Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Dealing with unreliable narrators in a query

How do you mention your narrator is an unreliable narrator in your query? The current book I'm querying has such a narrator but it isn't revealed until the very end so I don't mention it in the query. I'm wondering if this is better mentioned in the synopsis (it is) or if this is something that needs to be addressed in the query right from the beginning.

While I am indeed the source of all wisdom in publishing (ow! LIGHTNING just hit me!) one good way to find the answer to questions like this is to see how other books with similar devices/plot twists  are handled.

That means you have to know what books have unreliable narrators which is a good thing since those are your comp titles.

And that leads you to the answer to your question:

You do not EVER tell anyone in the query that it's an unreliable narrator. That's akin to giving away all the plot.

You can however use books with unreliable narrators as your comp titles, and a discerning agent will think "aha! a clue!"

As for how unreliable narrators are covered in the query, here's  Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? by Agatha Christie:

Roger Ackroyd knew too much. He knew that the woman he loved had poisoned her brutal first husband. He suspected also that someone had been blackmailing her. Then, tragically, came the news that she had taken her own life with a drug overdose.

But the evening post brought Roger one last fatal scrap of information. Unfortunately before he could finish reading the letter, he was stabbed to death.

Who killed Roger Ackroyd?

The query doesn't start with the hero (Hercule Poirot, the detective) or what he wants or what's at stake. It sets up the premise of the mystery.

Check out other examples, and find ones that are closer to your book than this one is. Use that as a template.


AJ Blythe said...

At least lightning doesn't strike twice!

I'm glad you used an example of a book I am familiar with, QOTKU, because I couldn't even fathom what an unreliable narrator was. All I could envisage was a narrator getting bored with telling the story and just wandering off the page mid-book, leaving the reader to muddle there way through the rest of the story.

Now I'm going to have to dig out Who Killed Roger Ackroyd and reread.

Nothing to add to the advice above, Opie. Good luck with your query!

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Oh, that nasty Thor. Going after our QOTKU.

So glad I didn't have any tea in my mouth.

Queries are meant to entice the agent to read your book. As Janet said, don't give away all your plot.

Congrats, Opie, on having a finished ms and a synopsis. Good luck on the query writing and sending.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I love Who Killed Roger Ackroyd. I must reread it immediately. How I miss Hercule Poirot. We spent many days at the beach together when I was just a wee kid.

As usual I defer to the shark on this one. My understanding is the query is your hook and the synopsis is chalk full of spoilers. See Donnaeve if you need help with that. She likes writing the dread synopsis. Hers probably didn't turn into a beast and try to suck her brains out. Mine did that. Oh... Sorry. Kale fumes.

Adele said...

"As for how unreliable narrators are covered in the query, here's Who Killed Rodger Ackroyd? by Agatha Christie"

Good morning, Janet who-hasn't-had-her-coffee-yet: Roger Ackroyd. Not Rodger.

Donnaeve said...

My feeble brain dug up GONE GIRL while I was reading the post. Yet our recently zapped QOTKU used a different example. Therefore, I had to read a bit to be sure I understood exactly what was meant by novels with unreliable narrators. There's a nice list on WIKI as well as movies below that list. GG isn't mentioned.


Even though I've never written something like this, I absolutely agree with Ms. Janet about giving away that the narrator isn't reliable. Especially if this fact isn't revealed until the end. I think about the movie Shutter Island, and how blown away I was to learn the outcome there. I think the effect of the query will be a big fat ooooooo! of intrigue if you list the books as comp titles like she says.

This is what I learned at the B convention. Do just as she says. QOTKU has an innate ability to take only a bit of detail, and then nail a story with one specific, but very accurate word that captures the essence of it. ONE word. I will remain forever amazed by this.

Colin Smith said...

Here's your link, Donna: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unreliable_narrator#Novels

Part One of my Bouchercon DeBrief posts on my blog tomorrow, so as a teaser, let me share something Chantelle Aimee Osman said in her talk that I think is pertinent. She likened reading a novel to the author giving the reader a coloring book. The author has sketched out the story, but it's up to the reader's imagination to color in the pictures. The more "telling," and describing the writer does, the more crayons s/he steals from the reader's crayon box. Don't steal crayons!

Opie, why tell the reader or the agent your character is an unreliable narrator? Show! His dialog (inner and outer) should betray that fact (Chantelle also noted that readers rarely skip dialog), as should his actions. As Janet said, let your comp titles tip off the agent. Or, since your query is third person, you can observe how MC's perception of something may not be the whole story. But you hint, because surely one of the story's hooks is the fact that the reader begins to suspect the narrator is unreliable, so s/he keeps reading to find out if that's true and what the *real* deal is.

There's my 2c. :)

Colin Smith said...

QOTKU: To sum up what Donna said, you ARE the talent here. ;)

Janet Reid said...

Thanks Adele!

Colin, you scamp!

Megan V said...

Ah. You say we must put our little grey cells to work, no?

I guess writing a good query is a mystery all its own...All I can say is thank goodness for the clues QOTKU and—btw Opie—I'm glad I'm not alone.

Donnaeve said...

Thanks Colin!

John Frain said...

Dennis Lehane's Shutter Island is a splendid use of unreliable narrator. Blew me away when I read it. But I bring it up to say, if you read the Wiki list and then go read one of those books, you've just discovered a HUGE spoiler alert. If I knew Lehane's protagonist was an unreliable narrator before I started reading? Completely different (and lesser) experience. It's like knowing the butler did it on page 1 instead of working to figure it out and feeling maybe possibly pretty sure on page 238 but still having a little doubt by 242.

Anyway, good luck OP, I bet it's a great yarn. Also, Shutter Island might not be the best comp title because it's getting a little old which I understand to eliminate it from competition. But I understand so little, don't take my word for it.

Craig F said...

USUAL SUSPECTS is also an excellent example. The story of the mythical Keyser Soze seems so real until Kevin Spacey uncurls himself at the end.

Welcome back, my Queen. Please tell me is Colin is a voluble in person as he seems here or is he the wallflower with the Brown Ale he says he is?

BJ Muntain said...

A lot of good information here - Janet's post, especially, but also among the comments. For anyone who may still be a bit stuck on what an 'unreliable narrator' is, it's a narrator who doesn't tell the reader the whole truth because the author doesn't want the reader to know the whole truth. The narrator could be unreliable because they (or the author) are keeping secrets, or maybe they just don't see everything (totally or figuratively blind), or maybe it's because what they see might not be completely real. Sometimes you'll know right off the bat that your narrator is unreliable, sometimes you'll discover this during the course of the story, and sometimes you won't know until the end. Done right, it can be exquisite.

I do have a question - for anyone here - about unreliable narrators. Someone once told me my point-of-view character was an unreliable narrator simply because he had a snarky rebel living at the back of his mind. I disagreed. I have no wish to make this character unreliable.

Don't we all have that snarky rebel, who says the things we would say if we weren't so polite, gracious, and prudent? Who would make a snide remark about our boss's misfortunate spelling of 'public' while we politely, privately point out the missing L to our boss?

I understand that one of the things that makes for an unreliable narrator is insanity, but is having an inner rebel a type of insanity? Or is it a coping behaviour to help one keep one's sanity in a highly critical world?

Asking for a friend. Honest. I wouldn't know anything about inner rebels or having to delete whole paragraphs because such an inner rebel got control of the keyboard for a minute...

Colin Smith said...

BJ: I suppose it could be argued that if you have a first person narrative, your narrator will, to some extent, be unreliable, simply because they are telling the story from their point of view, and they don't necessarily have the facts, or they have a particular viewpoint that will interpret the facts a particular way. I don't think we often consider this with our 1st person narrators unless we are deliberately making them unreliable. Otherwise, we want the reader to assume our narrator has the correct view of things.

Mmm. Thinking out loud, maybe that's the key. With a "reliable" narrator, it's not so much whether theirs is the only viewpoint, or even the correct viewpoint, but theirs is the viewpoint I, the writer, want you, the reader, to understand and accept. With an "unreliable" narrator, I, the writer, know the narrator's view is flawed, but I want you, the reader, to accept it, even though I will undermine it and suggest to you that maybe the narrator can't be trusted. And since I'm an excellent writer :D I will find ways to show you what's actually going on despite my faulty narrator's attempts to convince you otherwise.

How's that? :)

angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

Great question, OP.

The unreliable narrator is my favorite kind. The Girl on the Train and Fight Club both have them.

Theresa said...

Absolutely intrigued by AJ's idea of an unreliable narrator. That would make such a fun story.

Janice L. Grinyer said...

Twisting readers assumptions into a bundle only for it to burst into flames at the end can be so much fun when we get it right ;) ... Thank you OP for asking, and to Janet, once again thank you for clarifying the querying process!

BJ Muntain said...

Thanks, Colin. True, any point-of-view character could be unreliable, just by virtue of being that character. Now, I'm not writing first person point of view - I prefer writing third person. Which could pull us into a whole other side-topic of what makes a narrator... but I'm pretty sure my character is the narrator. It's his voice telling the story, even in third person.

Sorry for venturing off-topic here. The topic of unreliable narrator just pushed a button for me. I think unreliable narrators are great, if done well, but that's not where I want this novel to go.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

"While I am indeed the source of all wisdom in publishing..."
Yup, that's why we're here.

What the hell is that brown stuff on my nose?

BJ Muntain said...

2Ns: It's chocolate. Trust me.

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

LIAR by Justine Larbelestier is another good one.

For those of you who would love to do Colin's cool linky trick, this is what the code looks like (assuming my subliminal coding works):

<a href="http://yourlink.com">Your Link Text</a>

Have fun!

Laura Mary said...

Florence and Giles by John Harding would be my favourite example - Florence is *so* out of touch with reality, that although she thinks she knows exactly what is going on, she really really doesn't. The reader is left to fill in the gaps and make the connections and watch helplessly as Florence makes all the worst choices.
It's a brilliant book, might have to re read it now!

DeadSpiderEye said...

You know, I was pondering exactly this question while out driving my Astin Martin this morning. It was playing so much on my mind that I posed the question to Sandrine and Mai Ling when I got back to the flat in Mayfair, then I woke up...

Ardenwolfe said...

Great example.