The unreliable narrator – she’s out to fool you!

Like all stories, mysteries are told by narrators. Even mysteries told in the third person have a narrator, though the story is usually told by an omniscient narrator with a kind of ‘bird’s eye view’ of the story and its characters. But if you are reading a mystery written in the first person, the ‘I’ of the story is your narrator, and in this very intimate world of the first-person narrator, you as a reader need to be on your guard because the main mission in the life of the first-person narrator is to pull the wool over your eyes!

This is very often how the author introduces red herrings. As the reader, you get drawn into the world of the first-person narrator, he or she seems nice, they explain things to you and tell you what the other characters are like or about their secrets. They are your feet, eyes and ears as you step into the story and begin to explore the fictional world of the book.

Or maybe they are really horrid, but either way, they unfold to you the plot of the story as they see it and it all seems very plausible. You are drawn inside and it is only at the end, you realise that they missed out crucial information or disguised themselves or presented events in a rather biased manner, with the deliberate intention of thwarting your attempt to solve the mystery all by yourself.

Maybe they are seeking to divert suspicion from themselves, or even if you know what they did and how they did it, it is important for the first-person narrator that you sympathise, even condone their actions and approve their motives. They deceive you with half-truths, half-lies or even simply accidental misinterpretation. The bumbling narrator is in many ways the worst. They disarm you with their apparent incompetence, they admit to being forgetful, or unsure of their facts, and all the time—all the time—they are deliberately drawing you into a sticky web of their own creation and you cannot escape until you read the words, ‘The End’.

They might throw you off the scent by seeming to reveal some great truth. They admit to some minor sin in order to distract you from your hunt for clues. Their very openness, the revelation of their intimate thoughts, feelings and actions actually conceals greater guilt—the guilt of deception. Even worse, the author actually uses them to control your reaction to the story and how information is revealed to you. Can you believe it? So often in an apparent display of ‘fairness’, they will actually allow the narrator’s flaw to be revealed early on in the story, in the hope that you will have forgotten it by the time the story reaches its denouement. The author manipulates your sympathy, forcing you to acquit the narrator of wrongdoing as you stand in the place of the judge and jury to examine the action of the story. The author actually laughs as they write those lines that will trap you then surprise you. He he he.

Now that you know this, you are forearmed, and will be on the lookout for these artful devices.

Here below are a few noted novels with unreliable narrators: (sorry to spoil that for you…)

I also tried this with my Friendship Can Be Murder trilogy.

 

Agatha Christie’s infamous The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho

Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin

Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl

Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita

Ian McEwan’s Atonement

***

 

 

In Media Res – don’t start at the beginning!

This is an old blog post I’m recycling due to having had a conversation with several people lately about the right place to start a story.

In Media Res

For a writer it can be a bit tricky to know where to start your story. Whether you are writing a mystery, a children’s novel, a family saga, or a paranormal romance, you often feel a need to tell the whole story. This can mean beginning far too early. You tell the reader in painstaking detail that your protagonist got up, had a shower, got dressed, had breakfast, went to work and that it was a day just like any other. Maybe you talk about how the steam fogs up the bathroom mirror and then describe the colour of her nail polish as she wipes it away, or you describe the pattern made by her cereal as it drifts around in the milk, and how that reminds her of the time when…

But there is a better way… What you could do, is to start in the middle of things. In Media Res. Begin your story right there in the middle of the action. Let your reader meet your protagonist at the crossroads where everything begins to happen, or change, when something new is coming. We don’t want to meet them a year before it happens. Or even a day before. The action is what will make or break your main character, and it will make or break your story. The first time I meet your protagonist, I want to meet him crouched and panting in a dark alley, his heart in his mouth, in constant expectation of hearing a footstep, wondering if they have found him.

Or, let’s meet her for the first time as she comes down the stairs in the dark and falls over the dead body. Show me how she raises a bloody hand in the candlelight. Or show me the new kid’s first day at school when he has to walk past everyone to reach his seat. Or maybe the new baby has got sick and a nervous young dad has to beg a lift to get to the doctor’s surgery in t he next town. Or let me see the moon rising behind darkling clouds as I hear the sound of a werewolf baying for blood. 

Let me see your protagonist as they step on the brake at the top of the hill and discover the brakeline has been cut; let me watch as they career perilously ever closer to the wall or lumber-truck or cliff edge and their apparently unavoidable doom.

Cut to the chase. Literally.

No more lengthy introductory scenes a la Proust, unless you are Proust. No more stage dressing. Does the audience arrive to see the rehearsal? No, they only arrive for the main event. Don’t bother to tell your reader what your character had for breakfast unless that’s what killed them.

***

Still thinking about it – writing in – not on – the brain! A kind of mental patchwork.

swarkestone causeway 5

So I’m still thinking over what I want to say in my new story. Still clueless about a title, although I have a couple of alternatives to ponder.  I’m drawn to old stuff, I’m drawn to the past.  I’m thinking of all the Summer of Love protest songs, but no, too recent, go further back.

I’m thinking rural, villagey, fields, water, trees.  I’m thinking of sorrow and haunting, of deeds never talked of.  I’m thinking of shame and sacrifice, I’m humming old pastoral songs and rhymes, of Scarborough Fair, of the occasional duplicitous nature of the minstrel, wandering, legitimately planting one foot in each camp.

I’m thinking of myths and legends, hills cloaked in mist, an unseen bird calling in the gloom, of the soft insinuating sound of the wind.  I’m thinking of that moment when you come home and you know someone else has been there, the house is guilty, complicit, hushed as if someone had been speaking and stopped when the door opened.

I’m thinking of The Waste Land (all-time No. 1 for me) by T S Eliot,   Snatches of it: “Speak to me.  Why do you never speak?” “What are you thinking?” “What is that noise?  The wind under the door.” “Do you know nothing?  Do you see nothing?” “I remember/Those are pearls that were his eyes.”

I am thinking, staring at the falling leaves, driven across the grass by a pushing wind, and I am thinking of long ago, of people who may not have existed, but who may come into being in my imagination.  I am thinking of a man at a window staring out, his mind working on things he cannot speak.

I’m thinking of a boy coming over the hill.  Of grass, green, long, dewy.  Of the sun, soft, golden, gentle as a mother’s hand, just touching his hair, his shoulder.

I remember.  It was all long ago and afar away.  I’ve said that a lot lately.

Gray’s Elegy “Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,/And all the air a solemn stillness holds.”