Memoir Writing Tip: 5 Tips for Writing About a Liar

by Matilda Butler on May 2, 2012

catnav-alchemy-activePost #45 – Memoir and Fiction, Writing Alchemy – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

Truth Telling, Lying, and Memoir Writing

In a recent issue of Bloomberg Businessweek, there were a series of brief how-to articles. They were all fascinating but one seemed particularly relevant to memoir writing. It was called “Spot a Liar” by Pamela Meyer, author of Liespotting: Proven Technique to Detect Deception.

I’ve turned the information in the article into 5 tips for memoir writers.

Memoir Tip #1: If you want to write about a person in your memoir who is lying, you should first describe a conversation with that person at a time when he or she is not lying. Be sure to include the person’s normal posture, type of laugh, and amount of fidgeting. This baseline behavior needs to be established well before you have the person involved in a conversation where he or she is lying. Then the reader will be able to figure out that the person is behaving differently and is probably lying. You’ll be showing, rather than telling.

Memoir Tip #2: Don’t be fooled by how much the person looks you in the eye. It turns out that people telling the truth still look around (not at you) about 40 percent of the time during a conversation. However, liars are more likely to look down rather than actively looking around. Just don’t say something like, “She wouldn’t look me in the eye.” She probably would, at least some of the time.

Memoir Tip #3: Formal language is a real giveaway. If you follow tip #1 to establish a “normal” behavior, then the introduction of a more formal way of speaking will alert your reader that something is going on. It turns out that liars use formal expressions such as “I am not” or “I did not” rather than “I’m not” or “I didn’t.” Since it is difficult (all right, impossible) to remember every word in a conversation, knowledge about formality in language can help you create a more “real” conversation with someone who is lying.

Memoir Tip #4: If something is going to tell a lie, he or she will have rehearsed the time sequence to make sure that everything is told in a way that will seem to be truthful. Honest people usually recount experiences in terms of their emotions even if that means some of the details are out of order.

Memoir Tip #5: Pay attention to past and present tense. Liars sometimes get these mixed up, realize what they have said, and correct themselves.

Extensive research on the ways that our facial expressions give away our emotions, including our truthfulness or falseness, has been conducted by Dr. Paul Ekman at the University of California Medical School. In our new book, Writing Alchemy: How to Write Fast and Deep, Kendra and I devote a chapter to using emotions in our writing, including Ekman’s findings.

Writing Alchemy, memoir writing, storytellingOf course, there’s so much more to emotions than lying. And, there’s more to writing than a skillful use of emotional states. In our book, Writing Alchemy, we delve into character development, emotions, powerful dialogue, descriptive sensory detail and rich details of time and place. If you’re interested, you’ll find that we are currently offering at a special pre-order price.

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