Screenwriters will have to write lying characters in at least one screenplay. There are various patterns and gestures that liars fall into, so it helps to make them believable. This article isn’t so much about ‘liespotting,’ ‘gotcha,’ or ‘bazinga’ moments. but rather an overview of the behavior of liars so you can write more authentic liars.
As you can imagine, lying isn’t simply an act of not telling the truth. It’s highly evolved and highly complex conglomerate of behaviors. The more intelligent you are, the more elaborate the lying.
The degree of lying can range from the lies you tell your children to maintain a fantasy such as a tooth fairy, to a white lie to avoid hurting someone’s feelings such as declaring an outfit doesn’t make your friend look fat, deliberate misleading such overstating your income to obtain more credit, to deception and fraud such as bilking billions from a corporation through complicated financial mechanisms.
The underlying goal of every lie is to detach the perpetrator from their actions and make the lie seem plausible, if not real. Liars often remove direct references to themselves to transfer their lies to other people.
In doing so, liars often refer to third parties as “they” to mislead. In cases of a deliberate lie, overuse names such as “I definitely saw Katie steal those cookies from Shop ‘N Save grocery store at ten o’clock this morning” comes into play.
There is also an overuse of non-committal words to describe events like “something may have happened” as opposed to “did or did not happen.”
Politicians often use overly formal terms to mask lies such as “unbecoming,” “it is extremely unlikely,” and “to the best of our knowledge” to mask or obfuscate facts.
Generally, most liars change the tone, volume, and cadence of their voices. It isn’t so much whether they speak faster or slower, or louder or softer, but rather a deviation from their normal speech patterns. Imagine how screenwriters can use this technique in their screenplays.
These are frequently seen in cult leaders. They are untrue statements designed to influence and control people. Gaslighting is also a test to see what level of lying the perpetrator can get away with.
Such statements are either patently false and easily dispelled, or unprovable. The perpetrators’ voices are loud and booming, commanding, they maintain tight eye contact with their audience, and use definitive hand gestures like pointing, chest pounding and pacing across the stage.
If their words seem true then a gullible person can be persuaded to believe them.
Screenwriters often describe lying characters movements as fidgeting, squirming or breaking eye contact. Highly-trained liars have mastered the art of compensation by freezing their bodies and looking at you straight in the eye. Trained liars can also be experts in the art of looking relaxed. They sit back, put their feet up on the table and hands behind their head.
Typical gestures include turning away, blinking faster, or clutching a comfort object like a cushion as they speak.
Don’t forget nostril flaring, rapid shallow breathing or slow deep breaths, lip biting, contracting, sitting on your hands, or drumming your fingers. Non-verbal communication is less voluntary than verbal.
Smiling is one thing that is difficult to fake successfully. Everyone knows what a fake smile looks like. A liar may display an extended, toothy smile or a smirk.
Look for the congruence of facial expressions and emotional responses in your writing. A hyperbolic, tear-filled display over the death of an unknown person hardly comes off as authentic. Neither do exaggerated claims of how great a bride looks with horror in a character’s face.
This is where many liars trip up, especially in interrogation scenes. Their stories can be too lurid and laden with too many precise, irrelevant details to give them a rehearsed cadence. Alternatively, they can be too vague, patchy, inconsistent, or even contradictory, especially when they get nervous.
Many savvy detectives ask suspects to tell the story in reverse or non-linear fashion to expose a lie. They often ask unexpected, or seemingly irrelevant questions to throw suspects off track. The element of surprise works wonders in a screenwriter’s dialogue.
This is simply avoiding a direct response to a question. It could be answering a question with another question, or answering a tangential question to mislead. It could be silence, changing the subject, or taking some unrelated action like tripping over.
These are exaggerated responses when the liar feels under extreme pressure. Responses such as “I’d never do something like that” are often designed to attract sympathy rather than lead to the truth. The latter is a blatant retaliation with retorts like “how dare you!”
The beauty of lying is that it can be explored in a variety of ways in screenwriting. There is no single way to determine if a character is lying, so it’s important that you choose a mixture of verbal and non-verbal queues in your screenplay.