Using the Unreliable Narrator

by Intermittent Rain ~ May 10th, 2014. Filed under: Thoughts about Writing.


* Modified August 11th, 2014 *

I thought it was going to be easy. I thought it would be obvious.

I decided to use an unreliable narrator in my writing exercises blog. I thought the result was interesting, so I worked some more with it and showed it around for critique.

 

A narrator can be unreliable by lying, or by not providing information and lying by omission. When you discover that the central character of a novel is actually the murderer that they’ve been pretending to seek, you’ve fallen for the unreliable narrator.

My choice for an unreliable narrator was a young girl. She’s unreliable because 1) she’s young and may misinterpret what she sees, 2) she’s watching a scene through a window, cannot hear the voices, and she’s making up dialogue for what she sees. At the opening I avoid stating any of this. I assume that by making the dialogue not fit the actions and by following this with a new scene where the girl is called back to reality by her brother and where her brother accuses her of spying on the neighbors (again), that it would be clear.

I didn’t think this would be difficult. I thought all readers would join me rereading the opening and chuckling at how the girl tries to put words in the man and woman’s mouths, how she has to extend the length of the lines when a character keeps talking after she thought they were done, how she has to try to tie together the logic of her dialogue to make sense, how she has to adapt to unexpected actions and visual disproofs of the previous words that she gave the characters.

Instead, I’m only beginning to understand how difficult it can be to break a reader’s suspension of belief, and to shake their acceptance of the truth of the words, even those from an wobbly narrator.

I think it would be different if I proved to the reader that the narrator was not to be fully trusted, before giving them them the reigns via soliloquy or storytelling or first person POV. I think it would be different if I made the story longer than  500+ words and came back to unsynchronized situations and the reader could contrast those with better written, less confusing portions.

Any story, movie, novel, that contains a writer/fantasizer/alternate reality within the “true” reality of the story has to deal with the issue of where and when is the separation between one reality and the other (or they can intentionally blur the edges or confuse the reader; the movie ‘Memento’ is one of my favs; the confusing realities have a definite, partially-protagonist-managed reason why it has to be that way).

But because, in my story, I spent little time in the “true” reality, had no return to another or to the same false one, and had placed the “true” reality after the unreliable section, mine is apparently not easy to identify.

Or so I’m learning, from the variety of difficulties readers are having with my writing.

All the readers (some who know me, and others via an internet forum who don’t know me at all) sensed the discontinuity which generated unease as they read. Some suspected this was leading to a horror ending. Others saw it as a mystery, one that is never solved. Some claimed to like this lack of clarity, saying that the reader should be allowed to come to their own conclusion, their own explanation, their own version of reality. One reviewer, an astute one, wrote extensively about his analysis process and pointed out the moments of confusion and his interpretation of what he thought they represented, saying at the end that he enjoyed the process of peeling back clues and piecing them together. In the end, he didn’t fully get there either.

But, had this not been offered up as a request for review, would they have enjoyed it? Would they have spent the time to puzzle it out? Would they still be happy with the lack of final clarity that many of them failed to achieve?

And what do I want? For this specific piece, am I happy if X percentage of readers don’t fully get it, but enjoy it? Or do I need to find a way to make the “answer” more clear so that more people get it?

 

There is a part of me, now that I am aware that I am trying to break the trust of the reader with my unreliable narrator, that feels guilt for trying to betray that faith. Outside of humor and it’s variations like satire, the author relies on trust to convince, to entertain the reader. With a mystery, or espionage or the like, false representations can be accepted in order to achieve the goals of that type of entertainment. Even with ‘Memento’, the world can be set right again at the end when the logic for the confusing reality is explained. But with my short piece it feels like a joke, and if the reader doesn’t get the joke, I feel guilty, as if I made the joke on them, plus a little incompetent as a writer since I couldn’t lead them where I had planned to go.

btw, at 892 words, I’ve used more words here than I did to write the piece, and at least two of the critiques used more yet.

 

One explanation why this unreliable narrator seemed so obvious to me and to those closest to me is that we know that I am a better writer than the narrator, so even with the first few lines, we know something is up. Still, I would have thought that my local writing group, who has been reading my stuff for more than a year, would know my writing well enough to know. They did, but still couldn’t figure out what exactly I was trying to do, so I suspect there is more yet that I don’t understand.

For those readers who don’t know my writing, I could 1) make the first few lines even more inexplicable, or 2) write much more in the second section, where I go to a reliable 3rd person POV, or 3) start with one paragraph, perhaps a setting description, that is written normally. My concern with the third option is that I don’t want to give away the ‘joke’ too early, that the reader should still need to read to the last lines to ‘get it’.

 

Anyway, I’ve submitted my story again where I hope to find the most potential for new readers, and I’ll see how this revision goes. I’m also slowly trying new local writing groups as well so I may find new audiences there to test the results.

And, I think I need to make at least another couple attempts, in new stories with new characters, to work with the unreliable narrator.

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