Spoiler alert: I talk about book and movie plots. Apologies in advance.
One of the first big jolts I received from the movies was when Darth Vader revealed that he was Luke’s father. Luke’s response was about as surprised as mine – shock, horror, denial. This was a wonderful scene, but what really made it pay off was that it had been set up by a character we trusted – Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Devout Star Wars fans will argue about whether or not Obi-Wan was truly lying when he said that Luke’s father was killed by Darth Vader – maybe it was a metaphor, a symbolic death, blah-blah-blah. The point is, Obi-Wan led us to believe something that was not factual. We, the viewers, trusted Obi-Wan and fell into a false confidence that Luke lost his father and Darth was to blame. Once we believed that bunch of Jedi BS, the big reveal was now all the more amazing because we also realized Obi-Wan had not just led Luke astray, but he lied to us! His loyal viewers!
In writing, this is called the Unreliable Narrator, and it is a powerful, wicked tool. It can be used in third-person, where a trusted source provides information that is deceptive or wrong (Obi-Wan). However, as a writing device, the first-person deception is very powerful. The reader relies on that one perspective, so one shift of facts can change everything.
Think of the classic whodunit mystery with a detective out to solve a murder. Our detective interviews the suspects and takes down their stories and alibis – this is the external storytelling. Internally, the detective starts considering what makes sense and what doesn’t match the evidence. But since everyone interviewed is a suspect, the reader focuses on their stories, and stays in the mind of a detective looking for the lies. Three-hundred pages later, we have the killer. Simple enough.
What happens when the detective’s perspective is unreliable? Perhaps the character is an alcoholic and prone to lapses in memory. In that case, parts of the story are absent to the reader (as well as the detective). Maybe the detective is leaving out other suspects – a friend, a spouse – to avoid facing up to the fact that those people might be hiding their own crimes. Or, for the very skilled writer, the big twist after those three-hundred pages is that the detective IS the killer, trying to hide the crime by making a case against an innocent person! Now there’s a surprise, as long as your writing supports it all the way through.
There are plenty of different turns and takes on the Unreliable Narrator – usually when the reader is immediately shown how the main character cannot explain events. In Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent, our protagonist, Rusty Sabich, is the prime suspect in a murder. We find out he is an adulterer, which makes him less than trustworthy, and then the evidence against him becomes so overwhelming that any reader might question his innocence. The reader is led to believe that Rusty is the unreliable element, and the writing leads us to start making conclusions that the facts may not support. Read the book for the big reveal, or at least watch the movie (along with The Usual Suspects, Fight Club, or at least The Empire Strikes Back for other examples.)
This technique is not easy. It requires a lot of attention to detail, since even with false narration, the actual events have to be real, and the final reveal has to be both surprising and satisfying to the reader. It might sound like a deceptive way to write, but it is a great example of just how powerful writing can be.
And sorry about revealing the identity of Luke’s father.
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