Trust Me

by Marie B.

Here I am, reading my book, totally immersed, when WHAMMO, I discover something so shocking that it makes me question everything that has come before.  Welcome to the Unreliable Narrator plot device.

You might think that classifying a book as having an unreliable narrator is enough to spoil the story.  Through hard work and diligent research, I’ve discovered that’s not necessarily so.  After all, there are many reasons a narrator might be “unreliable.”  Such as…

Nefarious purposes – The narrator knows exactly what they’re doing while leading readers down the primrose path.  Sometimes authors reveal this early, which can help build suspense.  Other times, we learn the truth much later.

Personal lens –In these cases, the narrator is not necessarily a bad actor, they just see things from their own comfortable perspective.  This narrator provokes thought and can expand our ideas of the world and our place in it.

Had I but known – The narrator may not have all the facts, or they’ve failed to interpret them accurately.  This narrator is a frequent flyer in mysteries and thrillers.  There is (almost) nothing more exciting for this reader than knowing the narrator is in danger before they’ve twigged it themselves.

A Sampling

This storytelling technique didn’t begin with Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, although it’s an excellent example of using it to dramatic effect.  Readers have come across this before in classics like Edgar Allen Poe‘s The Tell-Tale Heart and Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier.  One newly published example I’ve enjoyed is the darkly humorous Those People by Louise Candlish wherein everyone in the neighborhood tells their version of the story.  Hilarity ensues, suspense builds, jaws drop.

Although the unreliable narrator device is a natural frame for mystery and suspense, it can work well in general fiction, too.  Life of Pi by Yann Martel tells the story of Pi Patel, a zookeeper’s son who finds himself adrift in a lifeboat with a tiger.  The story is richly detailed and beautifully written.  Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple tells the hilarious story of California transplants adjusting to life in Seattle.

I’ve put together a list of some tales featuring unreliable narrators.  What are some of your favorite twisty stories?  Please share in the comments below.

Trust Me

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10 responses to “Trust Me”

  1. Love the breakdown of types of unreliable narrators!

  2. lisalc60 says:

    Does this plot device ever make you angry? 😉

    • Marie B. says:

      I have to admit that I prefer not to know whether a book has an unreliable narrator before I read it. In the midst of reading, though, the hook is well and truly set once I discover I’ve been tricked.

  3. Becky Bolte says:

    Everything I’ve read by Ruth Ware is twisty!

  4. Jordan says:

    My first run in with an unreliable narrator was in the book The Remains of the Day. I got about 1/8 of the way into the book and realized something’s off— it made the story so much more intriguing.

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