Unreliable Narration In Storytelling

This post more than any other contains spoilers. Sometimes it’s a spoiler just to know that you’re dealing with an unreliable narrator.

Unreliable narration is a storytelling technique which requires some work on the part of the reader, trying to work out how much of the story is true and how much is subjective, or an outright lie.

The most fallible, most consistently clueless narrator you could hope to meet might be Ford Madox Ford in the novel The Good Soldier (1915).

— How To Read Literature Like A Professor

a famous liar from fiction

Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.

– F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

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Things To Know About Chekhov

Anton Chekhov

1. CHEKHOV DID NOT OVERWRITE

You’ll hear Chekhovian advice in every writing group ever.

In short stories it is better to say not enough than to say too much, because,–because–I don’t know why.

One would like […] descriptions to be more compact and concise, just two or three lines or so.

Take out adjectives and adverbs whenever you can.

— Chekhov

 

2. OFTEN THE HERO DOES NOT CHANGE

There’s this basic rule of storytelling that the main character has to undergo a character arc, but that does not apply to short stories.

The connection between hero and world extends from the hero’s slavery throughout his character arc. In most stories, because the hero and the world are expressions of each other, the world and the hero develop together. Or if the hero doesn’t change, as in much of Chekhov, the world doesn’t change either.”

Notes From: John Truby. “The Anatomy of Story.”

Chekhov’s stories are frequently less about change than they are about the failure to change. Chekhov was generally pessimistic about the possibility of change. This is more true to life than other forms of storytelling, for example any movie coming out of Hollywood today — audiences are there to see a character change.

Even when the characters do change, their changes fail to last, merely complicate the existing conflict, or create a new and often greater conflict.

See also: Character Transformation In Fiction.

3. CHEKHOV WAS HUGELY INFLUENTIAL

Chekhovian is now a word. Examples of Chekhovian writers:

  • Henry Green (English) — who likes to ‘gag commentary’ (give even fewer reasons) than Chekhov even did.
  • Katherine Mansfield (New Zealander) — early in her life she admired Ivan Turgenev but after discovering Anton Chekhov she cast Turgenev aside. Sure enough, her best work was written after her discovery of Chekhov. The Garden Party, for instance, has a distinctively Chekhovian ending.
  • Raymond Carver (American) — influenced by Chekhov and Hemingway, who was himself influenced by Chekhov
  • Beth Henley — modern American playwright
  • James Joyce (Irish)
  • George Orwell (American)
  • Strunk & White — who wrote the grammar guide emphasising simplicity
  • Matthew Weiner — because his characters in Mad Men fail to change and that’s the whole point, unlike most other novelistic TV series. “1960 Sterling Cooper is the manor house in “The Cherry Orchard,” a besieged institution about to be swept away by the new order.” — John K.

 

4. CHEKHOV CHANGED THE NATURE OF ENDINGS

And knew exactly what he was doing when he said, “Either the hero gets married or shoots himself […] Whoever discovers new endings for plays will open up a new era.”

Chekhovian endings tend to emphasize the continuation of conflict, not its conclusion.

When I am finished with my characters, I like to return them to life.

One story even states: “And after that life went on as before.” While this feels like a ‘non-ending’, what it is, is a truncated ‘New Equilibrium’ stage.

They are subversive endings, designed to undercut our expectations.

These endings force readers to examine our conceptions about life and human nature.

The novel, and perhaps even more so, the short story does not provide philosophical answers, and Chekhov was fine with this state of affairs, saying that stories only need to ask the right questions.

Chekhov, and his descendants, may have together influenced children’s literature, including picture books:

There is a growing tendency for picture book endings to be left open, and more often than not, they pose questions to which there is no easy answer. Often the themes are what Egoff calls ‘the darker side of human experience’, as if authors wish to insist that the security of childhood be shattered as soon as possible, or maybe inferring that it is fiction anyhow.

— Clare Scott-Mitchell, Give Them Wings, 1988.

See also: Short Story Endings

5. CHEKHOV’S GUN

This storytelling term came from a piece of writing advice he issued once:

One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on a wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.

6. CHEKHOV’S SIX PRINCIPLES OF A GOOD STORY

According to Chekhov:

  1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature
  2. Total objectivity
  3. Truthful descriptions of persons and objects
  4. Extreme brevity
  5. Audacity and originality: flee the stereotype
  6. Compassion

 

7. CHEKHOV DID NOT REQUIRE A CLIMAX

As well as truncating the ‘New Equilibrium’ part of a traditional narrative, Chekhov often omits a Self-revelation phase.

If he does this, he does so in order to make the reader have the epiphany his protagonist fails to have.

He did this more in his later work.

He did this because an epiphany is more powerful if the reader experiences it rather than merely witnesses it.

Unreliable narrators are particularly useful for achieving an epiphany in the reader.

 

SEE ALSO

And Then There Was Chekhov: The Librarian Is In Podcast, Episode 43

Do Characters In Fiction Need To Change? How Much?

character change don draper

Not all characters change in stories, but some sort of change must happen.

Michael Hauge uses the term ‘transformation’, and not every transformation is a character arc for the main character (however that is defined).

This transformation will occur on four different levels. The first three are:

  1. Your hero’s external circumstances will change. She (or he) might be wealthier, more powerful, more successful, more admired; she’s is in a new relationship; she is no longer threatened by the villain or demon or disease she overcame; or (if she was unsuccessful) she might be alone, or disgraced, or deceased.
  1. Your hero has changed internally. The arc of her inner journey might have made her more courageous, more loving, more moral, or (whether she succeeded or failed) wiser.
  1. The world around your hero has changed. Her courage and sacrifice has made those around her safer, happier, wiser, more loving or more courageous themselves.

The fourth transformation may be harder to recognize and achieve, but will be just as powerful: you, the storyteller, will change.

Michael Hauge

Useful Concept: Range Of Change

How much does your main character change over the course of the story? This needs to be determined at the start of the writing process.

If studying a character rather than creating one, it’s a useful aspect to consider.

You must think of your hero as a range of change, a range of possibilities, from the very beginning. You have to determine the range of change of the hero at the start of the writing process, or change will be impossible for the hero at the end of the story.

The smaller the range, the less interesting the story; the bigger the range, the more interesting but the riskier the story, because characters don’t change much in the limited time they appear in most stories.

— John Truby, Anatomy of Story

 

Bear in mind that some authors, famously Chekhov, do not create main characters who change, and this is the very point. Mad Men creator Matt Weiner has said the same thing about Don Draper, making the point that in real life, unlike in most popular stories, people just don’t change all that much.

 

The Two Forms Of Character Development In Fiction

While Michael Hauge provides us with a useful taxonomy of storytelling transformation, others divide character development into two separate categories:

  1. A text can provide new information about a character that causes readers to see the character differently and in more depth
  2. Or the events of a story can actually change characters, make them more complicated.

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Perry Nodelman and Mavis Reimer

CHARACTER CHANGE THROUGHOUT THE HISTORY OF STORY

Character Change And The Development Of Novel Plotting

Ford Madox Ford, quoted by James Wood in How Fiction Works, pointed out that in older novels — especially those from England — the novelist would begin at the beginning and work chronologically through their character’s life, telling us all about their education and other influences.

But a new development in the novel meant authors avoided starting ‘at the beginning’. When it was discovered that novels in characters could change, it was interesting to depict that change on the page rather than explain it. Ford Madox Ford describes this new type of novel by explaining how “you meet an English gentleman at your golf club. He is beefy, full of health, the model of the boy from an English public school of the finest type. You discover, gradually, that he is hopelessly neurasthenic, dishonest in matters of small change, but unexpectedly self-sacrificing, a dreadful liar, but a most painfully careful student of Lepidoptera and, finally, from the public prints, a bigamist who was once, under another name, hammered on the Stock Exchange … To get such a man in fiction you could not begin at his beginning and work his life chronologically to the end. You must first get him in with a strong impression, and then work backwards and forwards over his past.”

The Influence of HBO

Brett Martin explains how cable TV change the way characters (don’t) change:

Nate [of Six Feet Under] has good intentions, but he’s an amateur jerk. He’s a selfish narcissist. And the tragedy is that he never transcends that. He never grows up,” Ball said.

That inability is another defining theme of TV’s Golden Age. If man’s battle with his inner demons defined The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and their descendants, they also drew a crucial dose of their realism from the tenacity of that battle–the way their characters stubbornly refused to change in any substantive way, despite constantly resolving to do so. […]

It’s no coincidence that addiction is one of the major tropes of the Third Golden Age. Likewise, psychotherapy, with its looping fits and starts of progress and regression. Recidivism and failure stalked these shows: Tony Soprano searches for something to fill the gnawing void he feels; he fails to find it. Jimmy McNulty [of The Wire] swears off the twin compulsions of booze and police work; he goes back to both, while the rest of The Wire’s most zealous reformers find themselves corrupted. The specter of Don Draper’s past infidelities comes to him in a fever dream, in the person of an old conquest. And though he literally chokes the Beast to death, we, and he, know she will be back. […]

“Everything changed” after 9/11.”

“‘I’m going to be different. I’m so lucky to be alive. I’m going to value things more, do things differently….’ That’s what it was all about,” said [David] Chase of the period immediately following the terrorist attacks. “But then it sort of faded away.” Or as Tony Soprano morosely put it, “Every day is a gift. It’s just…does it have to be a pair of socks?” […]

the goal of a TV show, unlike that of a movie or novel, no matter how ambiguous, is to never end. One way to address that basic economic mandate is to create a world in which there is no forward progress or story arc at all, just a series of discrete, repetitive episodes–In other words, the procedural. But if you’re interested in telling an ongoing story while remaining true to your own sense of the world, it helps for that worldview to be of an endless series of variations in which people repeatedly play out the same patterns of behavior, exhibiting only the most incremental signs of real change or progress.

— Brett Martin, Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad

 


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When the [character] “change” feels beautiful … I think it’s because the character has confirmed what we’ve hoped or suspected all along. Maybe the character hasn’t changed at all, but rather has finally been put in a situation where her truest self can be revealed. … Stories, to my mind, are never about change. They are always and only about the possibility of change.

Bret Anthony Johnston

If you’re in the middle of writing something and find that you’re second-guessing your thumbnail character descriptions, see The Always/Only Test by Andrea Phillips and realise you’re not the only one.

The stages of character change as broken down by psychologists, from Psychwriter

In the phrase [“to find myself”] lurks the idea that the self is a pre-existing entity, a self like a Platonic idea existing in a mystic realm beyond time and change. No, rather an object like a nugget of gold in the placer pan, the Easter egg under the bush at an Easter-egg hunt, a four-leaf clover to promise miraculous luck. Here is the essence of passivity, one’s quintessential luck. And the essence of absurdity, too, for the self is never to be found, but must be created, not the happy accident of passivity, but the product of a thousand actions, large and small, conscious or unconscious, performed not “away from it all,” but in the face of “it all,” for better or for worse, in work and leisure rather than in free time.

— Robert Penn Warren