Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Lying to the Reader


Last week when readers responded to the question, "What annoys you most when reading a novel?" one answer caught my attention. The reader said this:

When you get to the end, and the author has lied to the reader. It's one thing to pull the wool over my eyes (ala Murder of Roger Ackroyd), it's another thing to make me feel betrayed by the writer.

I agree. Surprising the reader without lying to her is a fine line that writers should not cross. The more twists you put into your stories, the more you need to toe that line. Since my Seatbelt Suspense® is all about twists, this is an issue I'm very aware of when I'm writing. A good twist fools by causing commotion elsewhere--sort of like one actor upstaging another. Once the twist is revealed the reader should be able to go back, see the foreshadowing, and say, "Ah, yes. I should have known."

So--when exactly does a writer lie to/betray the reader?

When he tells the reader something in an author narrative passage that later is revealed not to be true.

Author narrative are the key words. This is when the author is speaking directly to the reader, as in describing a character:

He stood six-four and muscular, a solid wall of a man. Women loved his masculinity;men were intimidated, many jealous. His face looked hard and worn, lines around his mouth, etching his forehead. But his eyes were gentle, true windows to his soul. This was a man who would hurt no one, lie to no one.

However, anything outside of author narrative is fair game for misleading the reader--because it's in the POV (point of view) of a character. And characters' perceptions can be inaccurate, no matter how right they think they are. This is a true protrayal of life. We can believe something or someone very sincerely, and turn out to be very wrong.

Let's say we're in the POV of the protagonist, a woman who's known the described man for ten years. They're having a conversation. She's thinking things as they talk. In the middle of their conversation, runs a similar passage.

He stood six-four and muscular, a solid wall of a man. Women loved his masculinity;men were intimidated, many jealous. His face looked hard and worn, lines around his mouth, etching his forehead. But his eyes were gentle, true windows to his soul. Stacy knew this was a man who would hurt no one, lie to no one.

Stacy may "know" it. And she may be very wrong. Of course the story would need to include foreshadowing as to the truth about this man. And when the truth is revealed the protagonist should be reeling.

But it gets a little more tricky. If an author writes in deep POV--that is, a point of view so deeply inside the character's head that everything is described as that character would perceive the world--there obviously will be no passages of description in which the author pulls back into his own narrative voice. All description will be as the character sees, feels, believes it. My books these days are always in deep POV. In the deep POV of my protagonist, in the middle of the conversation between these two characters, I could run the passage above just as it was first written:

He stood six-four and muscular, a solid wall of a man. Women loved his masculinity;men were intimidated, many jealous. His face looked hard and worn, lines around his mouth, etching his forehead. But his eyes were gentle, true windows to his soul. This was a man who would hurt no one, lie to no one.

If it turns out the man is a liar, I wouldn't be lying to my reader. I didn't tell the reader that. The character believed it. And characters can be wrong.

Readers need to understand deep POV--how to spot it, and how it works. It's easy to spot. In deep POV, when there are multiple points of view, every one will sound different, according to how that character perceives the world. The same scene would be described in very different ways, using different metaphors, depending on whose POV you're in.

Deep POV works well because it helps characterize--you hear a different voice for each character. It also gives the writer great lattitude to present thoughts to the reader that may or may not be true. This is the heart of the fun for suspense readers--trying to figure out who's right and who isn't.

5 comments:

lynnrush said...

Great post!!

Latayne C Scott said...

Very perceptive and helpful. I'm tweetin' this!

Latayne C Scott
www.latayne.com

Sheila Deeth said...

Nice analysis. Thanks.

pattykay said...

very helpful post. thank you.

Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

I'd add one tidbit. If the POV character believes what she says and turns out to be wrong, I think the author needs to foreshadow the fact that this character is an unreliable narrator in order to keep the reader from feeling lied to.

I did a short story with an unreliable narrator once. It was a helpful exercise!

Becky