Storytelling: The Liar is Revealed! But Does Anyone Still Care?
Stories where the central character lies about something important often waste audience time without building tension
If there was one storytelling device (trope) I would call the bane of all good writing and a general waste of everyone’s time, it’s The Liar Revealed. With that trope, the dramatic tension is driven by the fact that the central character (the protagonist) is not who or what the others suppose. Pretty much every other trope can be made to work properly with the proper setup. But if a writer chooses to go with this cliché, just expect the movie to stop until the trope is finished playing out. Everything is on pause until the truth is revealed.
What is the Liar Revealed? Well, as a trope, it’s not just whenever a character lies. The lies are not really the problem. It usually involves mistaken identity. A protagonist is forced into a high-pressure situation and — in the heat of the moment — comes up with an inventive lie to buy some time. This lie usually involves the rest of the central cast. So the viewer, who is aware of the lie, instantly knows the other characters must discover the truth before the story can conclude, otherwise, the lie becomes a loose plot point.
Disney’s A Bug’s Life (1998) is an infamous example. The ant Flik tries to hire a bunch of warrior bugs to fight for his colony but ends up hiring a group of circus performers by mistake. When he realizes his mistake, he lies to rest of the colony and tries to improvise an alternative plan to scare the evil grasshoppers away.
Of course, he gets caught, and the audience is forced to endure ten to fifteen minutes of the entire cast indulging in self-pity until the evil grasshoppers show up — and everyone remembers that they still have to fight the bad guys anyway.
While this trope is especially a plague in children’s movies, it can be found everywhere, sci-fi, action, comedy; every genre features instances of this goofy set-up. Rather than teasing a future event, which leaves the audience with a general idea as to what’s going to happen — something to anticipate, and look forward to — the audience instantly recognizes a play-by-play of ten minutes of screen time, at least.
First, the protagonist must invent a vain plan. Everyone must sit and listen to the plan, knowing that nothing will come of it. Then some random event will take place which outs the protagonist. The protagonist will be confronted. Then the rest of the cast will get mad at the protagonist and regret ever trusting him. The protagonist will be exiled in some fashion, and both the protagonist and the rest of the cast will spend time reflecting on their poor choices. Then the bad guys show up and force everyone to work together anyway, after which everyone sets their differences aside and addresses the problem, and the movie ends. The process of watching this unfold is exhausting. The audience already knows what’s going to happen, which creates a very boring story.
The worst aspect of this trope is that usually the viewer can imagine a scenario where, if the protagonist had just told the truth, then the cast could’ve spent their time coming up with a plan to be implemented toward the end of the film. Less time would be spent on contrived drama, and more time devoted to the action leading up to the climax of the film — which is what everyone came to see anyway.
But that’s just the problem. Writers who resort to these kinds of cheap, lazy writing tricks usually don’t believe that an audience would be interested in watching the process. In A Bug’s Life, for example, the writers don’t believe the audience would want to see the ants problem-solve — figuring out how to use the circus performers to scare away the grasshoppers. So they make the characters somewhat incompetent, unable to see the obvious until an act of fate forces them to recognize a truth that the audience has figured out a long time ago.
Then to add insult to injury, the writers make the characters reactionary and shortsighted. They are more concerned with the lie than they are with the fact that they’ve already invested so much time in a plan, and the antagonists are still coming. This is what I mean by cheap drama. The characters lose all perspective and become wrapped up in useless interpersonal conflict. And, while most viewers don’t want to see an overpowering cast who will easily destroy the enemies, they do want the characters to be competent.
Better storytelling approaches than The Liar Revealed
It would be better to show the process. For example, in A Bug’s Life, rather than having the protagonist waste time by lying about the problem he created, have him confess the error right away. Then show the entire cast working together to form a new plan with this information. That way, the story becomes something like a noir. We watch the characters take the new information and draw conclusions from it. They will be right about some details and wrong about others. When the final plan is implemented, some parts will work and others won’t. But that’s when some last-minute inventive thinking on the part of the protagonist can prove that the protagonist really is the leader who should be listened to.
And if the writer wants, the characters can spend some time discussing what led to the protagonist’s error in the first place. Otherwise, get the disenchantment phase of the story out of the way early. Exile the character right away and have him or her moping around while the rest of the cast tries to implement a new plan with what few resources the protagonist has given them — only to have the protagonist return about halfway through the story rather than right before the climax. Then the protagonist can come up with a new plan with these resources, just in time for the final battle with the antagonists.
Alternatively, the writer could take a cue from the television series Psyche’s approach. From the lyrics to the show’s intro: “I know that you know that I’m not telling the truth.” That’s because the entire cast, save one, already knows that the protagonist is lying. The fun of Psyche is that the police department already knows that Shawn Spencer is not really a psychic detective. The game is whether or not they can prove it.
Each episode turns on how Shawn is going to keep up the façade. Even in this series, when the one character who believes him, his girlfriend Juliet, realizes he’s lying, the episodes where she’s angry at him are pure torture. But the rest of the series is enjoyable; however, I would argue this show isn’t really a Liar Revealed Trope anyway because it’s obvious to everyone else that Shawn’s a charlatan.
Correcting this trope does not mean making the protagonist virtuous or honest — although, I don’t see anything particularly wrong with that — it’s about not wasting the audience’s time. A writer should want the viewer to have a vague idea what’s going to happen without being able to predict each event. The viewer should always be a participant in the story not just a spectator.