Nobody enjoys being on the receiving end of a lie. It’s not a good feeling-finding out that someone, and whom you place great trust, has been telling you untruths. The vast majority of the time, these untruths are for our own good. A society in which everyone tells the truth all of the time would be a strange place indeed. So when I talk about truth, there’s another aspect to it, another layer. I suppose you could even say that there are truths that matter and truths that do not. Am I a great painter? The answer to that is no. But sometimes, it feels nice to have someone tell me that my landscape looks pretty good, even when it would make Bob Ross roll over in his grave. There’s a name for these little pieces of untruth that make up our lives. Some call them white lies, others have different names for them, but ultimately, the motivation sets these apart from a deeper type of lie.
Some lies are big. Lies are big when someone’s reason for telling them is not to protect someone or make someone feel good, but to deceive them. Selfish reasons are the worst. This could be greed, could be hatred, it could be revenge. People lie for many different reasons. These lies can be harmful to both relationships and individuals.
But there’s a third type of lie that falls somewhere in between. When someone tells a lie, with every intention of the receiver knowing full well that the thing is not true but believing it anyway, both the liar and the other enter into a contract. They agree to set aside their disbelief, and accept a few lies in the moment. This consensus is an important one in storytelling. It is also a great way to illuminate where you have to tell the truth. Because while people may agree to suspend their disbelief and believe your pleasant lies for a while, if you try and present them with a lie as the truth, they’ll never forgive you.
So when we tell our stories, how do we know when to tell the truth or create fiction? The core of this comes down to understanding the nature of truth. Neil deGrasse Tyson presents concepts of truth very effectively, but these ideas go beyond just his interpretation. We will look at the tribes of truth being objective, subjective, and personal for this discussion.
Objective truth goes back to the beginnings of the study of knowledge. Philosophers were the guardians of knowledge, learned people who thought deep thoughts. Eventually, they would evolve into the priestly class and the modern robes of the academic are a nod to their role as the guardians of knowledge. Still, initially, the study of the world branched off into several general fields of philosophy. But what is philosophy? Simple, really; it’s the study of the nature of knowledge. How do we think about knowing? How do we know about knowing? There are some fields where we can’t measure that knowledge outside of our minds. Those branches of philosophy have evolved into the areas of epistemology, axiology, and logic. The objective truth lies firmly in the philosophy of metaphysics-the study of the physical universe and the ultimate nature of reality. Here, we can point at the evidence, and all agree that a thing is so. In addition to this field of metaphysics, the philosophy of logic is important. Logic deals with how we organize and interact with reasoning. Here, again, the storyteller must cleave to some grain of logic. Exploring the limits of logic is not for the faint of heart. Without some thread of “if-then” to follow, most audiences will quickly miss the point of a story. And this goes to a critical point in dealing with the types of truth in storytelling-it doesn’t matter what the author’s intent is, it only matters what the audience hears, understands, and perceives.
Having touched briefly on objective truth’s nature, the real question is what room is there to tell a few small white lies, and where must we honor objective truth? From my study of storytelling and my own experience, the critical nature of honoring objective truth and story comes simply from the side with which you approach it. Asking your audience to accept something that has not yet been proven false is far easier a contract to make with them. Asking them to believe a thing that we all concede to be false, in other words, we have evidence against it in our understanding of the physical universe, is certainly not impossible but is a different type of contract. Fantasy writers create this contract with their audience extremely well-magic, being the obvious example of this. Other works of speculative fiction must leave enough room in the audience’s mind that the world the author describes might exist, simply because it has not yet been disproven. Even more so, using objective truth and storytelling can increase the permanence and plausibility of the setting simply by knowing, understanding, and communicating what we do know to be true about the universe. For this reason, the storyteller must be both familiar with a broad range of objective truths and deliberately choose the areas in which they will ask the reader to suspend slight disbelief.
Now that we have established the general definitions and use of objective truth, this leads us to the second type of truth in storytelling-that of subjective reality. If we recall from our discussion of philosophy, metaphysics was only one field of study. The other three general branches of knowledge, including epistemology, axiology, and logic, are all philosophical studies that predominantly inhabit the mind. Epistemology seeks to answer the question, “How to people learn the things that they know?” This field is necessarily broad but is the basic foundation for concepts such as ethics, morality, and even intuition. Another field of subject philosophy is axiology- the consideration of principles and values. Again, this is a subjective area and includes such fields as ethics and aesthetics. How does this apply to storytelling? For that, see my previous posts on morals, ethics, and stories.
But a quick recap-a deep understanding of these fields allows the storyteller to build characters with integrity who interact in genuine ways. The setting can be as close to scientific fact as possible, but if the characters and their interactions are also not true to what we know of humanity, the audience will not trust the author.
Finally, and with some trepidation, I will bring up the subject of personal truths. Here, there be dragons. Truth means many things to many people, and personal truths are those things that most closely align with beliefs. I use that word very carefully here; knowing is not the same as believing. Because humans are only flesh and bone, we often tell ourselves that we know something to be true, when we have no evidence or reasoning or even logic to support it. You might know that you love someone, but that knowledge is a personal truth. Your perception of yourself encompasses this personal truth, the concept of who you are, but you can’t explain it with logic or point at the thing that proves your love. Religion, faith, spirituality, consciousness (though we are moving in on that one) are all personal truths. They are no less critical to the storyteller than any other truth.
What does the storyteller do with these types of truth, the objective, the subjective, and the personal? What contracts can an author make, and which can they throw to the wayside? That is where the art comes into storytelling. There’s a balance, a perfect blend, of lies and truth that enhances the truth like a complementary color. The more you can set the truth of your story against that background of white lies and half-truths, the more it will stand out. But be careful here; an audience will form connections with truth, and the different types form varying degrees of resonance. Take an objective truth; it’s hard to invest emotionally in the truth of a mundane scientific fact. Matter exerts gravitational pull-I accept this, but it is not an emotional reaction. Subjective truths hold more resonance than this. Politics is an excellent example here. If you tell a story about a democratic governmental system’s virtues and rightness to an audience of despots, that will provoke an emotional reaction. The far end of this spectrum is personal truth. Remember, personal truth is a part of someone’s identity. It is a fundamental belief. When a storyteller addresses this, they either appeal to their audience on a deeply personal level. Or, they assault something that the audience holds as a part of their identity. Yes, religion is the clearest example of this.
The emotional ties to types of truth stem from neuroscience. When we discuss a personal truth, it triggers reactions in the brain-physical reactions that we can measure. We have even managed to narrow down the part of our brain is necessary to discuss and conceive others’ beliefs-the frontal lobes. And even here, with you reading these words, I’m using an objective reference to assert a scientific truth about a way in which stories reach an audience.
This neuroscience phenomenon also explains why we feel a strong amygdala response, that fight or flight feeling when we question our own beliefs. When those questions come from observations of the world, we have nothing but the universe to focus on, but when they come from another person, the person can easily become the object of our ire. And here we see a simple explanation for why a wise storyteller tends to avoid politics and religion around the dinner table.
The three types of truth are tools of the storyteller. Authors can blend and weave them together, set one or more in sharp contrast against carefully crafted falsehoods, and even attempt to resonate on a deeply personal level with their audience. What is the critical point to take away from all of this? When a storyteller makes a contract with an audience, they are saying, “Here. This is the truth. Join me in it.” Once the audience has made that journey, the author must follow through on that truth or risk alienating their audience completely, losing that hard-fought relationship. The contract between author and audience is a strong one, and the best stories have cores of the deepest truth.