Unreliable Narrators

I just finished reading this article. How often have you read a story outside of high school where there was an unreliable narrator?

Think about it. There are so many books written in first and third person, and you are expected to believe that the narrator is completely reliable. What if they aren’t?

What if you read a story where the narrator slowly reveals to you that they are insane? Or that they have skewed the entire story thus far? Most people who have experienced The Tell-Tale Heart or Lolita, as the article suggests, can probably understand how powerful an unreliable narrator can be, but how many writers take the time to actually write tales in which this is the case?

I have always been fascinated by the idea of an unreliable narrator, and recently came across an exercise in The 3 AM Epiphany, where you are asked to write a scene from third person, including an unreliable narrator. I think this is an exercise everyone can benefit from.

Consider telling a story with details communicated in third person, rather than first person. How will it make your reader feel to know at the end of the story that things did not work out that way at all?

An example of this comes from the Alfred Hitchcock film, “Stage Fright” – “a story told by the main male character, who has hitched a ride out of London with the female lead. The two are strangers, but she senses he’s a good man on the run. He tells her the story of what he got caught up in and because she sympathizes with him–and she’s attracted to him–she believes him. The viewers of this film also believe the story, because Hitchcock lets us see this man’s story according to his telling in a visual flashback…the man ends up being proved the murderer. . .and audiences were unhappy they’d been duped by the early visual lie of this story. . .”(The 3AM Epiphany, 22).

Perception is all in the eye of the beholder, and as writers, we have the power to alter perception of any story we tell, in order to educate, enthrall, or even infuriate our readers.

I encourage everyone to give this exercise a try and this article a read. Challenge yourself to make your narrator unreliable!


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