Brad Johnson is a screenwriter promoting the mantra "Read scripts, watch movies, and write pages." Brad also works as a script consultant for writers of all levels to develop and grow their screenwriting toolbox. Follow Brad on Twitter @RWWFilm.
It’s part of the nature of storytelling: an audience’s natural instinct is to believe what your characters tell them – about the story they’re watching, the world it is set in, even about the characters themselves. They believe because, mainly, at the beginning of the journey they don’t have any reason not to. But sometimes, the person telling the story, for one reason or another, isn’t telling the truth – and that lie can be a powerful storytelling tool if used correctly.
What we’re talking about here is a tried and true narrative device known as an unreliable narrator, and it comes in a wide range of iterations. Whether you’re dealing with a duplicitous personality where the lie is intentional (Verbal Kent in The Usual Suspects), a character in denial about their own reality (Dr. Malcom Crowe in The Sixth Sense), or simply a matter of a difference of perception (Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network), the key to successfully utilizing the unreliable narrator is the make them sympathetic to the audience. This doesn’t mean they have to be nice people – it’s not a popularity contest – but you want your audience to either admire, identify, or sympathize with them. Once that’s in place, the audience will believe what they’re being told for the simple reason that they want your protagonist to be successful in his/her quest.
As a case study, let’s take a look at modern cinema’s most interesting unreliable narrator, The Narrator (Edward Norton) from Fight Club.
Unreliable Narrator and Fight Club
As one half of a split personality, Norton’s character in Fight Club occupies the unique perspective of being as in the dark about what is really going on as the rest of the audience. The Narrator, along with the rest of us, is led down a dark and dangerous path by Tyler Durden in order to be exposed to a new perspective on reality – one of self realization, rejection of commercialism, a redefinition of masculinity, and an acceptance of chaos and our own insignificant role in the working of the universe (“You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake”).
The Narrator might not be inherently likable – I mean, let’s face it, he starts off the movie pretending he has various diseases so he can infiltrate support groups – but his growing frustration with modern life is ultimately identifiable. We understand his frustrations, we are exposed to these bits of truth by Tyler in the same manner he is, and as he slowly drops out of society, the audience lives vicariously through his actions. All of which, makes us more likely to believe the story as The Narrator tells it and to overlook the blatant hints that are sprinkled throughout the film on Tyler’s true identity.
In fact, it’s not until the ultimate reveal, followed by several viewings where you’re specifically looking for the signs, that it becomes evident exactly how much The Narrator’s POV can’t be trusted – simple things like the multiple scenes throughout the film where a single frame of Tyler’s image is inserted (the same method of splicing that Tyler himself uses to insert pornographic images into family films) including a few times before The Narrator even meets Tyler for the first time.
In this way, the realization by your audience that they have been lied to is just as big a dramatic moment as what is happening on screen. When executed well, it can pull them into the story in a way few other things can.
So take a look at your script. Is it too direct? Too straight-forward? Can your narrator be trusted to tell the truth? If the answer is “No,” then adding an unreliable narrator just might be a new way for you to add another level of excitement to your story.
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