I keep a spreadsheet of short stories I’ve read. I make a note of titles, authors, where I found the story and a short comment about the story, to make these posts easier.
My notes, on reading this story, simply say: “Wow”.
A List of Forty-Nine Lies is a pretty intriguing title, and the story delivers immediately.
My name is not Levi. I am not afraid. The machines that hover in swarms over the streets cannot read the thoughts inside my head.
I am not running from them. I have nothing to hide.
Ok, you think, as a read, I get it. This is going to be cute an unusual; reading negatives and understanding the truth behind the lie.
You may wonder how it’s going to hold your attention.
Trust me. In this very short story, he will make you feel things.
And you will have to go back and read the story again to find all the lies that you missed, or skimmed on first reading.
Did you notice how, in the first three sentences we know who our character is, his state of mind, and we get a vivid, if shorthand, picture of the kind of world we’re in?
In the next two sentences we start to get a sense of what’s at stake: he’s afraid. He’s running from the machines [1. In related news: after posting this I took a break to stack the dishwasher while the microwave cooked my breakfast. Before moving the washing to the dryer and filling up the washing machine again, I made sure Roomba was docked and set his little brother to mopping the floor…Dystopia-adjacent?]
We don’t know yet, but we want to. And the next paragraph expands on the world and the mystery of why he is running from the machines:
The New Dawn has my best interests in mind. The New Dawn has brought peace and truth to the world.
(It’s important to keep the title of this story in mind!)
The Plot Thickens
Now that he has set the character, the action, and the central question of the story in our minds (will he escape?), the author moves on to expand the story further. We find out the character’s motivation, what he’s actually trying to achieve, and what the outcomes will be if he succeeds and if he fails.
All in the form of lies/negative statements.
Because we’re not used to decoding negative statements, our brains are working harder than normal to decipher the meaning. This makes the story stick with us. Makes us search for the meaning. It’s a masterful stroke.
By the end, the author has laid out everything: the character’s personal stakes, his motivation, the stakes for the world at large, the opposition, the dangers, the ticking clock.
He uses the very few words in this story to paint a world, to make us care about the character and sympathise with his motives, and to tie up all potential plot holes. It’s a great example of a story that has been polished and pared down and teased out until it’s hard to see how it could be improved.
By the time he circles back to echo the opening lines, they have taken on so much more meaning.
Writers’ Notes: The Rule of Three
He uses the ‘rule of three’ to great effect:
- There are three realms of influence in the story: his personal story, the state, and the resistance to the state.
- He references his personal motivation in three–and only three–separate paragraphs.
- He repeats the last line three times for maximum impact.
I highly recommend searching out this story in F&SF’s Jan 2018 issue (which has a bunch of great stories in it).
What do you think of the idea of telling a story in ‘negatives’ (what things are not)
Have you consciously used the Rule of Three in your writing? How did it affect you? If now, how will you experiment with using it?