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October 12, 2021

Writing Unreliable Narrators

Does your hero tell the truth? You might think this is an important question to consider, particularly if your hero is also narrating the story to the viewers. The more pertinent question is, whose truth are you telling in your account? Writing an unreliable narrator into your story is a great way to deliberately leads the audience astray and add a fun twist to your plot.

Unreliable narrators seek to divert our attention from the actual events of the narrative, and at some point, as an audience, we start to notice, questioning what they are telling us.

This is different from a narrator, a character in the story that tells us their version of the story, which they later find to be untrue.

Writing Unreliable Narrators

Here are some classic examples of unreliable narrators from films and how you can emulate them in your writing.

Rebecca (Netflix Adaptation)

The recent Netflix adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier's classic novel Rebecca opens with the famous line from the book, "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again…."

An unnamed woman speaks to us. We find out quickly she is in her early twenties and is both the protagonist and narrator of the story. We don't get as much narration as in the book as in the Netflix adaptation, as the film is a visual medium. This is important to remember. A narrator in a script should duck in and out, offering commentary only when necessary and appropriate.

We don't need a narrator to describe a piece of furniture to us or another character's actions if we are about to see this unfold on screen for ourselves.

We begin to rely on the unnamed narrator's version of events as we follow her from Monte Carlo, leaving behind her life as Lady's companion, to marry widower Maxim De Winter, owner of the grand Manderley estate.

Mrs. Davers immediately dislikes the narrator in Rebecca, but since the narrative is told from the narrator's perspective, we can only assume this is her interpretation of her cold behavior.

Danvers From The Narrator's Perspective

De Winter was married before Rebecca. When the narrator arrives at the house as De Winter's second wife, the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, seems to confront her.

Danvers looks sternly out of the window in disapproval at the narrator and Maxim when they arrive at Maderly for the first time. When she speaks to Rebecca, she is cold and unhelpful.

However, since it has been established at the beginning of the film that this is the narrator's version of what happened, we must question the objectivity of how Mrs. Davers is presented.

This is not omniscient narration - where the narrator is impartial and knows everything. This is the narrator's memory of what happened. If we were to see this from Mrs. Danvers' perspective, this incident might well be presented in a different light, with Mrs. Danvers feeling as if she was doing her job and acting professionally.

The narrator's suspicions and dislike of Mrs. Danvers later lead us to suspect Mrs. Danvers of being jealous or possessive of the narrator. The narrator is unaware of a dark secret at the heart of the narrative that explains Danvers' behavior.  

The Irishman and The Subjective Truth

The Irishman takes us on an epic journey through the history of the mafia-controlled unions in the U.S through the eyes of narrator Frank Sheeran. We begin the film in an older adults' home and then flashback.

Sheeran tells us of his decades-long involvement in the mafia, starting as a truck driver in Philadelphia. Based on a true story, Sherran is unreliable because he claims to know more than he does.

The Irishman is based on the memoir We Heard You Paint Houses by Sheeran, but many of its claims have been debunked by journalists. Director Martin Scorsese defended his film, stating, "We're not saying we're telling the actual story, we're telling our story."

This is an important distinction to make. Viewers understand when they see a film that they are seeing someone's perspective. A film driven by one narrator helps more clearly establish this than a film using an omniscient mode of storytelling. We see events unfold from multiple perspectives with no narrator.

A film with a narrator is often more akin to a memoir in fiction and is probably the best route to take if you want to adapt someone's life story.

Unreliable Narrators Need A Strong Voice

A story with any narrator - reliable or unreliable - must have a solid voice to help propel the narrative forward and to give us extra insights that a conventional timeline can't. And a strong voice requires a strong story arc.

Consider the character of Jordan Belfort in another Scorsese film, The Wolf Of Wall Street. This is another memoir adapted for the screen with a strong narrator.

Belfort is not an unreliable narrator because it's evident that he is not misleading us about the narrative's events. But he is a character who is engaged in a litany of criminal activity from money laundering, defrauding innocent people, adultery, and much more.

Yet, he is likable; we trust him because he has a strong personality and voice that comes through in the narration.

Unreliable Narrators Should Seem Trustworthy

When you are writing unreliable narrators, you can use this element of trust to your advantage. Trusting in reliable narrators pays off for the audience. With unreliable narrators, this trust is betrayed.

The betrayal means viewers will be shocked at the revelation that the narrator was not telling the truth, and they are unlikely to see many twists and turns you have come at the end of the script.  

Consider what is driving your narrator? Who are they speaking to? What is the purpose of the story they are narrating? Is it a cathartic experience for them? Are they perhaps bragging - like Sheeran in The Irishman - and making out they know more than they do? Or maybe they are retelling this story to a courtroom, and there are things they wish to keep hidden from the jury to save themselves?

Even if these reasons are never revealed to the viewer, it is still worth considering so that when you write the narrator's voiceover, you have a better grasp of their voice.

Unreliable Narrators Vs. Narrative Misdirection

Unreliable narration is different from narrative misdirection. You must understand the difference and consider which one better serves your narrative.  

Harry Potter and The Prisoner Of Azkaban

Narrative misdirection is when the writer - through the main characters - leads the audience in the wrong direction. But the main character is not a narrator and may well be being shown in the wrong direction.

A classic example is that of Sirius Black in Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban. Alfonso Curran's direction gives a darker timbre to the series. We are led to believe that Harry's godfather, Sirius Black, is on the loose and is a murderer intent on harming Harry.

We are signposted in this direction. We hear stories from other characters about Black's past, including Arthur Weasley, who Harry trusts, and there is menacing music whenever he may well be nearby. There are also omens everywhere in the form of a black dog, but this turns out to be Black himself - he can transform himself into an animal.

Black turns out not to be the antagonist of the film or the murderer we have been led to believe.

In the first Harry Potter film, The Sorcerer's Stone, the narrative direction reverse. We are signposted to believe that Snape is the main antagonist trying to steal the Philosopher's Stone in cahoots with Voldermort.

The sinister use of the oboe as Harry answers back to Snape during their first potions class makes us feel something untoward about him.

Harry also oversees Snape confronting Professor Quirrell and intimidating him. He interprets this as Snape trying to get information from Quirrell about how to steal the stone when we later find out Snape was rightly suspicious of Quirrell trying to steal the stone.

Snape's confrontation of Quirrell in Sorcerer's Stone is not everything it first appears.
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This narrative misdirection surrounding Snape is not entirely clarified until the final film in the series, where we as viewers get to see where his true allegiances have been all along.

Misdirection is more implicit than an unreliable narrator. As a writer, you can leave signposts and clues in place that allow viewers to draw the wrong conclusions. An unreliable narrator explicitly gives the audience inaccurate information.

Writing Unreliable Narrators Into Your Story

An unreliable narrator can be a great way of telling a story. But it would help if you hashed out your narrator's motivations before you begin your script. Are they leading us astray because the truth would damage their ego? Are they keeping secrets because they are trying to defend someone?

When you understand why your narrator is leading your audience astray, you can begin to create a convincing story structure around their motivations that makes sense.


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Writing Unreliable Narrators
Harry Verity

Harry is a professional writer. His first novel The Talk Show was published in the U.S and the U.K by Bloodhound Books in 2021 and he is currently working on adapting it for screen using Arc Studio. He's also written for Media Magazine - a UK magazine for students of A-level Film, Media and Television Studies. His journalism has appeared in The Guardian, Readers' Digest and Newsweek, amongst many other publications. He has just finished his second novel for young adults, set in a boarding school. He holds a BA in English from Loughborough University.

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