9. Lying to your readers

Should you ever lie to your reader? Yes, of course. All the time. That’s what a plot twist is – you lead your readers’ expectations down one path, and then flip them. The mechanism is somewhat similar to a joke, which also leads the hearer down one path only to flip it. The physiological response to a joke is the explosive outbreath we call laughter.

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Especially with short stories laughter is often our response to a good plot twist.

There are some standard devices for doing this. The most obvious is the Red Herring, and the closely-related McGuffin. Detective stories are full of red-herrings, clues that seem to lead to the solution but are in fact illusory or mistaken. The term “McGuffin” I think originated with Alfred Hitchcock. A McGuffin is a plot device, some object, person or goal that the protagonist pursues. The McGuffin is often illusory or recedes into the background in the course of the story.

The book I’m currently working on, The Golden Illusion, has the protagonist, a stage illusionist, chasing the secret of a 4,000-year-old illusion performed by the Egyptian magician, Djedi, for the Pharaoh Kufu. It is a McGuffin. I’m still struggling with making the real ending, as spectacular as Djedi’s decapitation and re-animation trick.

Other common devices where you lie to your readers are the False Protagonist and the Unreliable Narrator.

The False Protagonist works by leading the reader to believe that a character is the protagonist of the story. This character then vanishes, often by being killed. This has huge shock value. George R R Martin used it to great effect in Game of Thrones by killing Ned Stark at the end of the first book of the series.

The Unreliable Narrator isn’t so much about lying to your readers as leading them to doubt the version of events given by your narrator. You might do this from the outset, by having your narrator character make a statement that is plainly false or delusional. Or you might leave this reveal until later in the story. If you leave it until the end, it becomes a plot twist. William Riggan, in his book Pícaros, Madmen, Naīfs, and Clowns: The Unreliable First-person Narrator, suggests there are five types of Unreliable Narrators:

  • The Picaro, or braggart
  • The Madman, who may be experiencing psychological defence mechanisms, or deeper insanity
  • The Clown, who does not take narration seriously, and plays with convention, truth, and the reader’s expectations
  • The Naif, a narrator whose point of view is limited through immaturity or ignorance
  • The Liar, a narrator who deliberately misrepresents himself, often to cover up misdeeds

I’ve never yet had the courage to use the Unreliable Narrator device. But I should. I’m fascinated by the way different people read the same situation so differently. Perhaps it’s my academic training that leads me to be so unadventurous with the truth. I did write a short story in which the protagonist is autistic, but that’s as far as I’ve dared go so far.

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