The (Un)usual Suspects: Unreliable Narrators in Film and Literature

Usual SuspectsOne of my all-time favorite movies is The Usual Suspects. I could watch it on a loop, and I’d still never get sick of it. If you haven’t seen it, I’m going to spoil the ending, and if you keep reading and get mad at me, it’s your own fault because that movie has been around since 1995 and you really should have seen it by now.

The vast majority of the movie is Kevin Spacey’s con man character telling a cop about a job that results in a huge explosion and lots of deaths. He says the mastermind behind the job is a man named Keyser Soze. At the end of the movie, we learn that Kevin Spacey is Keyser Soze, and a good number of details from the story that he told the police were made up from things he observed in the cop’s office.

The first thing your brain does after it picks itself up off the floor is get confused: Wait—if he made up those details, what other bits of information did he make up? Was anything he just told us real? Is Keyser Soze even real?

And just like that, the movie that was so straightforward for the first 100 minutes is suddenly a completely different movie.

How to Make Your Narrator Unreliable

Creating an unreliable narrator is one of the classic ways to integrate a twist into your work, and at a minimum, it makes your reader question how much of what they just read was true.

The classic literary example is Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Aykroyd (SPOILERS AHEAD!), which completely takes everything established about the detective genre and turns it on its head with the great reveal at the end that (SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER) the narrator, who has been assisting our intrepid detective with the case, is the murderer.

Unreliable narration, at its mildest, can establish that the characters the narrator meets maybe aren’t quite how he/she describes them. An example of this is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which is told from the point of view of a 15-year-old autistic savant. He’s a whiz with numbers, but has some “behavioral difficulties”. Because he perceives the world differently than the average first-person narrator might, he could be considered an unreliable narrator.

PRACTICE

Write for fifteen minutes from the point of view of an unreliable narrator. Your narrator can be either concealing information that isn’t made immediately evident, or maybe the narrator is a child, and has a more naive way of perceiving people around them.

Post your practice in the comments, and take some time to read the work of your fellow practicers.

About Liz Bureman

Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.

Join the Community!

If this post helped you improve at the craft, consider subscribing. It’s fast, free, and you’ll make our day:

You’ll also get a free copy of our eBook 14 Prompts.

  • http://www.facebook.com/karl.tobar Karl Tobar

    Bright lights blinded me and all I could see when I looked down was my guitar in my hands and shoes on my feet. I stepped back and took a deep breath. A horde of adoring fans crowded in front of us, chanting, chanting, chanting my name.

    “Quincy! Quincy!” Ah it was beautiful. Stage fright be damned I wasn’t nervous at all and I wouldn’t miss a single note. I was feeling it. I took my bass in one hand and held it high above my head to the cheers of the audience. They screamed and whistled and hooted for me. I pointed a finger out to them and they cheered louder.

    Aura was on the microphone saying something or other. I played a few notes. The deep, booming sounds of my bass guitar blared beautifully into the air. Aura shot me a look. I waltzed right on over to that microphone and took it from her hands. The crowd was roaring at that point.

    “You guys wanna hear my solo?” I screamed into the mic to my adoring worshippers. “I can’t hear you!” Staring into the void of blinding stage lighting, bras and panties floated up to me in seemingly slow motion. They landed at my feet: purple lace bras, pink thongs, fishnets (fishnets!) and garter belts littered the stage.

    I held up the devil horns with my right hand. “Quincy we love you!” the twins in the front row shouted in unison. I threw my bass guitar into the air and it did a triple flip before I caught it and started popping and slapping the the strings, hammering on and off the frets and owning my solo. I played hard and fast. The twins’ eyes in the front row rolled into their heads and they dropped to the ground, hands clasped in front of their hearts. Aura shook me.

    Her mannish hand gripped my shoulder and her troll fingers dug into bone. “Quincy!” she shouted. “What?” I said. An older fellow walking a labradoodle passed by the window. The park across the street swarmed with children and parents, dogs and frisbees, and cars whizzed by.

    “What are you doing? I’ve been standing here talking to you.” I looked down at my notebook. I said, “I’m writing a letter to my mom telling her how the show went.”

    Aura blinked at me. “Quincy we haven’t gone on stage yet.” I said, “I know that, Aura. I’ll wait to send it until after the show, how ’bout that?”

    • plumjoppa

      This is great, Karl! Such a clear picture of the perfect set. I like how you easily shifted back to reality, sitting across from the park.

      • http://www.facebook.com/karl.tobar Karl Tobar

        Thank you plum, really.

    • http://twitter.com/1stwordproblems Jeff Ellis

      I liked this a lot Karl. Really smooth transition, good job.

      • http://www.facebook.com/karl.tobar Karl Tobar

        Why thank you!

    • mariannehvest

      What an imagination this guy has. I hope the show goes as well as he expects it to. I like the way you shift from action to thought. It flows well.

  • plumjoppa

    When Grandpa died, I got sent to the Zeibarts house, and that’s when I learned the truth about how Mr. Zeibart had two wives. The first one greeted me and Daddy at the door, She had short, straight black hair and she was wearing a pink polyester shirt like Mommy did. My Daddy gave me one last hug before he left for the wake, which didn’t make any sense since Grandpa wouldn’t be awake ever again. Daddy smelled good, like on a church day, and he was wearing a suit and
    his “going out” hat. He told me to be good, and walked down the stone path to his truck. I was wondering if that was the last I would ever see him, if he would go home and take a nap and not wake up like Grandpa did, with his hands hanging in the exercise pulleys.

    Mrs. Zeibart was telling me there were cookies in the kitchen, and I stepped into the house so she could shut the door. I realized then that I had never been this far inside the house, not even on Halloween. She was talking to me in that kind way that adults use with kids to make them feel better, which never really works. The cookies weren’t fresh baked, like Mom would have made, just Oreos out of a bag
    spilled onto a white plate with a chip on the side. I took one to be polite, but my tummy felt funny, so I just held it in my hand. Mrs. Zeibart said she was going to get comfy because she had been cleaning up the pumpkin patch all day, and that I could watch whatever I wanted on the T.V. She found the Jetson’s, and I felt
    a little better.

    About the time, Mr. Spacely was firing George Jetson again, I heard her voice asking me if I’d like to make a Christmas tree out of a Reader’s Digest. What happened next is the shocking thing that I found out. I started to say that would
    be ok with me, but when I looked at her, I realized it wasn’t Mrs. Zeibart
    anymore. At least not the same Mrs. Zeibart. This one had long, grey, greasy hair, and she was wearing a fuzzy blue kimono. But she was talking to me like it wasn’t the first time we had ever met, like she’d been there all along. The Oreo got even
    more melty in my hand.

    “Where’s Mrs. Zeibart?” I asked.

    She looked at me a little surprised and said she was Mrs. Zeibart, and asked if I was feeling ok.

    “I mean the other lady . . . ”

    Then my voice got real small and I felt a tight thing happen in my throat, and I knew I was going to cry.

    “Oh sweet child” she said, and she folded me into her arms and close to her fluffy kimono.

    “You’ve had quite a shock, you must have loved your Grandpappy very much.”

    I didn’t really want a hug from a stranger, but she was as nice as the other Mrs. Zeibart, and her voice sounded the same. I knew Dad wouldn’t have left me here if it wasn’t safe, but I didn’t think him and Mom knew about this other wife. It didn’t
    even make sense that Mr. Zeibart would need two wives because his sons were all
    grown up. And anyway, why wouldn’t there be fresh baked cookies with an extra Mommy in the house?

    She was right, I did love Grandpa, and I missed helping him with his exercise pulleys,but that’s not why I was crying. I wanted to be making snickerdoodle cookies with my own Mom.

    • http://www.facebook.com/karl.tobar Karl Tobar

      Good job. I think you pulled this prompt off better than I did. I considered using a child and doing something really, really creepy (I’d rather not say what). Good work :)

      • http://www.facebook.com/karl.tobar Karl Tobar

        To be clear, she was seeing Mrs. Zeibart as her own mother at first, right?

        • plumjoppa

          Thanks for your kind comment, Karl. I could say yes, she was seeing her own mother, but you helped me realize I wasn’t too clear. Mrs. Zeibart actually wore a short black wig. Maybe I can blame it on that unreliable narrator!

    • Rtravenick

      I really enjoyed the play on “wake” and “awake.” I did get the wig inference, especially when I learned the kids were all grown up so they were much older than the child’s own parents. Also, the emphasis on cookies and cartoons really gets into the mind of a child.

      • plumjoppa

        Thanks, it’s always fun to write from a child’s point of view.

    • mariannehvest

      I like how you start with something that makes sense, her fear of her father not coming back after the wake. I think you do a really good job of seeing things through a child’s eyes.

      • plumjoppa

        Thanks so much, Marianne.

  • http://twitter.com/1stwordproblems Jeff Ellis

    I hate to be alone. There is so little to do when one is couped up in an apartment all day. I never go out. Not without company, anyway. Trapped inside this drab beige-wall affair, I just want to tear everything to pieces. Sink my teeth into the couch. Tug. Rip. Stuffing everywhere.

    Some times I shout and run around, but the only one who hears me is Mr. Harper next door and the most he ever does is bang on the wall with a “Shut up!” I wish Bryant were home. We could go out on a walk. Maybe visit the park. Do something for once. Two more hours before he comes home from work. The sun will have set by then and the most we’ll manage is a walk up the street and back. The same old sights and sounds.

    I curl up on the couch and bury my face in the throw pillow with a heavy sigh. I’m hungry, but there’s nothing to eat. I stretch my legs and walk around out of boredom. Into the bedroom. Into the bathroom. I’m so bored! “Lord, deliver me!” I shout and Mr. Harper bangs on the wall.

    “Shut up, dammit!” he yells.

    “Make me, you old bastard!”

    “Shut up!”

    I slump onto the floor and have to scratch behind my ear. I’ve been so itchy lately. Always with the bug bites. Is this place infested? Did I bring something home from the park? I bet it was Bryant. He likes to eat at weird seedy restaurants where everything is really cheap and the food is too simple for its exquisite taste to be genuine. The kind of place where he’ll slip me scraps under the table, unlike at home. Some times girls talk to him about me. What a chump. I wish he would get home already.

    “I’m so booooooored!”

    “Shut up!”

    “I hate you, old man! I hate my life!”

    More banging on the wall. I pace by the door for a solid minute, trying to pick out the perfect spot to lie in so that Bryant trips coming into the apartment. Revenge. Hopefully he doesn’t break anything, I would hate to think of postponing my freedom a minute longer.

    • plumjoppa

      I’m taking my dog for an extra walk today, after reading this! In the first paragraph, I thought he was a recluse or prisoner. The conversation between the dog and Mr. Harper made me laugh.

      • http://twitter.com/1stwordproblems Jeff Ellis

        I’m sure your dog will appreciate it :) Thanks for reading, Plum and I’m glad I could make you laugh :)

    • mariannehvest

      What fun this was to read. I think many of us wonder what animals really think sometimes. This could be part of a short story I would think.

      • http://twitter.com/1stwordproblems Jeff Ellis

        Thanks Marianne, I’ve always sunk time into pondering animals’ thoughts.

    • Claudia

      Dean Koontz has a dog character in one of his books and he uses less language and more drooling and smells. I like your version, especially he and the neighbor yelling at each other! nice job.

  • Rtravenick

    I was impatient for them to come. Why weren’t they here yet? I got up and peaked out the door and down the hall. No one out there. I closed the door and locked it and went back to my pink arm chair in front of the television. The channel was stuck on NBC because the stupid girl had messed with the remote and now the buttons wouldn’t work. It was all too much. No matter how much I complained to them, the girl always came back and moved things, put things in my drawers that didn’t belong there and now she was stealing from me. At first it was small things: the TV Guide, scarves, even undergarments. Then it was larger things like dresses, coats and jewelry. But no matter how many times I complained to my son he did nothing, just put his arm around me and said, “I see, I see.” But he didn’t see! I was being robbed out of house and home and there was nothing I could do about it. I returned to my chair to wait, ears straining for the faintest sound of footsteps coming down the long hall.

    George Kravitz punched the security code on the door and let himself into the care facility. The residents were crowded together on the long sofa in the lounge. Some of the ladies held baby dolls and were rocking them gently, singing soft lullabies to the plastic heads. Carla Sanchez, one of the caretakers, came out of the kitchen to greet him.

    “How is she this week, Carla?”

    “Oh, she’s got herself all riled up Mr. Kravitz. She believes I am stealing from her. She will tell you this.”

    “Yes, she’s been going on about it for some time.”

    “It’s so sad when they get to this point” she said looking down at the floor and shaking her head. “You see they put something In a drawer and because they can no longer remember that they’ve done this thing, their mind can only make sense of it by coming up with a story that the thing, jewelry or whatever, has been taken away by someone.”

    George nodded. He took Carla’s hand and squeezed it.

    “Thank you for caring for her as you all do. I don’t know what I would do without you.”

    Then he turned and headed down the hall to face the music.

    • plumjoppa

      Oh this really hits home for me. I’ve worked in nursing homes and helped care for aging relatives. You describe what I imagine it to feel like in the patient’s head, very well.

    • mariannehvest

      I like this but I think you might want to put an asterisk in between the paragraphs where you change POV. I like the way you show the difference in the way the two people are looking at the move.

  • LetiDelMar

    I too Love this movie! What a great way to take typical narration and turn it on its ear. Thanks for the great post!

  • Alison Schultz

    -This was honestly one of the most fun prompts I’ve written for. One line led to the next and nothing had to make sense. Fantastic.-

    The vehicle is gliding. I wonder if we’re flying. Something, though, tells me we’re not. I think maybe it’s because if we were flying, we’d be lost in the clouds. Then I wouldn’t be able to look out the window.

    Clouds. Maybe we are flying. I do feel like I’m in a cloud. The world’s a little foggy and dull. It rotates sometimes, too. Like one minute I’m staring at the odd guy on the sidewalk next to us, and next thing I know he’s shifted slightly and I have to tilt my head. Which hurts. Maybe I ran into something, because my head’s heavy on my neck and pulses with a steady throb. I can’t think of anything I’ve done to make it hurt. Actually, I can’t think of anything I’ve done recently.

    Are we flying? It sure feels like it.

    My hands twist in front of me on my lap. Shorts. White mesh. There’s a little stripe on the side, too. It’s blue. I would never be caught dead in public in these baggy shorts though. Why am I wearing them? My shirt matches them, too. It’s a weird shirt, like part tank-top, part oversized t-shirt. I would never wear this. Unless I ran out of all my other clothes. Maybe someone took them all. Or worse, maybe someone stole our house. My breath catches. I really hope that didn’t happen.

    There are two people in the seats in front of me. On the right is Mia. I think maybe the one on the left is her mom or her aunt or something. Both of them are talking funny. Mia looks back at me and opens her mouth and mumbles, but I don’t know what she says.

    There’s a chip of paint on one of my nails. It looks lonely. It probably used to have a big family of white paint chips. Maybe the person who took my closet stole it. I hope they give it back.

    “Julia?”

    People shouldn’t steal. I never can understand why they would. If they had good jobs, they wouldn’t have to. But they shouldn’t, still. Even if they don’t have good jobs. Because if you get caught, you wind up in a whole load of trouble.

    I was in trouble too, a while ago, I think. I didn’t steal, but I did something bad. Dad left his work and came and talked to me. He came and talked to me and yelled. He doesn’t see me much. I can’t remember the last time he yelled. Whatever I did was probably—

    “Julia? Hey, we’re gonna stop and get a bite to eat here in a few minutes. Is that all right with you?”

    Bite. Eat. I’m hungry. I think. My stomach hurts, kind of in that way it does when I only eat breakfast and forget lunch. And kind of not. Maybe I’m not really hungry.

    “Helloooo..? You there?”

    Something brushes against my shoulder. I glance up to meet Mia’s eyes. There’s something cold about them. Cold and fierce and intimidating. I can’t look at them anymore. It’s much less scary to look at my hands. There’s the chipped paint and a little cut on my finger and some dust caught under my nails. Gross. I try to wipe it off on my shorts, but my hands are slick and slide off the material.

    There’s a jolt. The same moment, someone stabs me in the side of my head. My stomach lurches and I reach to grab the knife. Maybe if I can get it quickly enough, I can stop the bleeding.

    The bleeding! Bleeding is the least of my worries! The knife probably cut through my skull and into my brain. And if it got to my brain, I won’t be able to learn any more card games… No. No. I try to find the handle, but nothing’s there! The blade is probably all the way through my head by now! What am I going to—

    “Julia!”

    Something closes around my wrist and I struggle against it, thrashing around. They won’t do this to me! They can’t! I will not be—

    “Calm down! What are you doing?”

    “There’s a knife, don’t you see it?! There’s a knife in my head! It stabbed me and—and—it—and— it’s in my head!”

    “What are you talking about?”

    There’s another lurch and I’m sent spinning. The world sways and my stomach boils. There’s that same pain in the side of my head and what I want, more than anything, the only thing I want, is to get that knife out of my head. Make it stop, make it stop make it stop makeitstopmakeitstop—

    Someone is drumming their fingertips on the windows of the car. It’s the same steady beat, never stopping. Never fading. The car slows, eventually grinding to a halt. I squeeze my eyes open. There are teardrops on the window. I hope everything’s alright.

    -For anyone confused, this character recently sustained a fairly severe head injury. But she doesn’t know it.-

    • plumjoppa

      Nicely done! It sounds frightening inside her head. So many vivid descriptions, like the clothes she’s wearing and the lonely paint chip. I really wanted to know what happened to her. I was thinking drugs, but the confusion perfectly fits the head injury.

    • http://www.facebook.com/karl.tobar Karl Tobar

      I thought she might have had a head injury but then [Mia?] says “What are you talking about?” like everything’s ok, so it was a little confusing for me, anyway. Regardless of all that though, WOW! This was so amazing to read. Really, really good writing.

    • mariannehvest

      What great stream of consciousness. I love the way she moves from one thought to the other. It figured that had been an accident of some kind and i love the ending with the drumming fingers/rain and the tears on the window. Great imagery. Thanks!

  • http://twitter.com/MFAWriterGuy MFA Writer Guy

    Fabulous. This one hits on a topic that isn’t much covered, but is really important. I have used unreliable narrators before, but you’ve got me rethinking some of the ways I’ve handled those narrators. Thanks for the great post.

  • mariannehvest

    I don’t know why the nurses here don’t wear uniforms and hats. They should have hats. It’s so hard to tell who’s a nurse and who isn’t.

    This one says her name is Susan. I asked her “Where is you name tag?” and she started to cry. I guess she lost the name tag and is going to get in trouble for it. That can happen in these new hospitals. They work these young people too hard.

    I don’t know why they have me in here. I did have a wreck but then I gave up my license. I didn’t even argue about it. Being a senior is no fun. I can tell you that.

    Here comes that nurse named Susan again. She has something for me. It’s a rose, a moss rose.

    “Where did you find this?” I say. “It smells heavenly” I say.

    She smiles. He eyes crinkle. I smile.

    “It’s from those cutting I gave you,” she says. “Do you have any ideas about how to stop black spot on roses Grandmama?”

    I do have some ideas. I do know how. I tell her to get some manure and let it steep in water then spray it on the plants and all around on the ground. I tell her sulfur works well too, but it will come off in the rain so you have to keep reapplying it. Sometimes you have to just let the roses die I say. I say nothing lasts forever you know.

    Now I can’t think of why we are talking.

    She is crying again.

    The nurses at this hospital cry all the time. It has something to do with a name tag I suppose.

    “Did you lose your name again, honey?” I ask. “Or are you crying about the roses? You can plant new ones. I’ve heard of some roses that they have now that bloom all year.”

    She’s shaking her head and holding her lips tight like she doesn’t want more crying to come out.

    “I want the roses that I grew from your cuttings to live Grandmama,” she says.

    “I know,” I say and I put her hand. These young people are so emotional, but she called me Grandmama like she needs me to help her. I don’t know if I’m supposed to be helping her find her name or save her roses but a pat on the hand helps in either case.

    • plumjoppa

      This is heart breaking! The concrete imagery of the name tags to illustrate her forgetting their names was my favorite part. I like that you showed the knowledge she didn’t forget about the care of roses, and how complex memory loss can be.

      • mariannehvest

        Thank you. I worked for a while with geriatrics and memory is very odd with the holes usually first occurring in the part that has been formed most recently. It’s very sad.

  • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

    Way to ruin the ending, Liz! Of course, we know Keyser Soze is real, because the guy in the hospital is screaming his name. :)

  • Lis

    Duncan took the piggy bank over the fence. He knew I’d worked hard to get that money, but he didn’t care. “You’re a mean guy” Duncan,” I shouted. “You’re a baby,” I screamed again. Duncan wanted me to feel sad. The money didn’t belong to that fat kid next door. It was mine. I won it! I had run faster. I’m gonna punch Duncan in the face when I get older.

    “Mr.Duncan, we came as fast as we could.” “I’m sorry to say we aren’t entirely surprised to hear what’s happened.”

    Mommy looked like a beautiful tomato.

    “You see Billy is quiet an anxious child and this sometimes causes him to act out.”He was so use to being home with me, I think he’s finding junior kindergarten rather difficult.