Storytellers use the Three Red Herrings


We were taught as children to always tell the truth because truth-telling is good and lying is bad. Then, as we grew up, we learned that this truth thing wasn’t so black and white. Evidently, sometimes deception is not only acceptable, but it’s also appreciated.

For example:

  • When a nurse distracts a child who’s terrified about an impending injection
  • When a comedian sets up a punchline
  • When a magician uses sleight of hand to create an illusion

And so we adapted, telling truths and non-truths, depending upon situations. I’ve learned that the best way to distinguish between the two is to consider the Benefit Rule1 by asking:

Who benefits from the lie, the deceiver or the deceived?

Think about a man who encourages his girlfriend to spend the evening with her friends so that he can cheat on her. Now consider a man orchestrating the same ruse to occupy her time while he prepares a marriage proposal. The same deception scenario produces different ethical results based on the deceiver’s motivations. If the beneficiary of the deception is the deceiver, it’s unethical. If the deceived received the benefits, it’s ethical.

The best storytellers deceive. Without the ability to do so, stories become predictable and boring. And so, storytellers toil to balance both the information and the timing of that information to keep things interesting. George Lucas, for example, did so by hiding the fact that Luke and Leia were siblings and that Darth Vader was their father.

So, how can we become masters at ethical deception? The answer comes from an unexpected place–our judicial system.

Witnesses in an American courtroom take an oath “…to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” This seemingly innocuous phrase contains a beautifully complex concept that describes three distinct classes of deception.

“All the lies that have ever been told or ever will be told fall into three categories, or strategies: lies of commission, lies of omission, and lies of influence.” 2

  • A lie of commission is a bald-faced, flat-out untruth
  • A lie of omission is subtler. Rather than telling the whole truth, the deceiver selectively reveals verifiable facts, yet omits the less convenient ones. For example, consider the teenager who broke curfew. When asked, “Where were you?” she answers with a verifiable “I was at the library,” which is true. She just omitted the part about the house party she attended afterwards.
  • A lie of influence (which I prefer to call a lie of conflation) is the most complex of the three. It involves adding extra facts to obfuscate the truth. For example, when asked, “Did you steal the cookie?” the confectionery bandit explains, “You know that I don’t like sweets. Remember that time in the bakery?”

The best storytellers deceive ethically. They use the three red herrings: commission, omission, and conflation to keep an audience on its toes. If done right and the audience benefits from the deception, they’ll thank you for it.

Now it’s your turn. The next time you tell a story, how will you use the three red herrings?


  1. Ron Ploof, The Proverb Effect (Aliso Viejo, CA: OC New Media, LLC, 2018) p. 22. 
  2. Susan M. Carnicero and Philip Houston, Spy the Lie: Advanced Information Collection (Columbus, OH: Ohio State Bar Association CLE, 2012), Kindle Location#: 606.


Oh, and if you were looking for the answer to the last week’s cliff hanger…I don’t own a patent. 😊

Storytelling Lessons from the Game: Two Truths and a Lie


One of my favorite icebreakers is a game called Two Truths and a Lie, where you share three different “facts” about yourself with only two being true. Then you sit back and watch the group try to uncover the lie.

Wanna play? Here are my three:

  1. I have a United States patent
  2. I’ve had a bullet hit inches from my head
  3. I’ve used the Heimlich Maneuver on a choking victim

I love this game is because it’s packed with storytelling nuggets. For example, those trying to uncover my lie will say things like:

  • “Ron’s an electrical engineer, so he could have a patent.”
  • “He lives and works in an affluent part of Southern California, so where would a bullet come from? I don’t think he’s ever been on tour in the military.”
  • “Does Ron look like the type of person who’d take a CPR class?”

Two Truths and a Lie offers wonderful lessons for budding storytellers. The story statements reveal just enough information to make the listeners want to know more. It creates mysteries which require skills in both inductive and deductive reasoning. Two Truths and a Lie works as an icebreaker because it’s built upon many of the story techniques used by the masters.

So, which of my three statements is a lie? Hmm…it’s time to teach you another storytelling technique called the cliffhanger. You’ll just have to wait for my next post.

Sorry. Not sorry.

In the meantime, what are your two truths and a lie?


Image Credit: Alophe, Lithographer. Le femme révées Ideal beauties ; Contemplation = contemplation / / compose & lithog. par M. Alophe ; Imp. lith. de Jacomme & Cie. , ca. 1851. Paris ; Berlin ; New York: Publie par Goupil & Cie. Photograph.

Proverb Construction Step #3: The Finish


This is the last post in our series of proverb construction, so if you’re reading this first, we suggest that you go back and review:

Proverb Construction Step #1: The Function
Proverb Construction Step #2: The Frame

All written works consist of form and function. Proverbial form is split into two subcategories: frames (the structure by which we build our proverbs) and finishes (the techniques used to gussy ’em up). We’ll wrap-up our series with finishes.

Finishing is my favorite part of proverb construction because it gives me the creative freedom to add style to the drabness of function and form.

Proverb finishes come in five categories: conviction, ellipsis, negation, poetic, and wordplay:

  1. Conviction sets the confidence level of the proverb through using words such as always, sometimes, or never as in: sometimes blessings come in disguise
  2. Ellipsis truncates proverbs to just the essential words—sometimes eliminating the verb entirely, such as in: least said, soonest mended
  3. Negation uses negative logic to make points through words like no or not as in one swallow does not a summer make
  4. Poetic finishes add to the memorability and repeatability of proverbs. There are five different poetic types to consider: rhyme, rhythm, assonance, alliteration, and consonance.
    1. Rhyme uses a collection of same-sounding word fragments such as meet roughness with toughness
    2. Rhythm arranges syllables to form a beat, such as in nothing ventured, nothing gained, which follows the beat pattern of one-two; one-two; one-two-three
    3. Assonance is like rhyme, where it uses repeating vowel sounds. While time and nine don’t rhyme in a stitch in time saves nine, the two words are tied together through the common pronunciation of the long “I” sound
    4. Alliteration repeats a consonant sound at the beginning of a word, as in it takes two to tango
    5. Consonance is like alliteration, yet the consonance sounds are found in the middle and end of words as opposed to the front of them, such as: one day a rooster, the next day a feather duster
  5. Wordplay involves a clever use of words. There are four wordplay subcategories: associations, double-use, opposites, and reversals.
    1. Associations play with the relationships between word meanings. For example, a clever hawk hides its claws uses the association between a bird of prey and its talons
    2. Double-use finishes repeat words to make a point, such as in a friend to all is a friend to none
    3. Opposites make their points paradoxically, through contradictory or metaphorical meanings, such as one man’s gravy is another man’s poison
    4. Reversals are like double-use finishes because they repeat words but differ by reversing their order. For example, it’s not the size of the dog in a fight, but the size of the fight in the dog


So, there you have it: the three steps for proverb construction:

  1. What’s the function of your proverb? (definition, prediction, or prescription)
  2. What frame will you build the proverb upon? (comparisons, conditionals, derivatives, none)
  3. What finishes can you add? (conviction, ellipsis, negation, poetic, or wordplay)

Give it a try.