The first broad category of unreliable narrator is the innocent, the unknowing, or the misunderstood. This category includes children, developmentally disabled adults, or anyone who comes from one culture and is plunked down in the middle of another culture. Some narrators are unreliable because they lack worldly knowledge. Perhaps they’re too young to understand the […]
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Understanding how the unreliable narration in each of these categories works allows you to choose wisely, to develop the character properly, and to plot consistently. In future editions, we’ll delve into each of these reasons in more depth. I researched the meaning of “truth” for my book Mastering Plot Twists, and discovered there were at […]
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A narrator’s unreliability must align with a character’s attributes, which means authors need to have a clear understanding of a character’s motivations. In Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, for instance, one narrator, Rachel, is unreliable because she’s viewing the world through a miasma of despair; another narrator, Anna, is unreliable because she’s prejudiced […]
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As an example, consider Wendy Corsi Staub’s thriller, The Final Victim. In this book, the protagonist, Charlotte, describes her grandfather, Gilbert, as a rock, always available for her, a kind and generous man. Gilbert’s sister, Charlotte’s Great Aunt Jeanne, describes him as mean and self-centered. Two women interact with the same man, yet their perceptions […]
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I visited my friend Sandy at her new home in the middle of wine country in California. She took me out back to see the vineyards. The grape vines go dormant in the winter, but still, you’re going to die, she said, the valley is so gorgeous. Everywhere I looked, I saw brown and withered […]
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When I was fifteen, my best friend was a girl named Nina Shaun. One day, Nina’s mom came up from the basement carrying a large bottle of red soda pop and explained that the label had washed off. She didn’t remember if it was cherry or strawberry, and she wondered if we’d do a taste […]
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Remembering something isn’t like rewinding a movie that lives in your head. Cognitive psychologists report that recall comes from recreating a memory, not replaying it. When recreating a memory, we gather up the bits and pieces of sensory threads and cognitive strings and knit them together into whole cloth, much like a beautiful tapestry. If […]
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A perception gap is the difference between what you recall and what actually happened. From a writer’s point of view, you’re on solid ground if you have a character struggle with remembering things. This gap is a foundation of unreliability. The Innocence Project, the non-profit organization that works to exonerate wrongfully convicted prisoners through DNA […]
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Yes, the unreliable narrator is a powerful tool, but you need to be cautious. You can’t have someone suddenly shout, “But he’s a twin!” Nor can you have your protagonist wake from a dream, a drug-induced hallucination, or reveal he’s from another planet. The bottom line is that unreliable narrators don’t excuse lazy writing. From […]
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The unreliable narrator has been a convention since Arabian Nights, maybe even longer than that. An “unreliable narrator” refers to a non-credible narrator, although readers may not know the narrator isn’t credible until the end of the story. Sometimes, though, the narrator is openly “unreliable” from the start. The Gathering, for instance, Ann Enright’s novel […]
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Red herrings can employ specialized expertise when the expert is wrong. Think about the professionals in your world. Lawyers. Accountants. Bankers. Pharmacists. Who knows your secrets? In Rex Stout’s The Gun With Wings, for instance, Nero Wolfe investigates the apparent suicide of an opera singer who was being treated for a damaged larynx by his […]
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Red herrings can use specialized expertise when the expert is right. This red herring technique comes up all the time in my Josie Prescott Antiques Mysteries. Josie, an antiques appraiser, notices details that elude lay people—why wouldn’t she? She’s an expert in her field. Let’s say, for instance, that someone wants her to appraise a […]
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Let’s talk details—what’s included in a description … or what’s left out. You need to weave in those details that are to serve as red herrings and leave out those details that, by their absence, should raise a red flag. The latter is an especially effective technique. Consider the dog that didn’t bark in the […]
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The Pygmalion Effect says that people can be “brought to life” by love or appreciation or affirmation. In other words, people tend to do what’s expected of them. If you treat someone as if they’re capable of success, they tend to succeed. If you expect someone to fail, their chances of failing increase. You could […]
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Just as our perceptions color our beliefs in the Halo Effect, so too does the Devil Effect hold true: If we discover a not-good trait in someone, we assume the person is bad through and through. If you write about an employee who’s perpetually late, for example, readers are likely to assume that he has […]
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We humans are odd and idiosyncratic creatures. But we’re odd and idiosyncratic in predictable ways. And we writers can use that to distract and baffle readers. The Halo Effect is a red herring technique based on human nature. Psychologists tell us that we human beings tend to extrapolate—if we admire one trait, for example, we […]
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While red herrings are commonly associated with crime fiction, they’re used by authors of all forms of literature, not only crime fiction.
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The story goes that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, dog trainers developed a new technique to train tracking hounds. After the formal training period, they were given one last test… could the dogs follow the underlying scent if a red herring—a smoked fish—were dragged across the path in an attempt to distract them? If […]
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This approach, which you can think of navigating a twisting, turning road, allows you, the writer, to focus on theme. Your readers think they’re reading about x, until they end, when they realize they were reading about y. Here’s an example: In Irwin Shaw’s Nightwork, the key narrative question seems to be whether the thief […]
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This approach works because looks can be deceiving. You may be familiar with William Ely Hill’s drawing, “My Wife and My Mother-in-Law,” which dates from 1915, yet is as relevant now as it was a hundred years ago. Do you see both women? If you have trouble seeing one or the other, here’s a hint: […]
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