Plausible lies and the importance of research

Earlier this week, one of my students decided he didn’t want to be at school.  He asked his first block teacher to use the restroom, and proceeded to call the school from his cellphone.  According to him, and corroborated by the school secretary, the conversation went something like this:

R: “R won’t be in school today. He has the flu.”
Secretary: “R, I can tell this is you.”
R: “No, this is R’s, um, step-dad. Brian.”
Secretary: “I’m going to call this number back.  It better not be R, or he’s going to be in a lot of trouble.”

Phone rings.  R doesn’t answer.

5 minutes later, R tries again:
R: “R won’t be in school today. He has the flu.”
Secretary: “And who am I speaking with this time?”
R: “This is R’s uncle. Um, Brian.”

My students have no boundaries with me, and no fear of self-incrimination, so in second block R told me all about his attempts to get out of school.  He was genuinely baffled as to why they didn’t work.

I explained to him that:

  • although he’s 18, he sounds like a student, not an adult.
  • he needs to have a game plan! “I know.  I can’t think under pressure.”
  • he needs to do research first.  The school’s policy is that they won’t talk to anyone who’s not listed as a contact, which includes made up stepdads (R’s parents are married) and uncles (Uncle Brian is allegedly real).  IF he wanted his plan to work, R should’ve pretended to be his dad right away.

So, what does this have to do with writing?

R’s story not only was full of noticeable holes, its lack of plausibility insulted his listener’s intelligence, and she in turn refused to talk with him.

If you’re not careful with believable details, and the attitude with which you present your plausible lies, your audience could easily put down your story.

And from experience, this happens.  I’ve been that reader.  Most recently, I picked up a book by a guy from my hometown.  He had the whole thing setting – businesses at their actual real life locations, streets by name in the right place, actual terrain where it should be.

And then he threw in crackwhores walking the streets that my students actually live on, and blazing gang war shootouts in broad daylight.

So I put the book down, because to me, that was insulting.  Yes, my hometown has issues with gangs, but even in the worst parts of towns they’re not having roving turf wars.  And as many times as I’ve driven around, I’ve never seen prostitutes actually working the corners.  In short, his novel was implausible and insulting.

So, take a lesson from R, and that horrible book (which I wanted to like, I really did!):  If you don’t take the time to research obvious things, then bash your reader over the head with its incredibility, don’t be surprised if your reader walks away.


  1. Great story. There are so many when you are a teacher and as all good stories, they apply to life and writing. The hardest challenge when you are a teacher is to engage the student. Apathy, drugs, difficult home life, poor reading skills, all apply to the kids who hate school.

  2. Great post! I can’t believe a student actually tried to do that.

  3. Loverofwords, you’re absolutely right that engagement is the hardest challenge. Fortunately I work for a program where relationships with the student are the main focus, so that the kids have someone they trust to help them overcome their issues.

    Jessica, you would be amazed at some of the stuff they try to get away with. It makes for some great stories though!

  4. Lol! That sounds like my son. But you’re right, even in books, they have to be half-way plausible. I’m thinking of those heavy action movies (I love those) where the hero or villian gets hit again and again and again and again… at one point, I start laughing.

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