There are so many “rules” we need to follow as writers. Don’t write in the second person. Don’t open with a dream sequence. Don’t use too many flashbacks. Don’t use too many adjectives. Don’t use any adverbs.
You get the point.
But there is one rule of writing fiction that isn’t brought up very often, and that’s the one I want to focus on with this post.
Don’t lie to the reader.
What’s that? you ask. We’re writing fiction; making up stories. Nothing we say is true; in essence, everything we write could be considered a lie.
To which I say…you’re missing the point.
As writers, we can disagree on lots of things, but if there’s one thing we should all agree on, it’s this:
We owe it to the reader to remain 100% truthful in the confines of the fictional world we create.
In this context, it’s practically criminal to lie to the reader.
Consider this: Your reader invests time and sometimes money into reading your fiction. If you give that reader ten pages of characters and events, only to declare the entire scene a dream at the end of page ten before moving onto the “real” story, what have you just done?
Besides wasting everyone’s time, you’ve also betrayed a major expectation for your novel. You just showed the readers that you can’t be trusted. If that scene didn’t really happen in the context of your world, why should they believe that any other scenes happen either?
Likewise, lying to your reader for 2000 words and then throwing out all of the rules of your world in the closing paragraph doesn’t give the story a surprise twist ending; it simply shows that you don’t respect your audience enough to tell them the truth for the majority of the story.
Now, just to be clear, I’m not saying that you should avoid dream sequences or plot twists all together. Dreams can certainly be a central part of the overlying story, but they should only be used if they directly impact the plot. For example, if I’m working on a novel where half of the book takes place in dream world. The dreams, obviously, have to be “real” and are honest in the context of that novel.
The same can be said about plot twists. Plot twists are a big deal when it pertains to flash fiction and some short stories. You just have to make sure they are of The Sixth Sense variety and not The Village.
There are plenty of other ways to lie to the reader that should be avoided. In a first person narrative, for example, the reader had direct access to the protagonist’s thoughts. Anything the protagonist knows that is hidden from the reader is not truthful writing. For the narrator to hide anything from the reader is to hide it from himself. How can that be considered an honest attempt at truth from the writer?
But what about a slow reveal? Isn’t that hiding details from the reader?
Yes, it is. But you can do it in an honest way. Let’s look at The Sixth Sense again. What’s hidden from the viewer is also hidden from the protagonist played by Bruce Willis. The truth of his world is revealed to us just as it’s revealed to him. We weren’t lied to in that movie; we just didn’t see the whole picture yet. (And on a side note, I still remember seeing that in the theater. The moment when Bruce Willis understands and everyone in the theater gasps–that is good writing.)
But now let’s look at The Village. In that movie, we follow several characters, some who are in on the secret and some who aren’t. We’re give scenes involving characters “in the know” who have the same experiences as the characters who don’t know the truth. The final plot twist isn’t honest and true as it is in the case of The Sixth Sense. Here, the writer intentionally misleads the viewer and uses dishonest tactics to do so.
In other words, M. Night totally lies to the viewer.
Here’s another non-writing example:
Think about David Blaine. Here’s a guy who does straight up street magic with no obvious props presenting his “magic” to a small crowd of viewers. What you see on TV is exactly what you would see if you were standing there on the street corner watching a trick.
Now think of Criss Angel. He does similar tricks, but his TV show was just that–a TV show. The magic wasn’t “genuine.” Off-camera helicopter pulleys. Actors posing as a street audience. I’m not saying his Mindfreak show wasn’t entertaining; I loved it, but when you compare him to David Blaine, one illusionist is clearing lying to the audience, while one is not.
So in closing, I firmly believe that in our crazy world of writing fiction, the one thing we owe our readers, above all else, is to tell them the truth.
As a reader myself, I wouldn’t have it any other way.