Friday, August 29, 2008

The Unreliable Narrator

I watched The Sixth Sense again two nights ago. First, I suppose I should raise the obligatory red spoiler flag, although you'd have to have lived under a rock the past nine years to not know about one of the best plot twists ever put to film.

I'm fascinated with the unreliable narrator concept. I believe that we are the unreliable narrators of our own lives. Our experiences, emotions, values, fears-every aspect of our inner story is a veritable 64 Crayola box of shades and truths.

As my final pages loom, I worry about the predictability of my ending. Is it possible the story I've lived with for nine months, one as familiar to me as the scratches on my maple desk, is just as transparent to a new reader? Has the complete reveal of the story become so tiresome that I crave a mind-bending twist to wake up my weary imagination? I'm tempted.

In my previous novel, Chasing Midnight, I experimented with an unreliable narrator and it worked. Completely and, I hope, memorably. Will this become a signature of mine? Things not always what they seem?

Writer and director M. Night Shyamalan is the crown prince of unreliable narration. In The Sixth Sense, Bruce Willis' character, Dr. Malcolm Crowe, does not arrive at the truth of his own death until the movie's final scene. The audience feels the impact alongside Malcolm, a moment of ultimate identification and perfect oneness with the character. In Shyamalan's 2004 film, The Village, Lucas and Ivy prove unreliable as the truth about the community is revealed. The result is a richer understanding of motivation and character than if the story had been told from the elder's viewpoint.

Memento, Donnie Darko and an entire list of some of my favorite movies use unreliable narrators. It reminds me of old episodes of The Twilight Zone I would lap up when I was ten where the characters suddenly realized they were figurines in a dollhouse or part of a small microcosm in an alien world. Maybe a bit deus ex machina so prevalent in science fiction of the time, but the reversal of perspective is a theme I gravitate to. Even Lost has dipped its toes into this form of narrative twist. But do audiences ever feel betrayed?

Writers enter into an emotional contract with the reader in the first few pages and build a healthy relationship of trust. Just as writers want to create a tale worthy of the paper on which it's printed, readers want to immerse themselves in a story worthy of their expectations.

Is a twist so monumental that it has the capacity to upend every thread, every realization to that moment, the ultimate betrayal of that trust?

Chime in...


Charles Gramlich said...

I loved those old twisty Twilight Zones too, and have done several stories with that kind of ending. I've never tried it with a novel length, though. I doubt I could pull it off.

Jen FitzGerald said...

Hey, L.A., I think if you can leave the right kind of clues along the way, the reader will not feel betrayed by a twisted ending.

Good luck,


Sandra Ferguson said...

It's all about belief on the page. Without providing your reader the tools to decipher your plot puzzle, they will indeed feel betrayed. Give the characters enough motivation and drop enough hints -- ah, yes, that is the tricky part. How many is enough? -- and readers will buy into the twisted ending. Personally, I love when I don't see it coming. It just doesn't happen often these days.

Sherry Davis said...

Hey, remember that movie we saw? (which doesn't deserve a plug here). I WISH they'd thrown in an unreliable narrator twist *grin*.

I do love this concept, though. You know how much I love to say "Perception is Reality". It's so true.

The Sixth Sense caught me so completely by surprise I was a little peeved at the end. But then I thought it was brilliant. I guess that's why I'm so disappointed when M. Night's other movies don't surprise me. There is a backlash for you.

I think you do this well, though. Things Not What They Seem is a great theme.

As for the reader pay off, only the reader can tell you. You have to keep the promise to do the best job you know how to do.

And don't fall in to the "Last Pages" trap. It's notorious for doubling the nefarious efforts of the internal editor to derail your confidence and make you rewrite the whole damn book. Over and over and over and ove.. well, you get the picture. :)

Melanie Atkins said...

Love this post. That movie got me, too...and I loved it. The last movie I saw by that guy, though, wasn't nearly as good. I was disappointed.

L.A. Mitchell said...

I guess it's hard to be surprising too many times, or it becomes expected. I suppose it's his double-edged sword.

Thanks for the input everyone. The surprise is still cooking :)