A woman in Poughkeepsie plucks your debut novel off the shelf. Okay, fine. It doesn’t have to be Poughkeepsie. It can be anywhere—Marietta, Springfield, Sedona—wherever. The town doesn’t matter because your debut novel flew off the shelves in every big and small town across America. Mostly because of one big thing. You pulled off the killer plot twist.
Now everyone who reads your book thinks they’re your biggest fan. That lady in Poughkeepsie? You’re about to become her favorite author. And she’s going to hand your book to her best friend and tell her in an urgent and serious whisper, “You have to read this. I still can’t believe the ending.”
Sound too good to be true? It’s not. Because the secret to pulling off the most memorable plot twist since Psycho isn’t a magic spell. It’s the unreliable narrator.
What is An Unreliable Narrator?
Put simply, an unreliable narrator is a character who lies. Sure, sometimes he lies because he has something to hide. But the lie isn’t always deliberate. Sometimes he just doesn’t know the whole story. So how can he explain it right? Sometimes he’s too crazy (American Psycho) or too tired (Fight Club) or too drugged (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) to see the full story as it unfolds. But one thing is for sure. Regardless of the reason for his failure, the unreliable narrator’s story is not what it appears to be. And here’s the secret: it’s the gaps in his tale that leave space for the twist.
How Unreliable Narrators Set You Up for a Plot Twist
In life, we brush shoulders with killers and liars, psychos and saints. We don’t always know a killer or liar when we meet one. Maybe he’s just limping Linus from 2A who hides an unlikely amount of antifreeze under his kitchen sink. Or maybe it’s that mom who rolls her kids to the park in the double stroller. What is she really drinking from that flower printed water bottle?
Life creates a multitude of untrustworthy characters who blend with the crowd. The best fiction does too.
You’ve guessed it. Unreliable narrators feature in so many twisted plots precisely because of what they hide. It’s those missing pieces, the parts of the story they hold back, that feature in the big reveal at the end. And that big reveal? The one where we learned what really happened? It changes how we understand the whole story, doesn’t it? Hence the perfect plot twist.
Ready to see them in action?
How to Instigate Your Own Plot Twist (Two Iconic Examples)
Pi from Life of Pi is a character who keeps you guessing. His story of ship wreck and survival at sea isn’t the first of his fantastical tales. But even though his stories are tough to believe, you find that you want to. Since you don’t want to believe what you already know, you become a willing participant in the deception. So the twist surprises you all the same.
Pi is an example of The Embellisher, an unreliable narrator who tells tall tales for fun. But The Embellisher isn’t the only type of unreliable narrator. Verbal Kint from The Usual Suspects uses deliberate deception to trick you in one of the most memorable plot twists in modern storytelling.
Verbal is a Self-Preservationist, an unreliable narrator who lies to save himself. He’s the only survivor of a boat explosion. How he came to be on that boat is a mystery that investigators are determined to extract from him. Verbal’s tale twists many times before the final reveal. Surprise, in this case, is built on deception.
These are just two examples of unreliable narrators. But in 7 Unreliable Narrators to Twist Your Plot I reveal the techniques behind the Self-Preservationist and more. In this article, you’ll get seven character types to wow your biggest fans.
And that lady in Poughkeepsie? She doesn’t need to know you learned it here.
DS Kane says
Yeah, I managed a killer plot twist in Bloodridge. Based on a character who states how important lying is to espionage tradecraft while he himself is the author of a great deception.
Stephen Philip says
Hi I really enjoyed this article. Thanks a lot
What if you can’t think of any lies that match with your story?
I’d say you might be pressuring yourself too much, Dora. Remember that writing is play. Jump into the sandbox and make castles and kick them over. See what develops.
Ilona Rapp says
The truth is, I believe, a many faceted gem. In my WIP, many of my main POV characters are “unreliable authors” as “truth” is defined by the aperture through which you view it… just like in our world at large. Unfortunately, weaving all of these truths together has been a long, complicated endeavor. Fortunately, I love my characters and am prepared to follow them to the end!
Thank you for sharing your helpful insights!
Mandy Wallace says
Thanks for sharing your ideas, Ilona 🙂
Wow! Thank you for one of the most insightful articles I have ever read! I am New and currently writing a story I have had in my head for quite a while. I want to be able to write that GREAT BESTSELLER so I keep looking forward to seasoned writers expertise! This was very inspiring. TJANK YOU!
Mandy Wallace says
That’s awesome, Debbie! Good luck with your Great Bestseller! And thanks for the kind words 🙂 Make sure to get on the updates list so we can stay connected.