February 9 – 15: “How do our stories lie?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5ITW Member Brian C. Poole says: “At heart all storytellers are liars.” This week, ITW Members Ryan Quinn, Ken Oxman, Susan Froetschel, Lisa Von Biela, Alexandra Sokoloff, Mike Pace, Jamie Mason, Merry Jones, Jean Heller and Lisa Unger will discuss how our stories lie!


End of Secrets by Ryan QuinnA native of Alaska, Ryan Quinn was an NCAA champion and an all-American skier while at the University of Utah. He worked for five years in New York’s book-publishing industry before moving to Los Angeles, where he writes and trains for marathons. Quinn’s first novel, The Fall, was a finalist in the 2013 International Book Awards. For more, please visit his website.


Blockbuster coverLisa von Biela worked in Information Technology for 25 years, then dropped out to attend the University of Minnesota Law School, graduating magna cum laude in 2009. She now practices law in Seattle, Washington. Lisa began writing short, dark fiction just after the turn of the century. Her first publication appeared in The Edge in 2002. She went on to publish a number of short works in various small press venues, including Gothic.net, Twilight Times, Dark Animus, AfterburnSF, and more. She is the author of the novels The Genesis Code and The Janus Legacy, as well as the novella Ash and Bone.

Monday's Lie by Jamie MasonJamie Mason was born in Oklahoma City, but grew up in Washington, DC. She’s most often reading and writing, but in the life left over, she enjoys films, Formula 1 racing, football, traveling, and, conversely, staying at home. Jamie lives with her husband and two daughters in the mountains of North Carolina, where she’s written her novels, Monday’s Lie and Three Graves Full.


In The Woods by Merry JonesMerry Jones is the author of the Harper Jennings thrillers (SUMMER SESSION, BEHIND THE WALLS, WINTER BREAK, OUTSIDE EDEN, IN THE WOODS), the Elle Harrison novels (THE TROUBLE WITH CHARLIE, ELECTIVE PROCEDURES), the Zoe Hayes mysteries (THE NANNY MURDERS, THE RIVER KILLINGS, THE DEADLY NEIGHBORS, THE BORROWED AND BLUE MURDERS), as well as several humor books (including I LOVE HIM, BUT…) and non-fiction books (including BIRTHMOTHERS: Women who relinquished babies for adoption tell their stories.) She has also written articles for various magazines (including GLAMOUR) and short stories (including Bliss, published in the anthology LIAR LIAR).

hellerMost of Jean Heller’s career was as an investigative and projects reporter and editor in New York City, Washington, D.C. and St. Petersburg Florida. Her career as a novelist began in the 1990s with the publication of the thrillers, “Maximum Impact” and “Handyman” by St. Martin’s Press. Then life intervened and postponed her new book, “The Someday File,” to publication in late 2014. Jean has won the Worth Bingham Prize, the Polk Award, and is an eight-time Pulitzer Prize nominee.

One To Go by Mike PaceMike Pace is a former Assistant U.S. Attorney for Washington D.C. He taught elementary school in Washington’s inner city, and later served as litigation partner in a large Washington firm. His latest thriller, ONE TO GO, has been called “blisteringly good,” “pulse pounding,” “explosive,” and a “post-modern take on early Stephen King,” by such acclaimed authors as Steve Berry, Doug Preston, Gayle Lynds, and Jon Land. He lives in Southern Maryland on the Chesapeake Bay.

Allure of Deceit by Susan FroetschelSusan Froetschel is the author of five mystery novels, including Allure of Deceit, published this month by Seventh Street Books. The novel is about a remote Afghan village that is astounded to be regarded as recipients of charitable giving from groups based overseas. Her previous novel, Fear of Beauty, received the 2014 Youth Literature Award from the Middle East Outreach Council and was nominated for the 2014 Mary Higgins Clark Award, Mystery Writers of America.

Crazy Love You by Lisa UngerNew York Times and international bestselling author Lisa Unger‘s accolades include selections as an International Thriller Writers “Best Novel” finalist, a Florida Book Award winner, a Bookspan “International Book of the Month”, a Prix Polar International Award finalist, and a Target “Emerging Author.” Her writing has been hailed as “stellar” (USA Today), “arresting and meaningful” (Washington Post) with “gripping narrative and evocative, muscular prose” (Associated Press.) Her novels have been named top picks by the Today Show, Good Morning America, Walmart Book Club, Harper’s Bazaar, Family Circle, Good Housekeeping, Washington Life, Publishers Weekly, New York Daily News, Indie Next and Amazon (Top Ten Thriller of the Year.) More than 1.8 million copies of her books have been sold in 26 languages. She currently lives in Florida.

blood-moon-175Alexandra Sokoloff is the bestselling, Thriller Award-winning and Bram Stoker and Anthony Award-nominated author of ten supernatural, paranormal and crime thrillers. The New York Times has called her “a daughter of Mary Shelley” and her books “Some of the most original and freshly unnerving work in the genre.” As a screenwriter she has sold original suspense and horror scripts and written novel adaptations for numerous Hollywood studios (Sony, Fox, Disney, Miramax), for producers such as Michael Bay, David Heyman, Laura Ziskin and Neal Moritz.

Reluctant Assassin by Ken OxmanKen Oxman’s life has been an adventure, from jumping off a cliff with an early hang glider to having a pistol stuck in his mouth in a sleazy bar in Cartagena, Colombia. From fighting a dangerous sea alone to almost being sold as a white slave in Mozambique, to being taken in the night from a beautiful pomegranate grove motel and dumped in an Indian village deep inland along the shores of Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela. He has lived adventures and hopes readers might get that and enjoy reading them in his book. He has been a cadet officer in the British Merchant navy, a qualified teacher of English & drama, a stage actor & director. He directed a series of Noel Coward plays for NPR, wrote & presented for the BBC, wrote & presented weekly commentaries for Connecticut Public Radio/NPR. He has worked as a public speaking coach and sailing instructor and helps his wife Patricia with her antiques business.

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  1. Brian Poole seems to think that storytellers are all liars at heart, and I see his point. But in a sense, I disagree. Certainly, our stories are all elaborate lies with characters, situations and often places that spring solely from our imaginations. We spend our days weaving these intricate fabrications and then launch them out into the world, asking others to believe, if even for just a few hours. But we tell these “lies” with the intent to explore the truths of life.

    “Story is life,” says Robert McGee in his famous book STORY. “And every story we tell is a little slice of life.” In other words, readers come to fiction not to hear falsehoods. They don’t read to escape life, but to understand it. I heard Lee Child speak at the Key West Literary Seminar last year, and he asked us to consider why people have for centuries gathered around the fire to hear stories. Why did the earliest people tell each other tall tales and listen to folklore? We use stories to metabolize fear, or to gather courage to face life’s challenges, or to understand why bad things happen, or to find that redemptive narrative that makes everything all right; but we don’t come for lies. In fact, when things are inauthentic, or unbelievable, even in fiction, we’re downright angry.

    The stories we tell may in fact be lies, but often they are inspired by real life scenarios, and always they draw from the inner life of the author – our imaginations, our observations, our fears, thoughts, and creativity. We ask our readers to believe so that we can share with them what we’ve learned about life. And there can hardly be anything truer than that.

  2. Posted on behalf of author Ken Oxman:

    If, “at heart all storytellers are liars”, then any story you are telling, whether it comes straight from your imagination or you adapt it from some other source, would be a lie.



    Of course, if an example would be a person questioned about something they shouldn’t have done and to save face that person makes up a false story about the incident – that would be a lie. Therefore, some ‘storytellers’ can be liars.

    Lie and story, story and lie. The same yet different? But this is not just about semantics, this is about intent. From the dictionary: Lie – a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive. Storytellers with nothing to hide have no need to make false statements when they create a new story, their purpose is just to entertain and/or inform.

    I would be unhappy to know I am being thought of as a liar while I am creating a story to please my readers/listeners.

    Even if the statement was intended only to tease, I say beware. Reputations can go in either direction.

    So, my conclusion must be: All storytellers are therefore not, at heart, liars.

  3. Hi, Lisa Unger — long time.

    I’m not certain how we make the leap from anywhere to conclude that all writers are liars. I was a journalist for much of my career, and while I won’t say I’ve never known a journalist to lie, or embellish, I will say most do not.

    But where fiction is involved, aren’t all stories lies? Or at least fabrications? If they weren’t, they would be non-fiction.

    But that’s an over-arching answer. To offer some specifics:

    If Lee Child’s Jack Reacher were alive, he’d be dead by now. Nobody survives what Child’s puts him through and comes out the other end. Same for Jason Bourne. Most of Harlan Coban’s protagonists. Every lead character in every story Stephen King ever dreamed.

    How many thriller heroes (and I include women in that because I don’t like the term, heroine) have the financial resources, the friends in high places who, perhaps reluctantly, help them out of their jams, and the technical knowhow to do things I’d never dream of trying? The answer is, most of them.

    But are these lies? I think that’s too strong a term. I like “fantasies” much better.

  4. I belong to a group of fiction writers called The Liars Club. It’s called that because we confess that, yes, we lie for a living.

    Which is another lie, because for many of us, writing fiction is hardly earning a living.

    Anyway, I think we’re dealing with philosophical issues. To begin with, what’s truth? Is it a literal record of real events? Because nobody has the final word on that. Point of view, perception, emotion, etc–They all affect our impression of “truth.”

    So let’s skip all that. The minute a fiction writer puts pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, he’s fabricating. Making things up. Maybe basing his work on “real” experience, but still: He’s not telling the “truth.”

    But I believe that within each work of fiction, however false and deliberately misleading it may be, there is a certain kind of truth. It lies in the work’s consistency, its sincerity. Its affect on readers who relate to it. If they cringe at the scary parts, that’s because the scary parts ring true. If they identify with the characters, it’s because the characters touch a true nerve. And if, at the end of the work, the reader understands something in a new way, then author has created a false story to present an underlying truth.

    So yes, we are liars. But the best of us tell the truth through our lies.

    1. “But I believe that within each work of fiction, however false and deliberately misleading it may be, there is a certain kind of truth.”

      Absolutely. This is the beautiful part of this job. Nice post.

  5. Authors lie all the time. We find – or create – a false order and theme to the ordinary chaos and randomness of real life. We fantasize. We idealize. I fully admit that a female writer, I create male characters who think, feel, and act more like I WISH men would think, feel, and act (and I do it knowing that the majority of mystery/suspense readers are female and might not be hostile to my idealized point of view!)

    At the same time, authors tell stories because we’re obsessed with the truth.

    I started writing my Huntress Moon series partly because I was sick to death of the standard genre lie of the “artistic” or “poetic” serial killer. To me, this is one of the most appalling lies of the genre. Serial killers are actually rapists who progress from rape, to serial rape, to murder, to serial rape/murder. An outrageous number of crime and thriller authors seem to be unaware that a killer’s signature doesn’t mean he’s leaving a poem at the crime scene. A signature is a personalized, identifying act which is more likely to present as the killer shoving rocks up his victim’s rectum than in staging crime scenes to mirror the novels of Poe.

    I also wanted to counter the lies that society – and crime fiction – tell about the horror that is prostitution.

    I wanted to tell the truth about some of the worst crimes I know.

    But as I set out to counter those genre lies, I created my own lies. The whole premise of the Huntress series, which follows an FBI agent on the hunt for a female serial killer, is a lie. Because female serial killers, by the FBI definition, arguably don’t exist outside of crime fiction and Hollywood.

    But that’s exactly what I wanted to explore. So maybe it’s not a question of lying… but about choosing and portraying your particular truth.

    And what I’m wondering this week, you authors and readers, is: what are the lies you despise in crime fiction? And what are some of the lies you accept – maybe because you wish they were true?

    1. A good question about which lies we accept, despise or understand. Let me share a worry about my most recent book, Allure of Deceit. As the writers posting here know, we plot our stories months before the publication date. Last-minute revisions are likewise months old. As I plotted the book, announcements had been made about US troops withdrawing from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and Afghan troops were taking on more responsibility. The story is about an isolated, small village describes internal conflict and their response to fear of change. Extremism, violence and external threats are but a possibility lurking in the background. As I wrote, I hoped for stability and people standing up for the society they want. Did I lie? Did I delude myself? Readers must decide.

  6. It’s interesting to see everyone’s take on this. I had a feeling other writers would be quick to dismiss this question as missing the mark. Here’s how it breaks down for me.

    There are lies of commission and lies of omission. And then there are lies of fiction. In the real world, the act of lying bears a moral connotation—and not a positive one. But in fiction, the writer and the reader have entered into a contract to free themselves of the technicalities of all that. A novel is never going to be the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And for good reason: it would be endless. So we agree to take shortcuts.

    Which is a heady way of saying the obvious: Anything goes in fiction, so long as it enriches what the reader can take away from the story. If a fictional story is a lie, who cares, so long as it’s a shortcut to a real truth?

  7. I would have to respectfully disagree with Paul. Fiction writers can’t be liars because the readers know that what we’re writing is made up. Lying is when the listener/reader believes what you’re saying is true (e.g., say, a news anchor who knowingly embellishes his own experiences.)

    That said, we writers can be viewed as dishonest with the readers if we break the rules we ourselves set at the beginning of a book. Readers will accept whatever rules we establish, but will not countenance us breaking these rules. For example, if 99 percent of a book is a cozy mystery, and in the last few pages it turns out the reason John was able to kill Mary in the drawing room when he was in a bar across town is that John is a ghost, most readers would feel cheated. The author broke his own rules. Now, someone will point to movies such as The Sixth Sense, and The Others as examples where the paranormal element wasn’t introduced until the very end. But in those cases, if you watch the film a second time you see how everything fits. That’s okay. But it has to fit all the way through. Otherwise the author’s broken his own rules, which, if it doesn’t make him a liar, might well make him a cheater.

  8. “At heart all storytellers are liars.” Well, sure. But there are lies and then there are lies. If there was ever an arena where intentions matter, it’s lying. I have to profess an impatience with adults who bang on about how the Thing they will not tolerate is being lied to. Everyone lies and everyone soldiers on through the tangled forests of what’s not exactly the god’s-to-honest truth. Anyone who thinks that dishonesty is the lowest point of the human condition is not paying attention.

    In stories, though, you have to at least be true to the paradigm you create. Whatever universe holds your story (and it can be as fantastical or workaday as you like) we, as writers, need to stay true within that framework. Your characters need to do what they will do and actually can do within the world you gave them. You can’t cheat just because you wrote yourself into a corner.

    I think of it like this – In my work I can make stuff up, but I can never lie.

  9. All this discussion and parsing of the meaning of “lie” made me look it up. And sure enough, there is an “intention to deceive” element in there that I’d forgotten about. Not enough just to know you’re saying something false, then.

    So what is it when you say an untruth (even just in speaking) and you know someone won’t be deceived so your intention is not to deceive. Must be a word for that, but it’s early here and I’m as yet coffeeless. Maybe that’s it. We spin tales out of whole cloth and know (or at least presume!) that readers will know it’s fiction and therefore, it’s neither truth (in the sense that it didn’t really happen, but as others have pointed out, we can use our stories to get a deeper truths) nor lie.

    I like to make things up that *could* be true–and if true, would be horrifying. Like in BLOCKBUSTER, BigPharma *could* have that business model. I don’t have info that they do, but if they did…

  10. My apologies for joining the discussion late. A dear pet died this weekend. … Lisa so eloquently explains how we do not lie and I agree with her that our imagination – the fears and hopes, explicit and implicit – are not lies.

    I’m disappointed when readers are adamant about not reading a certain genre or not reading fiction at all! Do we select and withhold details from readers? Yes. Writers certainly resist presenting a full set of facts on any one topic or our own experiences that may have motivated the story. We do that in the interest of telling a story, sustaining suspense and interest. And the best stories strive to explore the bigger truths of our time and place.

  11. To be fair to Brian, his observation was part of a longer comment to another roundtable question from nearly a year ago: “Is deception an essential feature of thrillers?”

    Do not think these comments accept links, but it was posted the week of Feb 17-23 – another good discussion.

  12. I believe Picasso’s maxim, “Art is the lie that tells the truth” applies to fiction. As fiction, it isn’t, by definition, factual. Fiction isn’t simply a report of events as they actually happened. However, if the writing is good you learn something true though not factual. You gain some insight into the realities of human experience – what’s it like to be these circumstances, how does grief affect the spirit and on and on. I teach psychiatric nursing and used to assign students to write a case history based on a novel. I stopped using biographies and autobiographies because I found the novels more illuminating of the subtleties of human behavior.

    Interestingly, fiction is like Harry Frankfurt’s concept of bulls**t (See On Bullsh**t, (2005)). BS is neither lie nor truth but constructed to have a particular effect on the reader (or viewer) without regard for the truth or falsehood. In good fiction, that effect is insightful understanding – unlike the commercial advertising often cited as Frankfurtian BS which all about selling a product. In summary I’d say, fiction isn’t about truth as knowledge, it’s about truth as wisdom.

  13. I’m trying to imagine, for the sake of argument, what a lie in fiction would even look like. Say lying is, in fact, inherent to storytelling; is it not a victimless crime? A consensual act undertaken by the reader as much as by the writer? Could a reader honestly claim that he was wronged by discovering a “lie” in a novel after voluntarily slogging through its hundreds of pages? And if he could, how should we reconcile that claim with a different reader who found no offending deception within the story? Who is right?

    Once you get past the technical debate over semantics, there seems to be no objective way to identify what a lie in a novel even is.

  14. Sorry for your loss, Susan.
    And Ryan, I love your last post. We’re getting tangled in semantics and definitions of what and what isn’t a lie or a truth, when really, those concepts don’t matter much. What we as writers is “play pretend.” We create imaginary worlds and make-believe people. The “truth” as it exists outside our books is as relevant to our stories as motor oil is to hot fudge. (Okay, I have no doubt, some of you will find a direct relationship there.) At any rate, while I believe that we DO have the intent to deceive by building this false world, our pages present the only truths that matter from one cover to the other.

  15. Merry, you might also say that in a thrillers we lie in as much as we try to throw the reader off the scent. At least in my case, I want them to be stunned by the ending — or at least surprised — but I don’t want to mislead them so much that they get ticked off. As is true with mysteries, as well, readers like to try to guess what the outcome will be, even if they don’t really want to know until they get there. It’s a game, and you have to be fair and let them play.

    I guess I took it to an extreme in my first novel, “Maximum Impact,” when I told folks I would pay $100 to anyone who could tell me why the Prologue was so darned important before they got to the end of the book. I still have the money.

    Well, no I don’t. I spent it on books, but you get the idea.

  16. I think the reflex reaction to the statement probably has a lot to do with how weighty the word “lie” feels to each of us individually. I don’t find it particularly heavy, but I know that for some, being called a liar, even in jest or abstract, is not a comfortable thing.

  17. Good point, Jamie. But again, it’s different to be called a liar in “real” relationships than fictional ones. As long as we can tell which is which, we should be okay.

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