Everyone tells a fish tale at some point, consciously or subconsciously: not to deliberately mislead or harm, but because it is human nature to flesh out stories. A story told often enough becomes a memory, even if it never happened or didn’t happen in quite the way it is related.
Dick might relate a conversation that didn’t actually take place the way he says it did. Characters tend to think of the funny or wounding line they should have said after the conversation is over, or the threat they should have made, or the punch they should have thrown in a heated situation. If a fish tale is told and embellished often enough, the embellishments replace the truth.
A fish tale starts out simply enough. Dick relates the tale of going fishing and turns his three-inch carp catch into a seven-foot catfish. The other diners will laugh. Jane might point out that seven-foot catfish don’t actually live in the pond in question. Sally might point out that a seven-foot catfish is too big for Dick to pull out alone. Ted might just call him on his crap and say he never caught a fish in his life.
Let’s send Dick and Jane to a dinner with friends or family. Dick relates an innocent tale of something rather mundane that happened at home that morning. It can be something Jane did by accident (maybe she dropped a skillet full of food) or something she said about a situation or a person. If Dick embellishes the tale, he can unintentionally (or intentionally) humiliate Jane by exaggerating the outcome of the event or the content of the conversation. If he puts words in Jane’s mouth that come across as insults or puts a negative spin on her actions, he could get her in trouble or place her in danger. Dick was just trying to be funny but in Jane’s mind he made her look bad. The ride home will not be pleasant. Jane may sit and stew and plot a payback. Jane may start a tirade about all the stupid, hurtful things Dick has done. If Dick counter-attacks, the argument can escalate and lead to the demise of their marriage or to a really frosty winter of discontent.
If Dick embellishes a story about his skills or experience, he may be asked to do a harder task at work than he is prepared for. He may be asked to utilize his talents to solve a mystery or stop a crime. Dick’s fish tale can land him in waters way over his head.
The embellishments of Dick’s fish tale could be lethal if they mirror something that actually occurred. His comments may make someone at the dinner party squirm and change the subject. His exaggerations could turn lethal if they get too close to a crime that has been committed or imply that he has seen or heard something he didn’t and should not have.
Siblings sitting around a dinner table listening to a family member relate a story from their past might not remember the situation in quite the same way. This can spark friendly, or not so friendly, arguments. It could spark a mystery that needs to be solved. The same is true at a business lunch or a social get together among friends. When the false story is perceived as truth, you have unlimited potential for conflict.
As a tale gets repeated, and the embellishments become “facts”, the story takes on a life of its own. It becomes an “urban legend.” The time Dick went into the woods and got lost for five seconds becomes the time Dick went into the woods, was missing for a week and found his way home after seeing Big Foot. Family urban legends can reveal a lot about your characters. They can reveal what others think Dick is capable of, guilty of, or ashamed of. The arguments about what did and didn’t happen can be funny or extremely tense and very revealing. If the family urban legends hint at a darker truth (they’re all vampires) in front of a guest, the evening can end abruptly. If Dick takes his new girlfriend to dinner with friends or family and they use the urban legends to embarrass him in front of her, there will be plenty of conflict.
Conversely, fish tales could be used to make Dick look like a true hero. He saved a baby from a burning building when all he really did was put out a small blaze caused by a candle falling over. If Dick is a superhero and really did save a baby from a burning building, that’s an entirely different tale. He may squirm and worry about his family blowing his cover.
You can use the concept of fish tales and urban legends in any genre to develop plot, to reveal character, or to complicate the scene.