Creating Reliably Unreliable Narrators

narratorsCreating Reliably Unreliable Narrators

In the last post, we talked about ways in which unreliable narrators can be unreliable. This post will take the types discussed last time and work through what you need to make each sort unreliable but still credible.

Narrators with believable unreliability

We believe her from the get-go

In this type, we don’t know until the end that the narrator wasn’t telling the truth. You need to pay attention to:

Keep the reader entertained. Because the big reveal is at the end, you need to keep the unsuspecting reader interested. The story must work as a story, even without the twist ending. Otherwise, the reader may not bother to keep reading.

Drop hints.  Having said that, drop hints along the way that the reader will not pick up as significant until the ending and which allow him to re-evaluate what he thought was happening.

Have a good reason for the ending. That is, the shock ending must make sense in the context of the story. If it doesn’t, you risk a Deus ex Machina. Or in the vernacular, your reader will be left with a what-the-hell? feeling. So, “I was unreliable just because I thought it would be fun,” doesn’t cut it.

We’re not sure of whether she’s telling the truth

Here, the suspicion comes up somewhere in the story that the heroine isn’t truthful.

Keep clues ambiguous.  For as long as you can, keep the clues as to the heroine’s real nature equivocal. Did she not see Larry or was she avoiding him? The longer you can keep the reader guessing, the better.

Resolve ambiguity.  I suppose it’s possible to end the novel with the reader no wiser than when he started. Might work but prepare for lots of angry letters. Because the reader has a theory of what is going on, he needs an ending that has him shouting either, “Ah ha! I knew I was right!” or “Wow, I didn’t see that coming! “ Either way, the ending can’t just whimper off. It needs a clear resolution.

Pretty sure she’s lying

Cue early on. Very early on, let the reader know what kind of story you’re planning. The heroine being taller than a tree would do it as would her boast of being faster than a car.

Have satisfying ending.  The ending needs to pull all the exaggeration and fibs together in some way. I know this sounds a bit vague but you are going for your reader smiling at the ridiculousness of the ending while still finding it satisfying. It doesn’t have to be any more likely or true than the rest of the story but it has to feel like it coalesces the disparate elements.

Believes what she is saying

Make heroine’s assumptions credible. This type is very similar to the first type in that we need to believe what the heroine believes. If her flights of fancy are too obvious, the reader may start to doubt her.

Drop clues, of course. But again, the clues need to be super carefully laid. If the reveal is to work, the reader cannot pull out of the continuous dream to think, “Really? If she believes this, why is she doing that?”

This might be a walk-before-you-run thing

My inclination would be to avoid using unreliable narrators until you’re pretty comfortable writing reliable ones. It’s challenging enough to create a believable tale; it’s even tougher juggling the conventions of the novel if you’re still working on getting the rules down pat.

The Unreliable Narrator


The Unreliable Narrator

Generally speaking, we assume that whoever is telling the story is telling the truth (including fictional truth). In fact, as we discussed in authority of the author, trusting the narrator can be critical to allowing your reader to sink happily into your world. But an interesting twist on this convention is to purposely present your reader with a first person chronicler who is unreliable.

Why use an unreliable narrator?

An unreliable narrator can create tension and intrigue. If we start to doubt the story-teller, then we will be unsure whether what she says is true. This can keep the reader guessing and second guessing what’s really going on. It’s basically playing with your reader’s mind, but if you do it right, he’ll love you for it. There are various ways to use this phenomenon.

Types of untrustworthy story-tellers

This is not an exhaustive list but here are some ways the reader can interact with this unusual heroine. This is all about the extent to which we believe her and when we start to doubt her.

We believe her from the get-go

From the beginning often to the bitter end, we believe the heroine is being straight with us. This novel uses the typical structure where the narrator’s veracity is taken for granted. Only near the end does it become clear that the heroine has been misleading us from the first page.

A famous example is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie. The narrator is Doctor Sheppard who lives next to detective Hercule Poirot. He records his often humorous reactions to Poirot’s investigation of Roger Ackroyd’s death. He is astute and charming. He is also the murderer.  Which we only find out right at the end.

We’re not sure of whether she’s telling the truth

Either at the beginning, or as the novel progresses, we suspect that the narrator isn’t completely honest. We doubt whether we can trust the story as it is being told.

Sebastian Faulks, in his brilliant novel, Engleby, creates a character who seems a bit odd from the first. He doesn’t quite fit into university life. He makes casual reference to his therapist. Not that unusual but the astute reader’s antennae are probably up. He is interested in a girl but is reluctant to approach her. Shy? He follows her around, wishing to connect. One day, he sees her drop an envelope. He picks it up. And reads the contents!  And steals more of her letters.

Now we’re pretty sure we can’t trust Engleby but we are kept on our toes by constantly trying to figure out what he’s up to. The ending is surprising but satisfying.

Pretty sure she’s lying

We’ve all heard tall tales—about fishing, mountaineering, writing, etc. The reader is not expected to believe the tale but enjoy the way the story is told, or how cleverly the writer weaves together unrelated items so his heroine can accomplish what she wants. Mark Twain used this technique in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

Believes what she is saying

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier is the classic example of using a narrator who is undependable, not because she is willfully trying to deceive, but because she herself believes the story she’s telling. The heroine has impulsively married Maxim de Winter, only to find, she believes, that de Winter is still in love with his dead wife, Rebecca. She continues to build on her premise, only to find at the end, that she is completely mistaken.

As you can see, this technique gives you plenty of scope to juggle the normal pieces of a novel and come up with something really interesting. The next post discusses how you go about creating Unreliable Narrators.

Who/What is the Tale About?


Who/What is the Tale About?

The tale is about?

When you’ve finished the first draft of your novel and looking to strengthen it and even lengthen it, who or what your tale is about is a good question to ask. This may seem quite simple-minded. You might think, “Well, my tale is about Minisha because she’s the main character.”

You’d be right, of course. Your novel has taken Minisha in a particular direction. She might have traveled to experience the world. She might have never left town, but longed to. Or she didn’t want to leave—just more leeway from a strict mother. Any of these and many others could be interesting paths.

Who/what the story is about shapes choices

I am a great proponent of just writing whatever comes up. Minisha meets a smarmy charmer. She almost gets run over in the street. She realizes that she can tackle the mountain after all. Whatever interests you.

But somewhere near the end of the first draft or when you are editing, you need to consider who or what the novel is really about. For example, is the story about Minisha discovering who she is on her journey (whether physical or mental) or is it about her romance with the professor she meets along the way?

Which path you choose can and should shape your thoughts on what scenes can be kept; which deleted; and which rewritten or reoriented.

The novel is about self-discovery

So, let’s say you’ve decided that the novel is primarily about Minisha’s self-discovery. Review your scenes to ask questions like:

  • The romantic scenes are appropriate still but do the number, length or even emotional impact of these scenes outweigh those of the self-discovery? If they’re very prominent, does the relationship overshadow the self-discovery?
  • How do you make the self-discovery more show than tell? This is an important way to signal your main theme. What does she DO which indicates her changes? Much of self-discovery happens in the character’s mind. But can you have her taking a physical risk or buying clothes more fashionable than she usually buys? This can show increasing self-confidence.

The story is about love

But what if the story is primarily about falling in love? You might ask similar questions:

  • Can you/do you want the self-discovery to revolve around the falling in love? E.g. she didn’t realize she could be lovable; she is getting in her own way in romance. If so, do you need to tone down the angst and revelation around her faith or career?
  • How much of the self-discovery do you need to show on stage, as it were? Slowing down enough to give a thorough picture of the internal struggle Minisha is undergoing should be compelling and hopefully, more intense than the scenes about the love interest.

Why do I have to make a choice?

Well, of course you don’t have to. It’s your novel after all. But considering the question helps to bring focus to the novel. It also helps decide what scenes you need to write in SHOW mode and what can be TELL or shorter or perhaps not needed.

Decide later or at the end

Again, ask yourself these questions when you’re near or at the end of your first draft. Examining this too early in the process will wreck the spontaneity of allowing the tale to take the path it needs to.

You do need to ask it. But only after the first draft is in the bag.

My First Draft is Too Short!


My First Draft is Too Short!

Finishing a first draft is a milestone. I want to say the job is done but there is more to do.

Congrats! First draft done!

First off, take a minute to slow down and pat yourself on the back. No, do more than that. Treat yourself to a dinner out or that sweater you’ve been lusting after. Take the time to savor the great accomplishment. Thousands have started a novel but given up before reaching this point. Well done!

But is it a novel?

There is probably an existential answer to the question but I’m focused on a more practical issue. Is your novel between 80,000-90,000 words? That’s typically what both publishers and readers are looking for. As with any rule in writing, there are exceptions. War and Peace has 587,287; A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, 46,333.

It’s not that you can’t have a novel outside the normal boundaries but you’ll probably have a hard sell both to publishers and your eventual readers. I don’t know whether readers have trained up publishers or the other way around, but they usually expect some heft in any novel they’re committing their time to.

So, to avoid an unnecessary and uphill battle, make sure your novel is in the optimal range. And if you are newish to the game, your word total will almost always be seriously short of the target.

Bump up word count and engage readers more

A low word count can cause panic as you may feel written out, but there are ways to bump up your word count while engaging your readers more fully.

Don’t gallop to the end

If you have a story in mind, you want to get the bare bones of the plot down as quickly as possible. And that’s not a bad thing. But give the manuscript a read and consider where you could elaborate on the basic design.

Your hero needs to destroy a piece of code which has world-ending potential. You have a lot of scenes where he is plotting his movements once he has broken into the facility. But what about adding a scene or scenes where he has to learn how to physically infiltrate the building? You might have given passing attention to this aspect in your draft which you can expand into an interesting quest in and of itself. You increase the suspense for your reader and up the word count simultaneously.

Flesh out characters

Say you have created a character (let’s call her Delilah) who likes to get her way. The protagonist (Angela) is the target of her pressure. You show Angela doing what Delilah wants despite her misgivings so that you can go onto the juicier parts where Angela gets into trouble.

But what if Delilah breaks down Angela’s resistance gradually rather than Angela giving in during one scene? What if you show Delilah’s war of attrition? That way, Delilah is a more interesting character, not just a steam-roller, and Angela doesn’t seem as weak (not usually a good look for the protagonist). Better story and higher word count.

Use subplots

A sub-plot is a story parallel to the main story which may enhance or amplify the main plot. I know that doesn’t give you much but I think I need to spend time on this so I will talk subplots farther on.

Anyhow, alls to say, increasing the word count for your novel can also heighten the excitement and engagement of the story. The next post will cover a question you might need to ask yourself as you are improving your manuscript.