Telling Lies

We all do it to one degree or another: lie. It’s what makes us human, and prevents people from being brutally honest — which is probably a good thing, considering how hurtful or painful truth can be. For writers, lying is a necessary tool of the trade. We must lie to ourselves when we feel like writing is a waste of time and effort… we sometimes lie to spouses and significant others about what we’re writing or not writing (and who we’re really writing about and why). And what writer hasn’t lied to employers about what you really would prefer to be doing, rather than working there?

But a common problem I see in scripts and books is writers who don’t lie enough. By that, I mean you’ll be reading dialogue or a scene in which the characters are talking, and they’re sharing information via exposition or saying pretty much what’s on their minds to move the story along. Or maybe they’re professing their undying love or hatred for each other. You read it and think, eh, it’s okay… yet it lacks a spark. There’s not enough conflict. It’s too “on the nose.” What the scene could use is a little lie slipped in somewhere.

What got me to thinking about this is watching some recently-released movies that reminded me just how integral lying and dishonesty is to story-telling. These films are now available on Netflix, and are worth checking out if you haven’t seen them yet. What they have in common is they are movies that actually have substance, as opposed to most of the trite comedies and comic book hero stuff or gimmicky time travel/one note high concept studio releases that we consume like junk food.

THE DEBT is yet another Holocaust-inspired film about justifiable vengeance that hinges on a lie. I won’t reveal the spoiler, but will say this particular type of lie is tricky in films because we have a tendency to accept information revealed in movies as being more or less factual, unless we know it’s supposed to be a Rashomon style story where we get multiple POVs or interpretations of an event. Without this one twist, THE DEBT is sort of ordinary. However, that one lie does make you ponder what you would do if placed in their shoes.

THE WHISTLEBLOWER is about a woman cop who goes to war-torn Bosnia as a paid contractor for a Haliburton-like corporation that is involved with sex trafficking. I’ve been producing videos about human trafficking in Hawaii as part of a public awareness campaign for a non-profit organization, so I knew a few things about the subject. The film graphically presents the horrors of what has been going on for a long, long time. It’s disturbing and sickening in ways slasher flicks and torture porn can’t match, because in this case, the fictional story about how government officials and corporations lie, is really the truth. You won’t want to watch it, but you should… and you should tell others to watch it, because even in Hawaii I’ve heard similar true life stories of pimps beating young women and forcing them into prostitution.

CARNAGE is the Roman Polanski film adaptation of the Tony Award winning play, GOD OF CARNAGE, and is billed as a black comedy about two seemingly civil couples who become engaged in a verbal battle over the actions of their sons in a playground fight. To be honest, although I had read the play was a hit and critics praised it, I wasn’t expecting much from the movie version. It’s two couples talking and arguing for one and a half hours, right? Yet I was laughing, cringing, and felt like slapping these people around at various times. The joke, of course, is that for all their pretenses of trying to act like adults, they still revert to childish behavior when they finally stop lying and get totally honest with each other. Plus, the vomit scene is hilarious.

So, if you have a scene or dialogue exchange that seems flat or is missing something, try adding a lie to the mix. Doesn’t have to be a big whopper either. Sometimes the small lies we tell ourselves can be the most devastating, when we’re forced to confront them.

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