Let’s talk today about a cliché as old as time and a particular pet peeve of mine. Trust me, you’ve seen this one done in some movie or book or another. I like to call it: The Liar Revealed.
The concept is simple enough. At the beginning of the story, a major character tells a white lie for selfish reasons. Then all throughout the story, the lie keeps getting bigger. This sort of plot relies on this lie to build tension as we all wonder when its finally going to be revealed. When it is, the lie creates a lowest point as often times the deceiver is cast out of his group or denied because of their deception.
I get why this cliché exists of course, especially in media for young children. It has a good message at its heart. Lying is bad and can have damaging consequences. Fair enough. But there are a few reasons why I despise this plot device. And I’m going to talk about them in relation to a movie you might have heard of: Bug’s Life.
1. The tension is predictable
Even though we’re not entirely sure when the liar will be discovered we know it will happen. This trope has been used so many times, we can predict it step by step. The liar will be discovered and cast out but then they will realize that they can overcome the lie and return for the glorious climax to save everyone. And then they are forgiven. There is very little variation on this structure and yet movies and books keep giving it to us, expecting it to be satisfying.
The moment Flick starts pretending the circus bugs are warriors, we already know where this is going. And waiting for the inevitable result.
2. The Consequences are Unnecessary
The ants in Bug’s Life cast Flick out because they discovered the people helping them are circus bugs and not warriors. So even though said circus bugs have saved lives at this point, fought off a bird and have come up with a plan to effectively stop the grass hoppers, OH, well they’re not certified warriors so they should be sent away. We can afford to be PICKY in this situation of all out war. You told one lie and even though the good things you've done far outweigh the risks, you get to leave! This makes no sense because… no matter their identity, they were helping. But they toss them all out on the basis of a white lie that didn’t mean anything. I know that kids are supposed to know they shouldn’t lie but the character’s actions defy logic!
3. The Consequences aren’t Lasting
The Liar Revealed cliché goes even farther because the consequences are never lasting. By the end of the movie the hero is almost always forgiven because they did the right thing. We KNOW they’re going to do this in the end. So the entire ‘low point’ of the story feels cheap and unnecessary. And worst, its predictable.
This cliché has been done to death to the point that every time a character lies toward the beginning of a story, I brace myself for the paint by numbers pay off. This device can work if the characters don’t linger on the lie to long and decide to push it aside for the greater good, like, you know, the ants in Bug’s Life SHOULD have done. But otherwise it gets tired real fast. If you rely on this cliché as a plot device in one of your manuscripts, make sure the consequences and ensuing events are warranted and put a twist on the old trope. Otherwise I’ll be rolling my eyes to the finish line.