Craft: Can you spot a liar?

Can you spot a liar?

by Randy Ingermanson
Every person on the planet tells lies. Which means your characters all tell lies. Wouldn’t it be cool if you knew exactly what lying looks like so you could show it to your readers?

Yeah, that would be cool.

I’ve been watching the TV series LIE TO ME on Netflix lately.

The series is based on a real-life psychology professor, Dr. Paul Ekman, who specializes in reading facial expressions to detect emotions and lying.

Of course, we’d all love to be able to infallibly detect lying, but that’s incredibly tricky. Much to my disappointment, there just isn’t any single thing you can watch for that would prove you’re being lied to. But there are many indicators of lying.

If you want to detect deception, you have to put it together from a large number of clues. The visible emotions on the face. The body language. The response of the autonomic nervous system. And you have to compare all of those to what you see when the person is telling the truth.

Then you have to think about whether the person is a psychopath who doesn’t feel guilty for lying. Or maybe they’re not a psychopath, but they feel good about this particular lie because it achieves a greater good.

And you have to consider the possibility that the person actually believes what they’re saying. Maybe they’ve fooled themselves or have been lied to by somebody else. Maybe they’re just stupid and jumped to a dumb conclusion.

So detecting lying is hard. Most people can’t do it very well—their guesses are not much better than random chance. The good news is that a trained person can detect lying most of the time. The bad news is that nobody can infallibly detect lies, and neither can any machine.

Some people are natural liars (they make good lawyers and salesmen and poker players). It can be hard for even a trained person to detect when a natural liar is lying.

I was disappointed to learn that I wasn’t going to find an infallible way to spot a liar. But this little journey into the study of lying wasn’t wasted. In fact, it turned out to be quite valuable. Here’s why …

It’s easier to learn to detect emotions, and this is important to fiction writers because Emotion is the currency of fiction Click To Tweet

I’ve been reading one of Paul Ekman’s books (co-authored with Wallace V. Friesen), UNMASKING THE FACE, which is a terrific handbook on learning to read emotions from the face.

There are six basic emotions that show up well on human faces:

  • Surprise
  • Fear
  • Disgust
  • Anger
  • Happiness
  • Sadness

Each of these has at least one typical expression, which usually shows up most clearly in the eyebrows, the forehead, the eyes, the nose, the mouth.

Some emotions have more than one typical expression (there are two distinct ways that fear can show up in a person’s mouth, for example).

Any of these emotions can show us on a range from very mild to very intense.

And you often see mixes of two or even three emotions on the same face at the same time.

If you learn these typical expressions, you can work them in naturally into your description of your character’s face. This is a clue for your reader, a clue you don’t have to interpret for her. You can show your reader those emotions, rather than telling her. And there’s more.

Dr. Ekman pioneered the technique of reading “micro-expressions”—which typically last for a small fraction of a second and reveal hidden emotions. These can be incredibly important to a fiction writer.

If a husband is telling the cops about how horrified he was when he discovered his murdered wife, and he shows a micro-expression for rage, then your detective might want to check whether he was really out drinking with the boys until late.

If a wife is telling her hubby about how she spent the afternoon shopping for his birthday present, and she shows a micro-expression for disgust, he might start to wonder whether she was out “shopping” with her personal trainer at the local motel.

If your heroine is crushing on that cute guy with the unreadable poker face and she wonders if he even knows she exists, and every time he looks at her, he shows a happiness micro-expression, well then he likes her. So she can start flaunting whatever it is she flaunts best.

The nice thing about these facial expressions, including the micro-expressions, is that you can show them to your reader and it’s one less thing you have to tell her.

Not every reader will read these clues correctly, but that’s OK. In real life, we don’t always read people correctly. Clues are just clues, and even if you read them, you can’t ever know if you’re being tricked. So it’s fine to leave things a little ambiguous in your fiction.

Knowing how to read facial expressions is just one more weapon in your arsenal as a fiction writer. Use it well.

(Originally posted in Randy’s ezine, Advanced Fiction Writing in 2013)

This article is reprinted by permission of the author.
Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 7,000 readers. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit
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1 thought on “Craft: Can you spot a liar?”

  1. This is an interesting article. I have had people say they know what’s going on with me by the expression on my face. It’ll be fun to ad expressions to my characters when I write.

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