Stephen King

pov: the unreliable narrator

I’m not a huge fan of first person narration. In fact, I will admit that I often pick up a book and put it down immediately upon discovering that it is in first person. However, there’s one approach to first person that I truly like, and that’s the unreliable narrator.

writing is both mask and unveilingThe way to think about this is to imagine that the story you’re reading, the narrator whose words you are reading are not being addressed to you. The character is talking to a police officer or judge or some other authority figure.

You’re listening to somebody  spin a story. A narrator who has got more than the usual stake in being believed. We’re not talking the grandma narrator, the one who just wants to amuse you with funny stories of her girlhood. We’re talking grandma in the pokey, and the first time she sits down with her lawyer.

The first grandma might start:

We were poor, but I didn’t know that until I first went to school and found out that other little girls wore dresses that weren’t made out of flour sacks.

Grandma in the Pokey might start:

Now, you listen here. If I shoot a man between the eyes — and I’m not admitting I did anything of the kind — you had best believe I was acting in self defense. To let that black-hearted thieving scoundrel live even another minute would have been the death of me.

The first grandma may have a great story to tell, and she may write it down and sell it and find a niche audience and do very well. This Mitford-type approach is not so much my cuppa tea. I’m far more interested in the second grandma, grandma with a gun. She’s got a story to tell, but it’s only going to be one layer of a very complicated story, and I’ll have to pay close attention because now and then she’ll let her guard down and I’ll get a glimpse of what was really happening, how she came to shoot Jimmy O’Toole, he of the prize winning dahlias, between the eyes.

Here’s a setup that begs for a first person unreliable narrator:

Joan’s car is sitting in the garage with one fender smashed in, a ticket on the windshield, and the unmistakable smell of a common Illegal Substance wafting out a broken window. And the gas tank, which was full yesterday afternoon at three, is on empty.

Joan walks upstairs to the bedroom her twin daughters share and wakes them less than gently. They peek at her from underneath the covers.

Talk, says Joan. And it better be good.

All first person narrators are unreliable to some extent. They are limited by their own observations and memories, by motivations hidden and in plain sight, by necessity. But a true unreliable narrator is exciting. That narrator is a cat in a sack. Maybe a really mad cat with very long claws and a score to settle. Maybe a desperate little cat whose been lying so long to stay out of trouble’s way that she’s forgot how to tell the truth. Or maybe an evil cat, one who likes to mess with your mind. Purr and slash, just for the hell of it.
Two unreliable narrators come to mind first. Eudora Welty‘s “Why I live at the P.O.” is a wonderful short story with a narrator who will stick around in your head for a long time. And then there’s Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne. If you are at all interested in unabridged audio, this book was produced beautifully and perfectly narrated by Frances Sternhagen with a pitch-perfect Maine accent (PW review here).

Dolores is a fantastic unreliable narrator, because she herself isn’t completely sure what happened, and what she wants to happen. She’s got strong opinions and she’s not afraid to tell you exactly what’s on her mind. Or at least, the parts she can bear to speak out loud.


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fictional manfiction

Stephen King has an article over at with the provocative title “Who says real men don’t read?”

It’s no surprise that somebody of King’s stature gets gigs like this. He takes an hour or so, writes a column, hits a button and off it goes to EW. Then he  trots off to the bank with a check. And I’ll bet it’s not chump change, either.

I don’t begrudge King anything, you should understand. It sounds like writers’ heaven: Anything he cares to write, he can sell. After a while it must be tempting to test that hypothesis.  A quick  idea pops into your head, bang out five hundred words and voila, it shows up in print.  Maybe  it’s  the most concise, insightful little gem on the appeal of writing mysteries, or it could be some nutty piece of misleading fluff about chicklit v manfiction.

As is the case here, where King might have  decided on this particular column like this:

Hey, why don’t I set up some false dichotomies about fiction and readers, and then once I’ve created enough confusion and chaos, I can plug my favorite books.

I happen to agree with him that Lee Child has a really great series going with his Jack Reacher novels. I do not agree that this is manfiction. Women like stories like this. Women especially like Reacher. Conversely, not all women like Nora Roberts.  Some women (and some men) might like both, or neither.

cecilia 33

Way back in October Cecilia 33 left a comment with a question:

I am a Language Arts teacher. I like to tell my students when they write they need to always ask themselves,”Do I need this information in my story?” For students of all ages it is hard to take things out, to edit. I think I will try your exercise of stripping the words from sentences that are not needed and then slowly add some words back. I think it will make the writing tighter and more directed.

Did you ever notice that some writers use the same descriptive words and phrases over and over? Young writers, (school age) do that as well. How do you find descriptive words to move the story along, but do not become overused?

I think most authors are aware of this tendency. I myself obsess about over-using expressions or words, and I’m hyper sensitive to it in other people’s work. To some degree I don’t think it’s avoidable, much like a nervous habit. If there is one author with a large body of work you’re very familiar with, you probably can name one or two personal quirks this way.

So there’s two problems: not to over-use or re-use the words that are deeply embedded in your psyche, and not to become so paranoid about doing so that you freeze up and can’t write at all.

Have you noticed quirks like this in one body of work? Here’s an example I think I’ve mentioned before. For a long time (maybe not anymore) if Stephen King had a pie to mention in a story, that pie had strawberries in it.  I know that in my case, the word oddly tends to show up a lot. I always do a search to root out the little buggers, and I’m always amazed, later, at how many I missed.

Got examples?

in which Alison Kent winkles a confession out of me

I guess I have to thank Alison Kent for her confession because I feel compelled to follow her example. I’m sure I’ll feel better after I admit to all the books I’ve preordered from Amazon. So here we go, in no particular order:

The Serpent’s Tale (Ariana Franklin); Change of Heart (Jodi Picoult); Evermore (Lynn Viehl); The Girl Who Stopped Swimming (Joshilyn Jackson); Duma Key (Stephen King); Dreamers of the Day  (Mary Doria Russell); Phantom Prey (John Sandford); Nothing to Lose (Lee Child); Elvis Cole untitlted (Robert Crais);  LA Outlaws (T Jefferson Parker).