At first, I debated this advice: Why not tell the truth in story? I try to be honest in my daily life, so why would I be otherwise in my books? Nonfiction writers, you always tell the truth, so keep debating the idea. But fiction and memoir writers, listen up. There's something to this.
Consider that story often starts with false ideas, an unstable status quo, or agreements that are worn out and need replacing. In my classes, we look at something called the "false agreement" that characters embrace at the beginning of their narrative. Each character might have their own false agreement, unique to their journey in the story. In my current novel, one of the narrators believes that she can conquer all odds by herself, without help. This is a false agreement because the story continually puts her into situations where she can't go it alone. Readers can see this belief, or agreement she's made with herself, isn't going to last. But the character is blind to that. By the end, the character must acknowledge that the agreement isn't working. She must reinvent herself and her agreements. That makes up her narrative arc--the progress of this change.
I like to look at each of my main players to be sure the false agreement is in place, so they can have someplace to grow towards.
Then I thought of this writing advice in another way: the writer knows where the story is going to end up. What needs to happen by the last page. But if we lay all the steps out in a straight and predictable line, the story feels just that: predictable. So the writer's goal might also be to continually sidetrack the reader--create false ideas that might be true, but turn out not to be. In thrillers, these are sometimes called "red herrings." They appear to be a bonefide clue, but they are eventually disproved.
Then I thought of dialogue. Skilled dialogue contains something called "subtext," which is the undercurrent, what's not being said. In a way, good dialogue also follows this idea of "things are not what they appear." If characters speak the truth every time you have a scene with dialogue, there's little tension. It's like the straight and predictable path of truthful story. Tension comes from incongruence, the difference between what's said and what's really meant.
I began to research well-loved novels and memoirs. White Oleander by Janet Fitch offers the young narrator's false belief that she can manage her crazy mother and have a safe childhood. It creates such tension, even in the opening scene where the mother walks the edge of a rooftop while the daughter watches.
The Glass Castle, a well-known memoir by Jeannette Walls, is about another young narrator who also lives in a crazy family and carries, for much of the story, the false agreement is that they live a normal life.
In both cases, the reader can see this is nowhere near normal. But we read on because we wonder if we're right, and if we are, how the narrator will reconcile this disconnect.
In All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, a large-scale false agreement exists between two countries at war. When two young people become allies, despite the war, it busts the belief that war always trumps humanity. They save each other at the end, disproving that false agreement, at least in a small way.
The trick to making this work is in two steps:
1. Create a strong false agreement to start your story.
2. Plan clues that make us readers uncertain about where it's going to go.
Good writing doesn't predict the end. It's anticipated but not expected, as one of my favorite teachers used to say. Readers track the hints and clues you plant, letting us know the false agreement isn't going to hold up, but we want to be carried along with high tension, not really sure of where you will land up by the last page.
Your weekly writing exercise is to consider the two steps above. Ask yourself, what is your story's (or your narrator's) false agreement. Then, how does it slowly get dismantled by the end. If you already have these two steps in place, track backwards from the last page and note how you plant the clues--be sure you aren't making the end too predictable, evolve too fast, or sidetrack into different false agreements.
This takes focus and discipline, as a writer, but the end result is a satisfied reader.