9. Putting on the Wellies / SUSPENSE


NOTES FROM “The Unreliable Narrator,” a lecture by Carol Goodman

Crime Bake, MA. 2019

Narrator fallibility is a tool in psychological suspense, where suspense is designed to keep knowledge from the reader until the precise moment that the plot requires revelation.

In thrillers, the manipulation of another person’s mind by a villain is commonplace.

Characters should be relatable: interesting or at least competent in their field if not likeable.

Examples: Rebecca du Maurier; Lolita by Nabokov; stories by Poe; lies by the Devil; Gone Girl by Flynn (with 2 competitive unreliable narrators); Girl on a Train by Hawkins; In a Dark Dark Wood by Ware; The Talented Mr. Ripley by Highsmith.

All narrators are inherently unreliable (through—I propose—embellishment, forgetting, lack of insight, lack of true knowledge, grandstanding, making light of an event).

The creation of narrative fallibility increases suspense through the judicious application of the modes for hiding information and the motivations a character has for deploying them.

Types of falseness include:






Overactive imagination

Mental illness/Insanity/Psychosis/Schizophrenia/Sociopathic or Psychopathic Personality

Stimulants like alcohol or drugs

Head injury

Blind spots and denial

Gap in a character’s understanding

Jet lag

Subconscious Suppression or repression.

Questions to ask of oneself as a writer:

What lies do we tell about ourselves to get through the day? What lies do our characters tell?

How would our account of an event vary from the accounts of other people who witnessed it?

Check out Carol Goodman’s THE SEA OF LOST GIRLS (Harper Collins 2020) for a useful demonstration of unreliable narration. (Read my review of this novel on Goodreads.)