Non-Duality (For Writers)


On my flight back from Boston a few weeks back, I was reading my copy of The Mindful Way Through Depression. A man across the aisle from me asked if he could talk to me about my book, and I did something I rarely do on a flight: I struck up a conversation.

It turned out that he was also a survivor of depression, but he said he could never read a book like that in public. “I’d have to be in my bedroom with the door locked.”

For the next 45 minutes in the air, and then for a few more minutes around baggage claim, we talked about depression, our families, finding community in new places (he had recently retired to Israel after living in Canada for most of his adult life).

And there were definitely times when I could tell we could have had a contentious turn in the conversation. Flash points where it would’ve been easy to veer into an argument. But the sparks never landed on kindling.

We found we had something in common that was worth exploring.

A little over a week later, I found myself in the hospital. Long story short: I was losing blood faster than my body could replace it. Doctors needed to find the leak and plug it.

In-between procedures and transfusions, I spent time in a room separated by a curtain from an older man with breathing and mobility issues. My roommate and I had little in common. This could best be summarized by the time he woke me up at 4 AM, watching a televangelist encourage people to “send a donation; plant a seed of $58 to become one of the eleven-hundred and twenty-eight miracles,” or something similar.

I could have dwelled on our differences, or my annoyance with being woken up at such a weird time. I’d had no real food for almost two days, been poked, prodded, and had cameras peering into every corner of my digestive system. I had plenty of reasons to react with anger.

But I thought about the why. I thought about the times he’d spoken to his visitors about how he wished he could get out of the hospital and get home for some real healing. Some “soul healing.”

He was looking for comfort. He wasn’t writing a check. He just wanted something to take his mind off being in that bed, being woken up for his breathing treatments, and not knowing when the Doctors would finally say he was well enough to go home.

And I could relate to the idea that real healing doesn’t necessarily take place in the hospital, where your sleep is interrupted by new tests, new hypotheses for your care, or just the sounds and smells of illness.

There’s a Buddhist concept of non-duality I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

As best I can explain it, it’s the idea that labelling the differences between yourself and others reinforces false notions of the self.

In Mindfulness in Plain English, Bhante Henepola Gumarantana describes it this way:

“The ego sense itself is essentially a feeling of separation — a perception of distance between that which we call me and that which we call other. This perception is held in place only if it is constantly exercised…”

With these encounters, I could have focused on the differences between myself and each of these men. Differences of age, religion, attitude, political views, and so on. I could have drawn up many lines between us and left it at that.

But both of those times, the value of engaging with the moment came from recognizing that for all the things that separated us, we were all in need of healing. We were all connected to a desire to live and be well.

If I build a wall between you and me, I’m not only establishing a false idea of who you are based on my limited perception, I’m clinging to a potentially false notion of who I am.

This is one of the reasons I stress thinking about empathy with my writing students.

Screen shot from one of my powerpoint slide decks titled All Writing Must Begin With Empathy

When writing, I want my students to remember that every character should be a specific individual, and to remember that not everyone thinks and behaves exactly as they would. In this way, I am teaching them about separating themselves from others.

But at the same time, there is a need to ground your writing with the perspective of that other fictional person in order to make an honest attempt at depicting their actions and reactions.

Part of that process needs to be seeing the center of the Venn Diagram:

How are you not so different from this other person?

Austin Powers 'We're not so different, you and I.'

If you base their uniqueness only on a representation of their difference, you miss the connections they could have with other characters in the story, or potential points of connection with the audience.

A villain is more engaging if we can see something of ourselves in them. The relationships between characters becomes more complicated if they see there isn’t just difference between them, but common bonds.

The X-Men stories wouldn’t be nearly as engaging without the central friction between Charles Xavier and Magneto: two mutants who both want to protect those like them and help them see their potential, but whose difference emerges from how they view The Other (humans).

Or see the potential for comedy in this play between difference and commonality, like in Home Alone where Kevin’s mom, Kate, rides back to Chicago in a truck with Gus Polinski and his polka band. These characters couldn’t seem more different, until Gus talks about how the whole band needs to spend the holidays away from their families, too. But Gus’s attempt at finding common ground also sparks his story of trying to relate to Kate by telling about the time he left his son behind on accident, just like her… Except that Gus left his kid in a funeral home. For hours. Alone.

All of these things combined take a seemingly one-note polka band gag and use that common ground to give it dimension and resonance with the rest of the story.

But non-dualistic thinking can also help with another bad habit of writers: envy

In Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, he writes:

We compare our looks with others, our success, accomplishments, wealth, possessions, or IQ, and all of this leads to the same state—estrangement, barriers between people, and ill feeling.

The meditator’s job is to cancel this unskillful habit by examining it thoroughly, and then replacing it with another. Rather than noticing the differences between oneself and others, the meditator trains him- or herself to notice the similarities. She centers her attention on those factors that are universal to all life, things that will move her closer to others. Then her comparisons, if any, lead to feelings of kinship rather than of estrangement.

A writer looks at someone whose work they appreciate, and get disheartened at their own lack of skill or achievement.

A writer looks at people they consider their peers, and seeing their accomplishments, feels frustration that they don’t see themselves matching up.

A writer looks at their own work in comparison with what they’ve done in the past and sees a failure to recapture who they once were, or a failure to progress beyond who they think they once were.

All of these envious moments focus on difference: There is you and there is me. There is me then and me now.

But what if it were possible to focus on something other than those differences? To find those pedal points in both of your songs that resonate deep within the both of you?

Because if we only focus on the success of others, we erase their struggles, which could show us how alike we may be.

If we only focus on part of our past experience, or on part of our desired future, we skip over any number of valuable moments that inform us, shape us, and give us something worth saying.

When you encounter envy, ask yourself what you have in common with this person. What do you share?

Try not to use this as a springboard for the thought of “If we’re so similar, why are they so better off?” That’s falling back on reinforcing difference.

But seeing what you have in common can remind you of the positive things you see in yourself. If you can focus there, you can turn envy into admiration, and share some of that admiration with yourself.

And, especially when dealing with your peers, envy is the enemy of community.

Anything that can highlight the difference between yourself and others that you wish to work with or share something with will start building that wall between you.

That dualistic thinking and envy can spill out in the workshop session, on social media, in your work with others. And these spills aren’t often easily wiped away.

But your actions and your effort to see what unites you with others can also spread. And if you practice that, you may encourage others around you to practice that same kind of radical empathy.

In Praise of Bash

A closer look at a supporting player in GLOW

The Netflix cast and production team of the series GLOW have created some layered, dimensional characters with efficiency and humor. The show’s deep bench gives every cast member at least one moment in the spotlight over the first season’s ten episodes.

For the moment, I want to single out Bash, played by Chris Lowell.

Why Bash?

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Is it missing the point when talking about a show focused on women’s wrestling with so many standout female performances to turn my attention to one of the male leads?

Maybe. But this isn’t just about him.

In fact, that’s the point I want to make about Bash’s character: This story isn’t about him.

He says that Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling is his idea, and he maintains that he wants to make sure the execution matches his initial premise.

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With the plot elements involved, this could easily have been Bash’s story: The highs and lows of a trust-fund goofball who finds purpose by putting aside his selfish antics and maturing as he builds a tv show.

But that’s not this show’s story.

Bash is a supporting member of the cast, not only by the entertainment awards definition, but in how supportive he is of the other characters.

Like Max in Fury Road or Steve Trevor in Wonder Woman, Bash is an example of how to depict a man being supportive of a woman or group of women. He’s another reminder that gender dynamics in storytelling aren’t a zero sum game.

The Heel-Face Turn

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When we first meet Sebastian “Bash” Howard, he’s doing all the things that would lead us to believe he’s going to be an antagonist or obstacle in the vein of a classic 80s villain.

  • He showed up in a helicopter, suggesting he’s totally out of touch with the other characters who are desperate for work.
  • He’s telling a personal anecdote about Ronald Reagan, further aligning himself with conservative, monied interests in a series focusing on a diverse group of underdogs.
  • He interrupts his introduction to ask that he be called by a nickname that he probably gave to himself.
  • He cancels rehearsal to invite everyone to a party at his mansion, which features an actual Lichtenstein and a working robot with a secret drug compartment.

It’s a clever ploy to play off of the audience’s expectations based on both Bash’s behavior and our genre savvy. This makes his sudden turn that much more satisfying.

What Bash Does for the Athletes

At the rehearsal, Bash listened to the women read through a script written by the director, Sam Sylvia, that featured a post-apocalyptic setting and roving gangs of women fighting for the right to breed with the last surviving man on Earth. The read-through goes unenthusiastically as the performers grapple with a thin sci-fi narrative held together by Sam’s sexual fantasies.

Bash confronts Sam about this, saying that when he asked for a different kind of wrestling show, this isn’t what he had in mind:

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Bash invites the women up to his costume room and tells them to explore it and try things on.

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Bash is inviting these women to take an active role in the construction of the narrative they’re going to play out. He talks about Sam’s script being too complicated, and he wants to see something still heightened and fantastic, but grounded in some aspect of the women themselves.

Let me be clear: Bash is not doing this just because he has a desire to empower these athletes. His suggestions involve leveraging regressive stereotypes that he justifies by saying that they need to play to the viewpoint of the audience.

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Bash wants to make sure you know what eyes are.

Ethnicities are shifted or amalgamated. Tammé, whose son goes to Stanford, gets re-christened as Welfare Queen. Everything is done to better label these women according to a generalized white, male gaze instead of Sam’s hyper-sexualized, exploitation film mindset.

And this is where it gets more complicated.

Early in this sequence of scenes, Bash starts speaking with Carmen, who will eventually take on the character Machu Picchu. Sam has cast her as the villainous Ogress, but Bash takes one look at her and sees her smile. He knows she’s not right to play a heel, and helps her find an identity more suited to who she really is.

And while so many of these wrestling aliases are created based on stereotypes, that initial spark kindles something in the women. A “So this is how you see me?” anger helps them find their enthusiasm for the entire project. It unlocks and directs a layer of rage and creativity.

Going off of this setup, one of the most memorable scenes of the entire season comes when Cherry and Tammé convince their tag team opponents to dress in Ku Klux Klan costumes. Cherry and Tammé are very aware of how their roles as Welfare Queen and Junk Chain have attached stereotypes that will play negatively to the audience. So they find a way to turn themselves into the heroes of the match.

They have a degree of control over the narrative, and they’re trying to leverage what they think the audience sees.

Aside from setting some key points about the world of wrestling and its expectations, Bash also has several direct interactions that support the wrestlers.

In working with Carmen throughout the season’s arc, he helps her to build her confidence and live up to the reputation her family’s wrestling dynasty.

Bash sits with Carmen in the parking lot while an EMT confirms that she’s had a panic attack after she runs from the ring at an early match. He recognizes how important this is to her, and wants to be supportive.

When she starts to feel the fear again at a match being taped live for the pilot of their tv show, one of the things that helps her find her strength is Bash, acting as the ringside announcer, turning her anxiety into part of her character.

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And when she pulls through and wins her match, Bash is one of the primary focuses of the camera. His enthusiasm for her victory reminds us that he didn’t just invest money in this wrestling show, but that he truly wants to see these athletes succeed.

Speaking of money, at a key moment when Bash’s mother cuts him off, everything is in danger of falling apart. The team needs to find the money to secure a venue for their live taping of a pilot episode.

Bash finds a solution, but he can’t do it alone.

Bash brings the women to crash his mother’s fundraising event for Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No campaign. He pretends that they’re from an organization called Wrestlers Against Drugs, and interrupts his introductory toast of his mother to step aside and let the women tell improvised stories to the wealthy donors.

The key here is that Bash isn’t the one making the big speech to get the money and save the day. He’s offering these women the opportunity to succeed on their own merits. He creates space for them to succeed where he failed, and he trusts that they’re capable.

And the women do not disappoint, coming up with stories of drug addiction and salvation through wrestling so compelling that the donations pile up, and even Bash’s mom sees that her son has partnered with some amazing women.

What This Means to Bash

But Bash isn’t just some Yuppie Yoda, helping women find their inner power through the drama and athleticism of professional wrestling. He gets something out of all this, too.

There’s this one scene near the end, and it’s why I focused so much on Bash after this first viewing of the show.

As everything comes together at the last minute, Ruth tells Bash that he needs to act as their announcer for the live taping of their matches. Bash says he was born for this:

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While everyone’s getting ready for their on-camera debut in the ring, Bash gets a quiet moment while he prepares.

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Bash has spent a lot of time before this point helping other characters find strength and express themselves. We’re shown this one moment that shows him stepping in to character.

It’s a suggestion that Bash, too, feels that the spectacle allows him to re-craft his identity; to tap into something inside himself that normally stayed buried.

How To Show Support

GLOW is a show mainly populated by women, but unlike Sam’s script, there’s not a lack of men involved. Along with the recurring characters of Sam and Bash, several other men play a role in the story.

When characters are dimensional, treated with respect and dignity, and given solid, selfish motivations, there’s room for everyone.

Bash is an example of a well written ally. He’s imperfect, and his faults and mistakes provide conflict for the story. But his desire to help others comes from an expressed and understood need to fulfill his own goal.

That’s a key to strong supporting characters: They don’t know they’re a sidekick. Somehow their actions supporting the protagonist(s) should fulfill whatever desire drives them in the version of the story where they’re the lead.

The opening scene of the series features Ruth on an audition for the role of a secretary who interrupts her boss in the middle of a dramatic monologue to say his wife is on the phone. It’s making a point about the dearth of good roles available to women, and does so by highlighting an audition for a minor supporting character.

It highlights not only why Ruth and the other women of GLOW would latch on to the opportunity to take charge of their stories and shape this wrestling program to give themselves an opportunity to shine, and it also highlights what happens when writers create characters who act as punctuation.

Somebody has to come read for the role of the Nameless Interrupting Secretary. Somebody has to hope that they’ll get that three line part, because they’ve got rent to pay. Somebody spent years training themselves and honing their craft to prepare themselves to be on camera.

Does it honor that person’s effort to give them so little to do?

Does it show respect to the people who actually inhabit these positions in real life to depict them as functions of someone else’s story?

The story as a whole is richer from making sure every role feels lived in. Every person feels true, and not just a plot device.

New Words, New Perspective

When something appears more than once in a story, be it an object, a dramatic situation, or a line of dialogue, you take notice. Repetition cues the audience to pay attention.

In Disney’s Moana, the title character has a repeated line of dialogue used in different contexts:

”I am Moana of Motunui. You will board my boat, sail across the sea, and restore the heart of Te Fiti.”

The Words Themselves

Let’s break it apart and look at the construction.

The first sentence makes a declarative statement of identity, saying her individual name and where she comes from. Because of how closely her people identify with Motunui, saying she is “of Motunui” stands both for the location and the people who live there.

The second sentence gives a directive to the listener, outlining the journey ahead and clearly stating the actions that will lead to Moana’s goal.

Notice how the sentence structure creates not only a sense that there are numerous steps, but lays out three stages that fit into a rough outline of the three-act structure of the movie.

  1. “board my boat” – Crossing a threshold into a new world. For Moana, it’s the new world of the open ocean. In the case of Maui, crossing a threshold into the new role of becoming a mentor and ally to Moana (it’s her boat).
  2. “sail across the sea” – The majority of the film’s second act takes place at sea, moving from place to place. Note the use of the word sail. The second act also focuses on instilling in Moana the tools she needs to navigate on the open ocean.
  3. “restore the heart of Te Fiti” – The ultimate goal of the story. Returning Te Fiti’s heart will restore health to the natural world.

Put these together and you have a line of dialogue that fuses a clear statement of identity with a preview of the journey ahead.

Introducing the Words

Moana’s Gramma Tala gives her these words as her mission when she sends Moana off the island to find Maui. Tala specifically says to repeat those words after grabbing Maui by the ear to make him listen to her.

C’mon, Moana. You’re a Disney protagonist. Did you really think you’d finish this story with your mom and dad AND grandmother all surviving?
By receiving these words from Tala, it roots the message in a connection to her family. While she must travel without them, carrying the words with her brings her family along in spirit.

Setting up this mission statement as a task to deliver to Maui suggests to Moana that she can’t make this journey alone. She’ll need help and guidance. Tala knows sending Moana straight to Te Fiti on her own would be a reckless suggestion for an untrained sailor.

Phrasing the entire scope of the quest as a single task, making it seem like only the next action she should take, breaks down a big adventure into smaller, attainable goals.

Also, having seen Gramma Tala tell the story of Maui stealing the heart of Te Fiti, we know she’s aware that directing these words at Maui offer him a chance at redemption. Presented with the opportunity to correct a misdeed, he may see the value in joining the quest.

The First (Several) Repetitions

After Moana crosses beyond the reef surrounding her island and enters the open ocean, she repeats the words to herself.

During the quick cuts of this sequence, Moana faces her first few modest trials: Keeping her bearings, keeping awake, and keeping control of her boat.

The repetitions reinforce that her desire to accomplish her goal is stronger than her limitations as a sailor or the obstacles she initially encounters.

She’s also using this time to rehearse the words for when she meets Maui. Showing the act of rehearsing helps the audience remember the exact phrase, and prepares us for when things don’t go as planned.

Delivering the Words to Maui

When she reaches Maui’s island, after her boat crashes on shore, her initial introduction to Maui is intimidating and confusing.

He reveals himself by lifting her boat over his head and startling her. She’s getting off on a bad foot, and Maui keeps the power dynamic in his favor, blocking and stalling her prepared statement.

Moana: Maui, shapeshifter, demigod of the wind and sea, I am Moana —

Maui: Hero of men.

Moana: What?

Maui: It’s actually Maui, shapeshifter, demigod of the wind and sea, hero of men. I interrupted. From the top! Hero of men. Go.

Moana: I am Moana —

Maui: Sorry sorry sorry. And women. Men and women. Both. All! Not a guy/girl thing. Maui is a hero to all. You’re doing great.

Instead of listening to her and responding to her directive, he interrupts repeatedly, trying to reinforce his talking points about himself.

When Moana finally takes control of the conversation, grabs him by the ear, and delivers the words with their full force, he’s taken aback.

Maui thought he was everybody’s hero, and she’s telling him that he needs to atone for stealing the heart of Te Fiti.

So he reacts to this new perspective in the way that seems most natural and appropriate to him: Distracting Moana with a song about himself and stealing her boat.

I don’t know what we did to deserve a collaboration between Alexander Hamilton and The Rock, but it exists and we are better for it.
Moana has arrived at her destination and delivered the message, but she hasn’t yet proven to Maui why he should listen to that message. She’s a stranger, and he hasn’t learned why it’s important that she’s Moana of Motunui.

Once More With Feeling

After escaping from the cave that Maui locked her in and getting back to the boat (with an assist from the Ocean), Moana tries to repeat the words again.

Maui interrupts her by throwing her back off the boat. When that doesn’t work, he tries to swim away (only to have the Ocean carry him back.

Realizing that the Ocean wants to keep these two together and won’t take no for an answer, Maui makes the decision to listen to the words Moana’s brought for him. Her actions and determination shift the balance of power in their conversation.

Maui re-starts the phrase for her and allows her to finish. As he joins in the repetition of the mission statement, Maui reluctantly agrees to the journey.

The Words Lose Their Power

The mission statement doesn’t make another appearance until the point where it appears that all is lost.

After an attempt to reach Te Fiti ends with Te Ka damaging both Maui’s fish hook and Moana’s boat, Maui loses faith in their ability to complete their journey.

Maui prepares to leave, preferring to protect his damaged fish hook and its magical powers than help Moana make another attempt to get past Te Ka and return the heart. Moana repeats her initial imperative to Maui. She tries to remind him of the mission so that he won’t abandon her.

But her delivery is weakened by fear and desperation. It lacks the fire it had before when it was a driving force.

The words that her mentor figure gave to her feel spent. They’ve carried her as far as they can.

To convince Moana to change her perspective, she must feel the failure of her old perspective. To prepare the audience for the coming transformation of these words, they must see that the old words are ready to be discarded.

Changing the Words

In comes the spirit of Gramma Tala, appearing to Moana and coaxing her into the realization that even without Maui, all hope isn’t lost. And here’s where Moana flips the script (emphasis mine):

“I am Moana of Motunui. Aboard my boat, I will sail across the sea and restore the heart of Te Fiti.”

Changing a few words changes the entire meaning of the line. This is no longer an imperative directed toward Maui. It’s a declarative statement of identity and purpose.

And it’s not just words, but actions that reinforce the shift in perspective. As she says the new variation on these words, the audience sees her repair her boat and prepare to make another run at Te Ka alone, relying on her newly acquired skills and her belief in herself.

I came here to wreck lava monsters and chew bubble gum, and I’m all out of gum.
We see the change as we hear the changed words.

Arc Words

Arc words are repeated phrases spaced out at key points in a story that show how a theme relates to the external actions and internal, psychological and emotional, changes within a character.

The words stay mostly the same so that the audience can see how different contexts, deliveries, or slight alterations of the text reveal changes in the characters speaking these words.

But these can’t be small changes. A character change worthy of this much repetition and focus needs to be deeply wedded to an essential philosophical payload in the story.

The Words Carry the Theme

The transformation Moana makes with these arc words plays into the larger theme of the film: Know Who You Are.

  • Moana’s father, Chief Tui, makes a point about how the island of Motunui is Moana’s identity, and that the repetition of daily life defines who the people on this island are.
  • Gramma Tala repeats to Moana that the people on Motunui have forgotten who they are: They were not meant to settle on one island. They are descended from voyagers.
  • Maui defines himself by the tattoos showing off his previous bold actions, but also repeatedly says that he’s nothing without his magical fish hook. This drives his actions throughout.
  • Te Fiti forgets who she was after the theft of her heart. This turned her into the antagonist Te Ka, and it was only when Moana recognized Te Ka’s true self that she was able to end the conflict.
  • Even the antagonist Tamatoa sings a song about identity. “Shiny” is all about creating an external image, and how it doesn’t matter what’s on the inside (the counterpoint to Moana’s journey and the message of Gramma Tala)

Moana was once a child, being pushed toward action by the opposing forces of her father and Gramma Tala. When she left Motunui, it was initially to give in to that external push from Gramma Tala, and her agreement with Tala’s opinion of the best way to save the people of Motunui from their island’s blight.

Moana’s repetition of the words Gramma Tala spoke to her show how that motivation still carries her forward as she learns new skills and conquers her fears on the quest to restore balance to the world.

However, it’s not until she puts these skills to the test and decides to rely on herself that she’s able to succeed and complete her journey.

She needs to make a clear statement about who she believes she is, and not just reflect back one of her mentor’s viewpoints.

And the audience recognizes this when the familiar words change.

Show me what you lie about and I’ll show you who you are

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz had an interesting op-ed in the New York Times this past weekend. Using data from Google searches and social media posts, he makes a point about the separation between our public and private lives:

Think of the aphorism quoted by members of Alcoholics Anonymous: “Don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides.” Of course, this advice is difficult to follow. We never see other people’s insides.

I have actually spent the past five years peeking into people’s insides. I have been studying aggregate Google search data. Alone with a screen and anonymous, people tend to tell Google things they don’t reveal to social media; they even tell Google things they don’t tell to anybody else. Google offers digital truth serum. The words we type there are more honest than the pictures we present on Facebook or Instagram.

But this isn’t just a useful reminder to check your envy when you see yet another picture of your friend’s trip to the alpaca farm.

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I know it’s hard to not be jealous of how fluffy that hug looks, but try.

This is a strong tool for better understanding the people you create from whole cloth.

Nobody Tells The Whole Truth

We need to draw a distinction between deception and omission.

Deception requires actively perpetuating falsehoods. Omission involves allowing a false impression due to lack of contrary evidence.

The line between deception and omission can be thin.

  • We think things about people that we never say to them, whether these are feelings of affection, disgust, or anything in-between. We omit this information. It becomes a deception if we say something contrary to what we’re thinking about them.
  • We post that picture of an expensive dinner we had, but we don’t share that we used a Groupon to be able to afford it. It’s a deception if we take the Bow Wow challenge and use the picture to talk about how fancy we are 24/7.
  • We show up for book club even though we only started reading the book the day before and nod along to the conversation. The omission lets us enjoy the company of others. It becomes a deception if we skim some talking points about the book from other sources and try to contribute as if they were our own thoughts.

Even though it may seem that omission is just a lesser form of lying, by the very nature of the self, we never truly share everything about ourselves with those around us.

Even people who regularly overshare are engaging in a deception: Wishing to be thought of as a completely open book. But even the person who will tell you every minute, embarrassing detail of their lives is still withholding information from you.

Take a moment and sit quietly. Follow how many thoughts you have in just one minute. No seriously, set a timer…

It’s amazing how long a minute can feel. Now imagine the exhausting task of sharing every single stray thought over the course of a day. Imagine the impossibility of communicating with others if we had to wade through all the noise in each other’s heads.

That’s why we pick and choose what parts of ourselves we present to others.

In a sense, deception is aspirational. Fake it ‘till you make it. An attempt to put forward the image of ourselves we wish we could truly be.

Here again, we need to draw the line: Omissions that don’t give others the whole story are natural and unavoidable. Lies are deliberate attempts to misdirect people toward false impressions.

Lies raise the stakes. You can forgive an honest omission, but a lie increases the burden to earn forgiveness.

These differences between the internal life of a person and the external life they show to the world are important to understand when we want to leverage it dramatically in developing characters and stories.

Deceptions Humanize Characters

As the audience, we have an important advantage over the other people in a character’s world: We can see a character when they think nobody’s watching.

When we see the contradiction between a character’s presented self and their internal self, it helps to make a fictional person feel dimensional and real. We relate to that feeling of having a part of yourself cordoned off from the rest of the world, and we also recognize the discomfort of having that barrier breached.

Singin’ in the Rain starts with a deception wrapped in comedic irony. Movie star Don Lockwood tells the story of his rise to fame to a radio reporter, giving the impression of a dignified, privileged childhood and a clear path to fame and fortune. What the audience sees undercuts his boasting.

The true story of Don and his friend Cosmo’s backstory plays out on screen as Don narrates. While he talks about having a classical education and performing in the finest theaters, we see him and Cosmo as children dancing for coins at the pool hall and playing a circuit of run-down vaudeville theaters.


”Dignity. Always dignity.”

By showing us that Don is putting up a front, the movie makes him not only more relatable, but more intriguing. We want to know why he wants to deceive his fans about his true biography, while simultaneously understanding the desire to remake your identity and present yourself in the best possible light.

Revealing the deception to the audience gives them the best of both worlds: We see the glamorous, enviable star that Don has become while also seeing his bootstrappy, admirable rise from rags to riches.

Judy Hops in Zootopia finishes her first day with the Zootopia Police Department and comes home to a call from her parents. While trying to lie and tell them work lives up to her expectations, the deception falls apart when they see her uniform: She’s been put on meter maid duty.

Judy wants to project a confident, together persona to her parents. She’s hoping the reality of her job will catch up to her aspirations. But the bright orange vest gives her away, and her parents latch on to the problem of her present, which interferes with the projection she’s trying to show them.

These moments don’t always play a major role in the entire story, and sometimes can be a button moment or little splash of character to add color to what we’ve already seen. In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, there’s a telling moment that re-contextualizes our previous understanding of the hero.

Indiana’s father refers to him as Junior throughout the film and when questioned about it reveals that his son’s true name is Henry Jones, Jr.

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”I like Indiana.” ”We named the dog Indiana.”

Not only does this reveal take the wind out of his sails, undercutting his heroic swagger with a wink just before the credits roll, but it also shows us an important fact about Indiana Jones: He’s a constructed persona. Like an author adopting a pen name, or a vigilante picking a superhero title, Henry Jones, Jr. wanted a name more befitting a part-time professor and full time extreme archaeologist.

These deceptions don’t just give us a window into the individual, but about how their core identity relates to the world around them.

Deceptions Reveal Values

At the beginning of Ghostbusters (2016), Dr. Erin Gilbert disowns her previous work in the field of the paranormal and tries to distance herself from the book she co-wrote with Abby Yates on ghosts, even when a copy of that book shows up in the hands of someone asking for help with an actual ghost.

Erin wants to secure tenure at Columbia University, and in order to portray herself as the kind of physicist she believes they want, she moves from omissions about her past to active deception. It even reaches the point where she tries to convince the dean of her university that an online video of her screaming in glee that “Ghosts are real!” isn’t actually her or real.

It helps the audience understand what’s happening because we know the whole truth. We just saw an actual ghost vomit on Erin. We believe ghosts are real, but we also believe why Erin wouldn’t want to own up to that yet.

At this point in the story, the respect of other scientists is still more important to her than scientific discovery. Her actions reflect her sense of values.

When she’s fired, carrying her things in a cardboard box, she riffs to the students and faculty she passes in the hall about how she’s only changing offices. The degree to which she needs to maintain the idea that she’s a serious, respected scientist is so great, that even in this moment of total failure, her nervous energy demands that she keep up appearances, despite the obviousness of the deception.

Another example of obvious deception comes at the end of The Godfather. Michael Corleone lies to his wife, Kay, saying that she’s allowed this one time to ask him a question about his business and he’ll answer honestly.

When she asks if he ordered the murder of his brother-in-law, he lies, saying he had nothing to do with it.

We know this is a lie. We saw him order multiple murders. We saw Carlo murdered.

This obvious lie combines with the famous shot of Kay looking back at Michael as the door closes to his office, shutting her out of his world, and shutting her off from his interior life.

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Definitely nothing fishy here, Kay.

At the beginning of the film, Michael made a statement of values to Kay after relaying a gruesome story of his father’s business to her: “That’s my family. That’s not me.” Now he leads that family, and his earlier honesty with Kay is only a memory.

Michael’s desire to protect his family doesn’t necessarily mean being honest with them. He sees his job as a powerful protector of those closest to him as one that requires him to be deceptive.

But it also shows how he values their trust. He wants Kay to trust him, so he deceives her into believing that he’s letting her into his confidence. He doesn’t just want his family to be safe, but for them to feel that he has their best interests at heart. To Michael, that doesn’t require transparency.

The family in Ordinary People are all actively engaging in layers of outward deception and self deception. Brothers Buck and Conrad have a boating accident where Conrad survives, but Buck drowns. The fallout from this death and Conrad’s subsequent suicide attempt reveals fractures within the family.

At a dinner party, Beth stops her husband, Calvin, from talking about Conrad entering therapy. She doesn’t want to reveal to their friends about the trouble they’ve been having at home. But even in his admission of Conrad’s therapy, Calvin downplays the seriousness, creating the deception that it’s just “to polish the rough edges.”

When Conrad meets with Dr. Berger for their initial therapy session, he doesn’t want to talk about what the real problems are. He says he wants to feel more in control, and that’s the only reason he’s agreed to see a therapist. Conrad’s problems with his parents and deep-seated survivor’s guilt aren’t even on the table, as far as he’s concerned.

Control. Looking to deal with the outward signs of turmoil instead of looking to the source. Even though we see how different Conrad is from his mother, Beth’s values and influence are right there in how Conrad initially wants to deal with his problems.

The tensions created by these deceptions boil over when the family tries to take a picture together.

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If this were set today, you can be certain Beth would post this with #blessed

Conrad and Beth refuse to be photographed together apart from everyone else. The act of taking a happy family photo together reinforces the layers of deception the family are trying to create, showing what’s behind the need to deceive. They want to show that they’re still a happy, united family. On some level they want to believe it, too.

They value the appearance of unity. That their home life is polished; no rough edges for others to see. But what we see of this family shows they’re not equally committed to the work it would take to bridge the gap between their outward projection of success and comfort and the inner feelings of love and connection required to make that outward projection honest.

In stark contrast, Su Li-zhen and Chow Mo-wan from In The Mood For Love deceive each other about their mutual attraction. Their relationship desperately wants to bloom like a flower poking through cracked concrete, but their values prevent it.

These two neighbors start off friendly enough, but after learning that their respective spouses are having an affair (together), the tone of their dynamic shifts. What starts as an attempt to role-play the affair and figure out what could have lead their significant others to stray turns into something else.

Their time together becomes more frequent. Intimacy develops. But it never directly replicates the painful deception that brought them together.

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Find someone who doesn’t look at you the way Su Li-zhen doesn’t look at Chow Mo-wan.

They tell themselves “We won’t be like them,” referring back to their adulterous spouses. It’s a deception. They believe they can consciously prevent romantic feelings from developing between them. They believe they should prevent romantic feelings from developing.

It shows that they want to value their marriages, even when they’ve been cheated on. That they value the approval of the people in their apartment building, especially the nosy families that they rent their rooms from.

They want to believe themselves to be superior to those who have wronged them, and that by denying themselves the love that so clearly displays itself in their scenes together, they are doing something admirable.

This clash between values and desires creates a conflict they need to navigate.

Deceptions Create Conflict

In a dramatic work, the purpose of these deceptions isn’t only to reveal character to the audience, but to create obstacles for the characters.

When a deception ties to a sense of stakes; when there’s something for the characters to win or lose due to their maintenance of the deception, that’s when you get conflict.

The show House, M.D. based itself not only on Sherlock Holmes, but on the idea that the answers to diagnosing confounding patients would usually be found by determining what information the patient omits or actively hides from the medical team.


Sure, it’s a hell of a mindset to live with, but it was a theme with enough dramatic fuel for eight seasons.

It could be an omission about their history. An active deception to protect someone close to them or protect themselves from exposure. It could be an unacknowledged self-deception that needs to be overcome, healing the consciousness before healing the body.

This creates an active need to unravel and reveal these deceptions: the patients’ lives are in jeopardy. The stakes of the situation turn this deception from an interesting character detail into a problem that needed to be solved.

In the film The Third Man, Harry Lime lures his friend Holly Martins to Europe with a job offer. Harry has presented himself as a successful entrepreneur, but his apparent death leads Holly to uncover that Harry’s business was selling tainted medicine on the black market.

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Orson Welles never smiled in a way that didn’t look like he was pulling one over on you.

Two things combine to make this deception into a source of conflict:

  • Harry isn’t actually dead, but faked his death to avoid arrest.
  • His business of selling tainted medicine has killed children, and he hasn’t let being “dead” stop his business.

Given the sense of stakes created by these circumstances, Holly is faced with a choice: Go home and accept that his friend was a duplicitous war profiteer, or help bring him to justice. The conflict evolves based on Holly’s choice to stay and bring Harry’s deceptions to light.

Vincent Freeman in GATTACA has one wish: To become an astronaut. However, he was born in a not-too-distant future where genetic engineering is the norm for children, and Vincent was conceived naturally. In this world, Vincent’s high probability of disease and early death prevent him from pursuing his dream, or anything close to it (as genetic discrimination is casual and common).

Vincent’s deception comes when he meets Jerome, a genetically-engineered former athlete willing to donate blood, urine, and tissue samples to Vincent and allow him to pass as Jerome in order to apply for astronaut training.

Because of the heavy punishment for this kind of identity theft, and the ease with which it could be discovered (since even an eyelash could reveal Vincent’s true identity), this creates conflict every time he goes to work.

This conflict is pushed forward because Vincent’s DNA is recovered from a crime scene at the Gattaca Aerospace Corporation. A flight director was murdered, and while nobody believes “Jerome” did it, Vincent knows that he’s now the prime suspect. One more slip up could cost him his dream and his freedom.

It’s not just protagonists who deal with these kind of weighty deceptions. In The Matrix, the ally/antagonist Cypher works to deceive the rest of his crew on the Nebuchadnezzar and deliver Morpheus to the machines in exchange for having his mind wiped and his body re-inserted into the Matrix.

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To be fair, that looks a lot better than Tasty Wheat.

Cypher’s nostalgia for life in the Matrix as opposed to the real world could be an interesting expression of character; a way to show not everybody likes having their mind freed and being thrust into the human resistance.

What creates conflict is the deception driven by this desire. He kills members of his crew and places all of their lives in danger in order to double cross them. He pretends to be working with them while slowly building toward the point where he has no choice but to reveal his duplicity and hope to receive his reward.

What makes this deception intriguing beyond the conflict it creates is the understanding that Cypher’s reward is a form of self deception.

It speaks to his values when he says the cliché “Ignorance is bliss,” and the nature of his deception shows how deeply committed he is to that notion. The lives of other people are nothing to him compared to his own ignorant comfort.

And one more thing…

Returning to Stephens-Davidowitz’s article for a moment:

Any time you are feeling down about your life after lurking on Facebook, go to Google and start typing stuff into the search box. Google’s autocomplete will tell you the searches other people are making. Type in “I always ” and you may see the suggestion, based on other people’s searches, “I always feel tired” or “I always have diarrhea.” This can offer a stark contrast to social media, where everybody “always” seems to be on a Caribbean vacation.

As our lives increasingly move online, I propose a new self-help mantra for the 21st century, courtesy of big data: Don’t compare your Google searches with other people’s Facebook posts.

It’s worth remembering the actual point of this article as well: Don’t compare yourself to what you see of others.

This is a needed mantra for writers, who are prone to imposter syndrome and needing the occasional pep talk.

Be mindful of the fact that when you look at the work of others, you’re only seeing the polished, produced material.

You’re not seeing those rough edges. You’re seeing the Instagram version of their #writerlife. You don’t get to see the hidden basement full of unsuccessful Ripley Clones.

I mean this as a metaphor. I don’t think any writers actually have this in their basement. Probably.

Rating your unfinished work too heavily against the produced work of other writers isn’t fair to you. It’s a form of self-deception.

Even the most successful writer starts with a blank page. Everybody deletes.

So don’t compare your first draft to Zootopia.

All your characters are going to die

Just maybe not during your story.

How do they feel about that? Do they think about it at all? Is it a constant fear? Is it something they acknowledge but don’t strongly internalize?

What do they think death is? Do they see it as an end? A beginning? A transition in a cycle?

Where do they define death? Is it clinical, or is there some kind of loss that to them seems close enough to count as death?

What they think of death, or if they think of death, has a profound impact on how a character makes decisions. This isn’t just about stories that deal with death outright. Just because a character isn’t racing to complete a bucket list or facing imminent annihilation from an alien horde doesn’t mean their feelings on death don’t play in to how they live.