The first rule of good writing is to know the rules. The second is to know when – and how – to break them. Sure, you can write great stories while sticking to all the established conventions. But if you want to push the boundaries, if you want your writing to be truly memorable, or if your vision for your story simply demands it, know that it’s possible to do things differently.
One literary rule that was made to be broken is reliable narration. It’s a rule, of course, because to break it is to break a basic contract of trust between you and your reader: that you’ll tell them the truth. If you lie or omit information, your reader could be forgiven for wondering what’s the point in reading when they can’t tell what’s ‘real’ and what’s not. And yet it’s a rule that’s been broken many times, to great effect – The Catcher in the Rye, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, The Girl on the Train, Atonement, Shutter Island. I could go on.
In truth, authors lie to their readers all the time. When it’s done well, it can be used to create plot twists, add depth to a character, or deliver a powerful emotional punch. But when it’s done badly, it can leave the reader feeling betrayed and short-changed by what seems like a cheap trick.
So how do we make sure it’s the former and not the latter? Well, here are some tips on how to pull it off:
There should be a compelling reason why the narrator is unreliable. Maybe their memory is impaired by alcohol. Perhaps they’re suffering from delusions, hallucinations, or some other psychosis. Maybe they’re lying in order to get away with murder. Or their perspective could be skewed by immaturity or naivety.
Leave clues for the reader. For example, if your narrator is suffering from paranoid delusions, the consequences of which you’re going to reveal at the very end in a devastating plot twist, leave some breadcrumbs earlier on in the book so that, when they think back to how the narrator has been telling the story, they can see that it was obvious they were unreliable all along. This way they won’t feel betrayed.
A dose of reality
Try to give the reader a way to access the real truth of your story. This could be as simple as having another character fill in the blanks of your unreliable narrator’s memory lapses if they’ve been impaired by alcohol, or having a sane character challenge the perspective of your delusional narrator if they’re suffering from psychosis. If your book has multiple POV characters, they can serve the same function. This will help to anchor your reader’s experience, allowing them to tell the difference between your unreliable narrator’s perspective and what’s really going on.
Unreliable first-person narrators are most common. That way it’s the character lying to the reader, not the author (or so goes the logic). But it’s also possible to do it in the third person. Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Stephen King’s Secret Window, Secret Garden, and Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island are excellent examples of third-person unreliable narration. George RR Martin also uses it in his A Song of Ice and Fire series, most often when his POV characters have memory lapses, but also to withhold information from the reader for dramatic effect.
One of the best ways to achieve unreliable narration in the third person is to use third-person deep (also known as third-person intimate or third-person close), in which the line between character and narrator becomes blurred. That way, the character’s unreliabilities can bleed into the narration. The following passage, rendered both in normal third-person limited and in third-person deep, shows the difference:
Normal third-person limited:
Robert watched as Jacob smiled at Susan and approached her, shaking her hand. As he heard them exchange warm pleasantries, Robert fumed with jealousy. If he comes near her again, he’ll regret it, he thought.
Jacob, that rat. He was smiling at Susan like some lovesick puppy. Not a second later, he swooped in, shaking her hand, clutching on like he had a right to her. Next came the compliments, whispered sweetly in her ear as if they were already lovers. He wanted her – it was obvious. If he came near her again, he’d regret it. Robert would make sure of it.
Notice how we take out phrases like ‘Robert watched’ and ‘he heard’ in third-person deep in order to achieve a more direct connection to the character. We also use free indirect discourse, in which the voice of the character becomes infused into the narration. In the second version, the narration itself becomes coloured and distorted by Robert’s jealousy, creating an unreliable picture of the interaction between Susan and Jacob. But as Robert’s subjectivity is so obviously infecting the narrative, the reader will be prepared for this.
Follow these tips, and, with a little skill, you should be able to make unreliable narration a compelling, rather than alienating, experience for your reader. It’s a risky enterprise, but, as the long list of critically-acclaimed novels featuring unreliable narrators shows, it can certainly pay off when done well.