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The Unreliable Narrator

This week, consider the unreliable narrator — a classic storytelling device — in your own work, no matter your genre.

Image by Thomas Abbs (CC BY 2.0)

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I recently finished the first season of HBO’s True Detective, and one element I loved — which made the episodes more exciting — was the possible presence of an unreliable narrator.

Some of our favorite classic stories are told from the perspectives of unreliable narrators, from Alex in A Clockwork Orange to Humbert Humbert in Lolita. In the world of nonfiction, consider drug-fueled Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, or Lauren Slater, the epileptic and compulsive liar who penned the memoir Lying.

Writers create unreliable narrators for different reasons. Perhaps your character is guilty and wants to mislead others. Maybe he suffers from some kind of condition. Or perhaps she’s under the influence of a substance — or an otherworldly force. In many cases, a writer uses an unreliable narrator as a storytelling device to build drama and suspense.

For this challenge, let’s experiment:

  • Fiction writers: Draft a short story or flash fiction piece from the point of view of a unreliable narrator. What is the source of their unreliability? In what ways and details can you reveal that this person might not be telling the truth? What kind of setting or situation can you create?
  • Poets: Try your hand at free verse or experimental prose from the perspective of an unreliable voice. Or craft a haiku that comments on truth and honesty, or falsehood and white lies.
  • Nonfiction writers: Consider a short personal essay explaining your take on the topic. As a reader, how do you feel when you’ve been duped — by a character, by a story? Have you watched a TV show or film in which you thought one thing, but was totally wrong?
  • Memoirists: Choose a hazy memory from your past, and use it as inspiration for your piece. Try to recall it — and don’t be afraid to show your uncertainty. Or, take the memory and mold it into whatever you’d like — shape it in a way that’s totally untrue, and see where it goes.

If none of these ideas speak to you, find more inspiration in one of these prompts:

  • Truth. Write about this word for 15 minutes. Go.
  • Sidekick. If you needed help, tell us about a character in a book or film that you’d want on your side, and why.
  • Mind Games. Write about a person, fictional or real, with whom you’d love to have a conversation, and why.
  • Rewrite. If you could reshape and rewrite any character in any story, who would you choose? What would you change about them — and would this ultimately alter the rest of the story?
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  1. I absolutely LOVE unreliable narrators. I have a whole novel out there told by a woman you are never quite sure is delusional or it’s the people around her who make her feel that way (Lullabies & Alibis) and my blog which is a humor blog often blurs reality with fiction to make something that much more funny. I am always honest in the comments section when readers remark “wow, can’t believe you went thru that!” I’ll say “I didn’t. But I COULD have!!” Why are we so fascinated by Unreliable Narrators??? Could it be that we have the best and most unreliable narrator of all in our lives?? I’m not trying to get religious on anyone. But just Think about it. Ps. Thanks for great prompts!!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Memory’s a tricky thing, especially when lots of detail’s involved. Senior moments aren’t necessary – just watch an otherwise reliable witness being cross-examined in a court case. Fumbling and forced second-guessing are the names of that particular game.

    Humans are all unreliable narrators at one time or another, especially in the stories we tell stories ourselves. That’s why we connect with the unreliable narrator.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. The last half of the last sentence should read : especially in the stories we tell ourselves.

        It’s late here, and I should sleep on the prompts of the week. 🙂

        Like

  3. Oh… unreliable narrator can be so hard to do well! I adore them when they are done well though… I’ll have to think about trying to write something for this… at some point at least. Such a good challenge.

    Like

  4. An excellent prompt. Dare I follow a 5th prompt site? This one looks really good. Perhaps…I could just sleep less. No, better that I eat less. I do want to try at least this prompt…Thanks.

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  5. In the beginning of “Isla and the Happily Ever After” by Stephanie Perkins, Isla is an unreliable narrator. But then you find out that she just had her wisdom teeth removed and is still little high…It’s funny. 😛

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Learnt something new! I have came across this kind of writing style but never it has a special name to it. Unreliable narrators really make a good mystery and suspense story.

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  7. Thanks for the prompt. Just what I needed to actually write this story that I’ve been thinking about for long while, Alejandro the Foolish and the Magical Pen.

    Had a great time writing it!

    Like

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