bookmark_borderUsing the Unreliable Narrator

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.

bookmark_borderWriting Review: Divergent, and other YA

More results from my project of working through some top reading lists. Next up: Divergent, by Veronica Roth.

Blog posts in the category

Divergent comes right after Looking for Alaska, and having speed-read The Hunger Games the weekend before seeing the first movie, and Blink & Caution a year or so back, all good YA genre novels. Blink & Caution is probably the most challenging read because it’s written from two alternating perspectives— those of the two main characters — and one of the voices is written in second person, a POV that some readers find difficult to digest, plus the characters live a marginalized (runaway) life, which I suspect is less appetizing if the setting is not a dystopian future like The Hunger Games or Divergent.

Now that I think about it, there were a few others as well. Cinder: Book One of the Lunar Chronicles which had interesting characters and kept generating mental images of Futurama, The Perks of Being a Wallflower which I couldn’t get interested enough to finish, The Book Thief which looked to be well written but I couldn’t bring myself to read another Nazi/WWII story, Bloodlines, a decently written vampire story with (to me) more interesting characters than I remember Twilight having, though I read that years ago, Crossed (Matched) which was so-so; not offensive but not interesting either, the world feels similar to Cinder but not as entertaining to read, and City of Ashes (The Mortal Instruments, Book 2) which, maybe because it’s a second in a series, I couldn’t get absorbed in it and aborted it after ten pages. The writing/voice is also too simplistic; air-headed in comparison to some of the others and maybe it’s supposed to Y rather than YA.

I think that’s all the YA that I’ve attempted in the past year or so as part of my cross-genre reading list reading. Ten attempted (not counting Twilight; I don’t remember how much I read; I may have stopped and just watched the movie instead), most finished, most decently written, lots of dystopian futures


I don’t know that I have a favorite genre to read. I know YA is not one of them; it tends to fall in the looking-to-kill-time reading situations, like when I picked up an Andrew Greeley novel while waiting for my flight to board. Greeley is not YA, but like YA I wanted something inoffensive to kill the hours in the plane. Action is a genre I can enjoy if the author hits it right for me, which I why I’ve read all of Robert Ludlum (hey, for the action, not for the quality of the writing) and a lot of Lee Childs, while Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler do nothing for me. SF is similar; certain authors I seem to always like, others bore me.

Divergent worked for me, in a way similar to reading Ludlum or Heinlein; the characters, setting, and story drew me in and I became so invested that, while still reading, I worried about the ending, hoping that it would be good enough to not leave me disappointed. It achieved a level of enjoyment that no YA has reached. At the opening, the factions as tribes/units/groups seemed typical, but when Tris, the central character, opts, after the choosing (kind of like Harry Potter’s sorting hat scene) to join the wild/protector faction, the internal struggles, the physical challenges, and the self-discovery really pick up. Of course, she learns that she may have special abilities (like any hero/heroine in a dystopian society) and that there are other forces at play within the group and within the society and that she may have a destiny to fulfill. Tris goes from fighting her fellow initiates to fighting for a bigger cause; the escalation/expanded growth testing plot structure. I’m now started on the sequel and it’s possible that this one won’t have the same attraction for me because the central character has become defined, but, we’ll see how it goes. I’d hate to see her role expanded to the point that she becomes a politician/ruler.

Another thought that occurred during the reading; my investment, my desire to get to finish the book before the end of the day, my enjoyment epitomized what genre writing should try to be, should try to accomplish, in my view. Satisfaction, from what has happened, pleasure, from the act of reading, anticipation for the next page. Again, I don’t know how much is due to my connection with the character in those specific discovery/growth situations that can only mostly take place in the first novel. Jason Bourne (not quite the same character and very different storylines between the novels and the movies) was a fun character to read in the first novel of the series and still fun in the second and third. We’ll see how Tris holds up.



Later edit: The writing didn’t hold up. In the first book I noted an instance of beginner-ish dialogue; two brothers, one inserting “brother” into his sentence, the other referring to “our mother” rather than “Mom”. At the time, it seemed so out-of-place weak that I thought it would turn out to be meaningful; that they weren’t really brothers. Not so, and the second book has many instances of writer-wants-you-to-know dialogue rather than natural dialogue, as well as a plot thread (when Tris has to kill a drug-manipulated friend who will otherwise kill her and afterwords the author milks the killing for guilt/not-telling because she needs it for a later discovery/conflict purpose) that seems an unrealistically long lasting obsession, given all the killing and dying and deception that is constantly going on.

In the third book we start seeing through a male character’s eyes as well as Tris’ and I found him flat and uninteresting from the first person POV. I speed-read most of the third book just to get to the ending. I wonder whether the author had different beta and proof readers for the first novel, or whether the success of the first generated too much need for sequels, or whether the discovery/growth process of the character was so crucial to the first novel that sequels were doomed to fall short.

This makes me interested in re-reading Ludlum from a dialogue/plot perspective. He was an actor and voice-over man before he started writing, which leads me to wonder whether his dialogue might be decent. It’s been a long time since I read anything of his, and there is a big time gap between the last Ludlum I read and the point when I started analyzing fiction from a writing perspective.