The Unreliable Narrator

Thursday, July 25, 2013

For many writers, dialogue is a straightforward thing. One character says something, perhaps asking a question, and the other character responds, leading to another comment by the first character and so on.

I understand why they write like this because dialogue is much trickier if it isn’t straight forward. One character asks a question (Did you eat the last piece of cake?) and the other character:

Lies. No. Zoey did it.

Asks another question. There was cake?

Answers with an apparent non sequitur that is somehow revealing. I don’t even like chocolate.

This type of dialogue is crucial if you are writing a story with an unreliable narrator. In a limited third person point-of-view, you can create an unreliable narrator by giving us a character who lies and never letting us in on his thoughts.

In a first person novel, it gets much more difficult to accomplish, but David Levithan succeeds in Every You, Every Me (Alfred A. Knopf 2011). Levithan handles it by giving us an insecure character who can’t bear to think about what he has done and what it might all mean.

Because Evan is a tortured soul, he waffles back and forth about exactly what happened. In one line of text he reveals what he is really thinking, strikes it out, and tries again. Other times, he reveals more than he meant to let us know and then tries to take it back.  Here is an example:

“I only knew it was morning because I was so tired.
"I hadn’t really slept. I never really sleep anymore.

Creating an unreliable first person narrator is a tricky balancing act. Reveal too much too early and you lose the tension that you need to build in your story. Lie and you risk losing the reader over this betrayal, unless you can create a narrator who isn’t even sure he can trust himself.

It’s a tricky task but one Levithan pulled offed in an amazing way. It won’t work with every story, but maybe you’re working on something that would benefit from an unreliable narrator. Do you think you’re up to crafting some tricky dialogue?


Read more of SueBE's posts at her blog, One Writer's Journey.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Tricky dialogue from an unreliable narrator? That is a challenge I'll have to think about.

I do know when I write dialogue, I run it through in my head and speak it softly to myself, to see if it rings true. Too stilted? I'll scrap it and start over.

Thanks, SueBE for the post. Tonight I've got a writing session planned, and perhaps I'll try some tricky dialogue...

Margo Dill said...

You have really caught my interest with this book. What a great way to tell the story--thanks for sharing. (I love unreliable narrators--they are often the most interesting characters!)

Anonymous said...

You need to recommend some books to me because I generally don't like unreliable narrators because I've found so few that are done well.

My husband and son just roll their eyes when they catch me walking through the house working through dialogue. "How are we supposed to know when you're actually talking to us." Snots.


dolorah said...

I never thought of POV this way. Interesting concepts. Thanks for sharing.


Margo Dill said...

Holly Black has a YA series that's fairly new. The first book,WHITE CAT, has an unreliable narrator. He is unreliable because he actually has no idea what is going on, but if he did, the story wouldn't work as well as it does. Then there's THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME. Those are two that stick out to me.

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