Storytellers are liars

Storytellers are liars. Sure, usually there are deeper truths beneath the lies, but it’s the lies that we dig because they are what hook us and let us feel without suffering.

To tell a decent story or just to lie well in general, you need to have a good theory of mind. This is the ability to sense the state of mind of another person, and it’s how storytellers predict what the audience is likely to think and feel at any point in time. If you can’t predict your audience’s internal reactions to your story – whether consciously or unconsciously – you’re probably not in control and just making white noise that sounds a bit like a story.

We don’t have a theory of mind our whole lives… it usually turns up when we are around six or seven years old, when we figure out that not everyone else thinks exactly the same way we do. Developing a theory of mind allows us to project ourselves into other people’s perspectives so we can empathize with them, or lie to them.

Good storytellers are both empathetic and well-practiced liars, which makes them master manipulators. But that’s cool: we LOVE being temporarily fooled when we‘re in on it. It lets us experience intense emotions – laughter, elation, lust, horror, disgust, sadness – in a nice, safe, controlled environment. We basically get to do one of our most-favorite things: freak the fuck out in a safe and comfortable chair. We pay good money for that.

A storyteller with a well-developed theory of mind knows just how to set us up, draw out our anticipation in a controlled way (until we can hardly stand it any longer) and then either fulfill or destroy our expectations. It’s the three-part dramatic structure: set up, rising action, climax.

Something about this structure hooks our brains and turns us into helpless, happy little fish on the end of the entertainment line. We like this pattern not just in the overall plot but on multiple levels, in the sections and scenes too. We identify with it because it’s the pattern of life (cause, reaction, consequence).

When a storyteller doesn’t have a good theory of mind and doesn’t set us up, draw us out or deliver the climax, we feel their story is contrived, predictable or clichéd. Plot-turns don’t seem believable, and characters seem like they’re acting (shudder). Sometimes we aren’t even consciously aware of the flaw, we just sense something is kinda off. Then we lose our suspension of disbelief and unhook, and maybe go tell the Internet that the story was rubbish.

On the other hand, we pretty much worship anyone who can lie convincingly to us for art’s sake. And by “worship” I mean that we work hard not just to provide ourselves and our families with food and shelter but also so we can afford to make offerings of time and money to entertaining liars. We sacrifice up our money and then collapse passively before our idols’ screens, books, and stages, filled with hope and trust in the entertainment gods. We’re adorable.

Artist-worship can go bad, of course, like everything else. There are plenty of “stars” who have weird and icky co-dependent relationships with their fans. But when the lies-for-worship relationship is good, it’s very good. The audience cares, and so the storyteller evolves, finds interesting new ways to connect the loose threads in the universe, and then packages up these deeper truths in beautiful lies.

Storytellers are liars, but they’re the good kind: the truth-finding kind. Amen to that.

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