Is your character a masterful manipulator or a bumbling bungler? Whether they’re telling the truth or lying through their teeth, here’s how they can make others buy every word they say... or fail epically.
“But you have to believe me!” your character says. “I really did see the mummified ghost of an extraterrestrial in the kitchen yesterday.”
Your cast of characters raise their eyebrows in scepticism. “Of course you did,” they chorus.
Thing is, your character would have had a much easier time persuading people that she saw the mummified ghost of an alien if she had worded things differently. That’s the beauty of language—we can accomplish so much, just through phrasing things in a certain way, including convincing people that we’re telling the truth.
Today’s post, the second in the Subtleties of Dialogue series, looks at how we construct factual accounts to persuade others to believe what we’re saying. Because what character wouldn’t want people to trust her words?
When we tell stories of past events, place blame and offer to do things, we have a reason for doing so, and often it’s because we have a personal interest in presenting things in a certain way—a stake in the matter. If our listeners pick up on these ulterior motives, such as telling a strange story to get attention, rather than because it truly happened, it can undermine our actions or challenge our stories.
So, how can we tell accounts without giving people reason to question our motives or weaken our argument by pointing out our stake in the matter? In 1992, Edwards and Potter proposed nine techniques people use to make their accounts appear factual, truthful and unmotivated by personal interest. Just as these are used in real life, your characters may find them useful in telling a story that others are likely to believe.
What are these nine techniques for constructing a factual account? Let’s find out...
Belonging to a category, such as a friend, a doctor, a ‘normal’ person, and so on, comes with certain associations. For a friend, that might be being close to someone and having their best interests at heart. For a doctor, that might be knowledge and expertise in a specific area. For a ‘normal’ person, that might be being someone who doesn’t routinely see ghostly mummified ETs in their kitchen.
By referring to these categories and their entitlements explicitly (e.g., “I’m just a normal person”) or implying them (e.g., describing a normal routine), your character seems more convincing, and less personally motivated, in what she’s saying. For example, if she notices a close friend acting strangely, she might mention her ‘friend’ status while recounting the event, ostensibly because she’s concerned for his well-being rather than because she wants to spread malicious rumours.
Including richly detailed descriptions of an event, something your character could only know if she’d been there, can make her story seem more truthful as it creates the impression that she’s recalling and reliving the event as she’s telling it. It also highlights the important aspects of the scene, signalling that they’ll be critical later in the story.
The opposite of vivid description, systematic vagueness allows your character to avert potential challenges to her story through giving imprecise, fuzzy details. For example, if she gives the exact date and time she saw the mummified alien spectre, someone could dispute that (what if she got the time wrong and had actually been with someone else at the time?).
By giving a woolly reference to time and date, like yesterday afternoon, last year, or ‘back in the old days’, or using vague words like ‘something’, your character has more wiggle room if someone challenges her story.
Similar to vivid description, narrative makes your character’s story seem more plausible by embedding it in a narrative sequence, or timeline. If she tells her account in an ordered, sequential way, it gives the impression that one event caused another and that both events are connected, which makes her story seem more believable.
Imagine your character told her story about the strangely acting friend or ghostly extraterrestrial mummy in a non-chronological order, making no connections between the different events she talked about. It would seem disconnected, jumbled, and more like she was making it up. Not good if she’s trying to convince others that she’s not an attention-seeker or crazy.
Rhetoric of Argument
One way for your character to make herself seem external to the events she’s reporting, rather than the one making them up, is to present her account as a logical argument. Because it’s presented so logically, it makes the story seem rational and sensible, something your character’s going to need if she’s telling others about her encounter with the ghost of a mummified alien.
How can your character construct a logical argument? One way is for her to give both sides of the story. After offering her account or idea, she could prevent others from coming back with a counter-argument by presenting it herself, then swiftly following up with a counter to that counter-argument.
For example, your character might offer the counter-argument that she was tired when she saw the ghostly alien walk through her kitchen, then argue that she’s been far more tired than that before and never hallucinated or mistaken something for a spectral extraterrestrial.
Your character can make use of this technique to make her story seem more scientific and factual, as it’s often used by scientists when talking or writing. By saying things like “It happened,” deleting herself from the sentence or presenting herself as a passive observer, your character seems like someone who just happened to be there when these events were going on.
Extreme Case Formulations
As the name suggests, extreme case formulations are extreme expressions. We use them all the time without literally meaning them. No one bats an eyelid because everyone does it. In fact, I’ve used extreme case formulations several times throughout this paragraph, without them seeming out of place. They’re words and phrases like ‘everyone’, ‘all’, ‘never’, ‘brand new’, ‘utterly speechless’, and so on. I bet you use them all the time too. (I know I do.)
Extreme case formulations are particularly useful when we have an unsympathetic audience or want to increase the effectiveness of our arguments by highlighting extremes. Edwards and Potter use the example of ‘Everyone carries a gun’ as a phrase a speaker can use to justify carrying a gun. In the case of the character reporting her strange, otherworldly encounter, she might say, ‘Everyone sees something they can’t explain at some point in their lives.’
Consensus and Corroboration
Having others support our arguments is another way to make our stories sound truthful and justified. We often talk about other observers when recounting events to create a sense of consensus and corroboration. Reporting, for instance, the actions of the people with us during a paranormal event can increase the believability of it by introducing independent witnesses. Directly quoting what they said is particularly effective in improving the credibility of our arguments.
Lists and Contrasts
Three-part lists are a powerful persuasive technique that we often use instinctively. They just feel right, so incorporating them into our stories when we’re trying to persuade others to believe us is a good move to make. Contrasts, such as between our ‘factual’ account and an untruthful, problematic one, can strengthen a list and make our stories more convincing, perfect if people doubt us because of perceived personal interest.