by | Jul 10, 2016 | The Writer's Life | 10 comments

Telling Lies: Your How-To Guide

by Sonja Stone

A few days ago, forensic psychologist Dr. Paul Lees-Haley diagnosed me as a sociopath

gayle lynds, jamie freveletti, francine mathews, chris goff, kj howe, sonja stone, s. lee manning, karna bodman
Rogue Women Writers (sans Karna) celebrating KJ HOWE’S ARC release!

Here’s what happened:

ThrillerFest, the annual conference of the International Thriller Writers (ITW), concluded last night. I attended many fabulous lectures, one of which was Dr. Lees-Haley’s PSYCHOPATHOLOGY AS CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT. He asked a hypothetic question, I answered, and he graciously waited as long as possible to deliver his diagnosis: I’m a psychopath. (For the purposes of this post I’m using the two words interchangeably. Let’s not bicker.)

His question: Imagine you’re a writer. Your manuscript must mailed off TODAY. You print a fresh copy with two minutes to spare. As you’re packaging your work of art, you spill coffee all over the pages. There’s no time to reprint, and it MUST GO NOW. What do you do?

My hand immediately flew into the air as I confidently announced, “That’s easy.” Can anyone guess my answer?

“I’d package the damaged manuscript, then spill coffee on the outer envelope, making it look like someone else had done it after I’d sent it off.”

Apparently, this is somewhat sociopathic. For those of you currently judging Dr. Lees-Haley’s hasty diagnosis, reread the title. I’m lying; he didn’t actually diagnose me. But my answer is, in fact, sociopathic. Which I’m okay with.

"tells" of a lie, good lies bad lies
Sonja Stone’s How-To Guide for Telling Lies

fx The Americans, Elizabeth and Phillip JenningsI used to be a pretty good liar. But as I’ve aged, my moral flexibility has stiffened, and telling lies makes me uncomfortable. I’m interested in open, honest relationships. Discovering truth is important to me. 

But I’m still fascinated by lies. Spotting them, exposing them, exploring them. That’s why I write.

Why did I reach a point in my emotional development when lying became unacceptable? Why doesn’t everyone reach that point? To be fair, it’s a good thing that not everyone is bothered by lying. Espionage would cease to exist. 

What I find shocking are the number of bad liars I encounter. Here’s a cheat sheet to doing it well.

If you’re going to lie, do it properly.

Becoming a competent liar isn’t easy, but it’s a skill one can learn. I’m not advocating dishonesty, but you never know when your future might depend on your ability to successfully sell a lie. Remember Argo and the embassy workers? Or the time your boss invited you over for dinner and asked if you enjoyed his wife’s cooking? 


  • Lying is a lot like writing a thriller: don’t use three words when one will do. Liars add superfluous detail to make their stories sound more believable. It doesn’t work.
  • Don’t repeat the question. Repeating someone’s question looks like a stall tactic—like you’re buying time to think up your lie.
  • Prepare in advance: have an alibi. Surely there’s a legitimate explanation as to why you’re standing outside a strip club with a fistful of dollar bills and a flask of absinthe. No doubt, you’re helping the homeless who frequent this neighborhood.


  • Learn to meditate. People who meditate on a regular basis are better able to control their galvanic skin response. For those of you who’ve never been hooked up to a polygraph, you might not know the galvanic response happens unconsciously—it’s the subtle change in body temperature, the sweat glands opening just enough to trigger an alert on the machine, an increased heart rate. (Also known as the stress response.)
  • Try Valium. Elizabeth Jennings (my favorite spy from TV’s The Americans) feeds her source a low dose of sedative before sending her off to steal secrets.
  • Hold still. Don’t touch your face, don’t tug at your clothes, don’t scratch your nose, and don’t shrug.
  • Practice so your words are succinct and your tone confident. When all else fails, carry a clipboard. A clipboard and a self-assured nod will take you far.

Don’t lie to me unless you’re good at it.

It’s embarrassing for you, it’s embarrassing for me. Because I will call you out. It’s almost a compulsion. Generally, people have an unspoken agreement with each other that we will observe certain social niceties: you don’t tell me I’m too short for capris, I won’t tell you you’re too old to pull off a miniskirt. Not so with me and lying. I almost can’t help it.

What about you? Are you a good liar? Can you spot a lie? Add to my How-to and What-Not-to-Do lists in the comment section. I’m always looking for solid intel.

Find me here: www.sonjastone.com

Infographic: created by Sonja Stone
The Americans: https://assets.fxnetworks.com/cms/prod/shows/theamericans/photos/the-americans/web/web_largecoverart_series_the-americans_270x398.jpg
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  1. Karna Bodman

    Oh wow! What a thought-provoking analysis you gave us here! It makes me think about various people I know – and especially pubic figures — and wonder if they are "good" or "bad" liars. Then again, as you point out, one has to be quite accomplished to serve as a spy or special agent….especially in thriller novels. Now I will read them much more carefully to figure out how the characters are "behaving." Thanks for your post!

  2. Sonja Stone

    Thanks, Karna. It's so interesting when I start spotting "tells" in someone. Or when I'm not being completely honest–I often wonder what my deceit markers look like!

  3. Jack Getze

    I think practice is key. If I can make myself believe, you will, too.

  4. S. Lee Manning

    I love the association between lying as a spy (building a legend) and lying as a writer ( creating fiction). Thought provoking.

  5. Sonja Stone

    Jack, that's so true! If I can't distinguish between truth and lie, I probably won't give anything away in my body language. That's the George Costanza method–if you believe it, it's not a lie.

  6. Sonja Stone

    S. Lee, as writers we do the same thing that spies do, right? Except our lives don't depend on selling the lie. Not usually, anyway. 😉

  7. Anonymous

    Very thought provoking, I'll have to use some of these tricks next Thanksgiving: "Yes Ma, your casserole IS delicious!" 😉

  8. Sonja Stone

    Anon, just remember not to fidget. And make sure the family dog is under YOUR chair.

  9. Chris Goff

    Okay, I'm a little behind on reading blogs, but this one made me laugh. OMG, I'm a horrible liar. The only one worse is my daughter, Danielle. She's so bad at it, she gave up trying to lie to us in Middle School. It meant she had no fun until college, when she went with the "I'm an adult now" approach. But, I agree with Jack — the most important thing is to sell it!

  10. Sonja Stone

    It's okay, Christine, I'm a little late on following up with comments! My sister is the WORST liar! She grins like the Cheshire Cat!