The Art of Writing Deception

By DiAnn Mills

Mystery, suspense, and thriller writers understand deception weaves throughout their stories. The writer takes masterful steps to ensure other characters and often the reader are deceived into believing something that isn’t true.

Lies take prominence. Trickery is king. A clever scheme rules the game. Fraud, cheating, treachery—whatever it takes to mislead and manipulate reality so one or more characters relinquish something of value.

If a character gives up something willingly, there’s no deception.

A writer develops a framework to plant subtle clues throughout the story, incidents that mean little until the ruse is revealed. Lies are presented as truth, justified with facts. The plot continues until the character committing the offense slips and another character unravels the truth. Those mistakes come in the form of dialogue, emotion, body language, or a failure to cover up a detail.

Deception occurs in the lives of our antagonists and protagonists. A villain murders a woman and lies to cover up the crime. A hero fakes his confidence and deception takes place.

What determines the value of the information being withheld? Not a simple answer. Value takes root in the character’s heart when a decision is made in which the end result of the scheme is worth any price. The more the character is challenged to disguise the incident or issue, the higher the value. With this first step comes a second: the character must plan how to keep the “something” buried. This adds the critical tension, stress, and conflict to the story.

The depth of the deception weaves all that can be discovered about the character: personality type, life experiences, culture, education, job, health, birth order, family life, goals, wants, needs, desires, religion, political views, and a host of other traits. These influences propel the character to mask the truth and avoid reality.

Another consideration—telling the truth can be as stressful as avoiding it. Who is your character? What matters so much to him that he’d risk everything to deceive?

By not dealing with the deception, no growth or change occurs. This signifies the path of the antagonist where the protagonist faces the problem and takes steps to patch the flaw.

What are some of the clues indicating a character is deceptive?

  1. Indefinite, uncertain, or ambiguous language that avoids the truth.
  2. Overstating facts.
  3. Minimizing facts as trivial or unimportant.
  4. Hiding or covering up information.

How does a writer show deception beyond the obvious revelations evident in the story?

  1. Backstory – What happened in the character’s life before chapter one, line one shows why and possibly how the character withholds truth.
  2. Body Language – Psychological studies state deception is often revealed unconsciously. While nonverbal communication is a good measuring stick to weigh responses, sometimes the actions are justifiable. The story’s sleuth observes body language, processes it for consistency, and determines a conclusion.
  3. Dialogue – Text analysis uses the vocabulary, grammar, consistency in repetition, and how sentences are formed as a method to see how the character rationalizes his world.
  4. Narration – Unless the character is mentally unstable, the character doesn’t purposely lie to him/herself. The character may have false information and thus believe something in error. The true self is exposed in thoughts and how the character views the world around him.
  5. Emotions – Reactions and responses to what is happening to the character demonstrates who the character is, the internal character.
  6. Setting – Characters react to setting as though it’s another character. For the protagonist, the setting should be antagonistic, forcing the character to adjust. Unexpected shifts in the setting can force a character to work harder at the deception.

In the online article, The 10 Tell-Tale Signs of Deception by Paul M. Clikeman, Ph.D. CFE, reference is made to truth-tellers using the pronoun “I” while deceptive people use language that eliminates self-reference. I encourage you to read this article to deepen your understanding of how to write deception.

How writers twist plot and character to create deception establishes their ability to draw in an audience. We want to keep our readers engaged and excited about our stories so they will want to read the next one and the next.

How do you use deception in your stories?

 DiAnn Mills’ titles have appeared on the CBA and ECPA bestseller lists; won two Christy Awards; and been finalists for the RITA, Daphne Du Maurier, Inspirational Readers’ Choice, and Carol award contests. Firewall, the first book in her Houston: FBI series, was listed by Library Journal as one of the best Christian Fiction books of 2014. She is a founding board member of the American Christian Fiction Writers, a member of Advanced Writers and Speakers Association, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. She is co-director of The Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writers Conference and The Mountainside Marketing Conference with social media specialist Edie Melson where she continues her passion of helping other writers be successful. She speaks to various groups and teaches writing workshops around the country. DiAnn is very active online and would love to connect with readers on Facebook, Twitter, or any of the social media platforms listed at

To learn more about her latest novel, click on the cover below:


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