The Three Ways to Lie

A Handy Guide to Deception

Lies can often give you power
like a coffin filled with flowers
gives life to the living,
not the dead.

The Residents, "Silver, Sharp and Could Not Care"

Lying is an art. A good lie is to be savored, like a fine wine. Does this surprise you? If so, consider this question: why do we wince when we hear people lie badly?

The answer is that we recognize the lack of art, the lack of finesse. We are implicit connoisseurs of the lie.

What surprises me is that so few people know about different types of lies. Over the years, I've formulated three ways to lie. Let's examine them, in order of the skill it takes to deliver them.

1. Contradict the truth

This is the easiest way to lie. It's also the easiest kind to get caught telling. This is the first kind of lie that children learn:

Adult: Who broke this lamp?
Child: Sally did.

Note the use of the lie to shift blame away from the guilty party. However, the child's choice of another person as the victim is a mistake. A more sophisticated exchange would go like this:

Adult: Who broke this lamp?
Child: The dog did when it ran through the room.

The child is now laying the blame on something that cannot defend itself. Our pupil is learning the art of the lie.

2. Tell part of the truth

Let's change the scenario a little bit. The dog did run through the room, and it did break the lamp. Now let's repeat the last conversation:

Adult: Who broke this lamp?
Child: The dog did when it ran through the room.

What the child doesn't say is that the dog was being chased by our little hooligan. This is an example of the second kind of lie: the Lie of Omission. Strictly speaking, everything the accused has said is true. It is the fact that important information is left out that makes this the equivalent of a lie.

3. Tell the truth unconvincingly

This is a tough one to illustrate; the best example I've seen is in Neil Gaiman's Sandman story "The Kindly Ones", in which a woman recounts a murder she committed. When asked if she's kidding, she responds "Joking with you? Of course: if I had really killed a man, would I tell anyone?".

If you have the skill to pull this off, you're home free. You can lie to the Pope without guilt.

I hope this helps you. Now go forth and lie.


1999-01-26. An astute reader pointed out this important corollary to the first way to lie: A big lie is often better than a small lie.

2003-08-22. For more advice on lying, read Stephen Fry's Moab is My Washpot, the autobiographic account of a master liar.

Last updated 16 October 2003
All contents ©1998-2002 Mark L. Irons