Two Truths and a Lie

by | Mar 12, 2021 | Weekly Prompt

The first day of the intro fiction workshop I took with David Foster Wallace, we played Two Truths and a Lie—the game where everyone shares three stories and wins if no one can tell which is untrue—except he changed it to Two Lies and a Truth, presumably because fiction was the emphasis of the class. The idea was to go beyond a short anecdote like “I’ve broken both my pinkie toes” and to write—to set a scene, tell a story, put some feeling into it. 

I’ve started workshops with the same exercise, with the added challenge of developing one of the anecdotes into a longer, finished piece—an essay or a short story. 

I mentioned the unreliable narrator in the Amusement prompt, but I’d like to return to it with some more thought. An unreliable narrator is a first person narrator who you can’t trust. Somehow, the reader is clued in to the fact that the narrator is lying. So it becomes a fiction within a fiction, and it is often funny, or, in other cases, it brings more vulnerability and nuance to the narrator’s characterization. 

My favorite unreliable narrator is the protagonist of “The Harvest” by Amy Hempel. Read it here before you continue. 

[pausing a few minutes while everyone reads the story]

Okay. Now that you’ve read the story, let’s think about it. Here we have an explicitly unreliable narrator, or at least honestly—perhaps unrepentantly—unreliable narrator. We can’t even really rely on the unreliability, and you can see why it’s almost impossible to think of this story as outright fiction, by the end. 

But this also calls into question whether any first-person narrator is reliable in fiction (or memoir, for that matter, as Mary Karr cleverly hints at in the very title of hers, The Liar’s Club). 

So, truth or lie? Is disbelief suspended? 


Write Two Truths and a Lie.

You could write three entirely separate short anecdotes, like two micro-essays and one piece of flash fiction, each one telling its own story in compressed form. This would be closest to the party game. Typically, you’d want the truths to sound outlandish, and the lies to sound truth-y, but of course everybody knows that strategy, so then you might want to plot twist back to believable truths and an unbelievable lie. 

Another option would be to take more direct inspiration from “The Harvest” and tell one “based on a true story” in which two thirds adheres to what really happens, and one third takes liberties, embroiders, fabricates to make the story work. Then the guess work would be, which part is true?

Or you could skip straight to fiction and try writing an unreliable narrator. Typically, this is a first person exercise, but if you are already working on a longer third-person piece, you might try writing a letter or journal entry in the character’s own voice, or have them tell a supposedly-true story to someone else in dialogue, but with clues to the reader that they’re being less than forthright. 

The whole piece doesn’t have to turn on the character’s unreliability, like “The Harvest” does. Often, the unreliability actually helps the reader suspend disbelief. A protagonist isn’t really believable if they are 100% honest and forthright and guileless in all things. Nobody is.  

Please please please post your “Two Truths and a Lie” in the Write Away Studio so we can guess! I’ve been a bit behind commenting on posts because of having a newborn and all, but I promise to play the game this week with my own entry and to guess with yours!