versus Narrative Truth

So you want me to believe that Johnny killed Jimmy so that he could have Jenny, free and uncontested, but you also need Jimmy to be alive at some point in time when it will most surprise Johnny (and Jenny, who are both quite flagrantly delicto at the time). If you tell me that Johnny killed Jimmy, you’ve lied to me, and when I catch you at it, I’m going to slam the book shut, but if you take pains to point out that he didn’t actually kill him, then you spoil the nice surprise.

Stymied? Not at all. You simply let Johnny do the lying for you.

There are several ways you can do this, and the most obvious one is to have Johnny tell someone, maybe Jenny. Let me see him point the gun across the dark alley and pull the trigger, let me see the shadowy figure slump down, then have Johnny call Jenny and tell her “Yo, babe, I just capped Jimmy!” (or whatever Johnny would say – perhaps “Verily and forsooth, Jennifer, the blackguard lies dead, and may everlasting torment be his forever and anon!” although I certainly hope not!). Be warned, though – many readers will mistrust any information delivered to them this way.

The second way is to have Johnny tell himself, in internal discourse: Yeah, I got him! It’s about time! That vicious blah blah blah…  This is perhaps a little more believable, but I think the best way to lie to your reader and get away with it can only occur if you’ve set it up beforehand.

If you allow the voice of Johnny to color and infuse the narrative in those sections which are seen from his viewpoint, and embed little bits and pieces of what is obviously internal discourse but has no markers such as quote marks, italics, etc, then you get a double benefit. Not only will he be that much more accessible to your readers, but they will get in the habit of seeing his voice as a voice of truth. If Johnny sees Jimmy as being dead, then so will your readers.

Later, when the disgruntled reader who didn’t quite keep up comes combing back through the narrative, grumbling about how you said Johnny killed Jimmy, and now here he is alive, and grumbledy grumble grump snort, that reader will find that you did not either lie – Johnny did. Or rather, he didn’t lie, he was simply mistaken.

Tell narrative truth, when you need to, in your own voice, and tell character truth (always as truth – no doubts allowed) in the characters’ voices, and you can lie with impunity.

By the way:

Have you ever taken apart an electric motor? Did you notice a bunch of dents drilled into the outside face of the big spinny part? Wonder why they’re there? That big spinny thing is called the armature (or the core, or sometimes the rotor, all depending on whom you ask), and the holes are there to balance it so that it can spin smoothly.

Levi Montgomery

Come and read my short stories, excerpts from my books, etc, at

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