Lying to the Reader

I’ve never had a problem with the issue of lying to one’s readers. It could be traced back to my high school speech class when my teacher gave us an example of a heartrending speech a former student had given. He had the class (including the teacher) in tears until the very end when he announced that not one word of what he had said was true. Everyone was shocked and the teacher gave him a very bad grade. It was a lesson to the entire class and all classes afterward –

Don’t Lie to Your Audience.

Naturally a memoir that’s full of lies isn’t going to sell because it would be pretty easy in today’s internet world to find the truth. Any kind of non-fiction that’s full of lies isn’t going to float. But what about fiction? Fiction in itself is a lie because the very definition of the word “fiction” is “an untrue story.”

So this rule doesn’t apply when writing fiction.

Wrong! It still applies.

An example of lying to your audience with fiction is merely the withholding of the truth within the story.

I recently finished reading Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and I have to admit that I was shocked and severely disappointed when I reached the end. She never has Poirot narrating his own stories so you never have Poirot’s thought process. Where would be the guesswork and intrigue on the reader’s part if they were privy to the genius of Poirot’s own thoughts? No fun there. Instead most of what I’ve read so far is either narrated by Hastings, Poirot’s faithful sidekick, or from another person who temporarily replaces Hastings.

The stories are told by that person’s account as if they were faithful documents of the investigation. The reader is given the facts of the proceedings along with a tinge of the narrator’s opinion on the meaning/importance of those facts. But what happens when the narrator is a lying s.o.b. but you don’t know it till the end?

I felt cheated! Lied to! Intentionally misled so that I’d never stand a chance in hell of realizing who the culprit was until Poirot could lay it all out for me in large bold words.

It’s one thing to have your narrator crazy or whatever. A crazy person doesn’t usually know they’re crazy so it’s not their fault when you find in the end that you can’t trust them. But to have the narrator in a detective novel be the murderer? He was writing everything out as if it was all true and that nothing was omitted. I think he even mentioned at one point that he had laid out all the facts for us to see. There were parts cut out here and there which seriously confused me and made me think Christie had failed at a new writing technique or got sloppy, but all-in-all I trusted my narrator because that’s what you do. I never dreamed that the missing bits were important and would incriminate him.

I’m sure many people will argue that this was a stroke of genius from her to keep her audience guessing until the very end. This book was quite popular and was even turned into a play – the first, I believe, of her books to be dramatized in fact. Obviously enough people thought she really pulled a fast one on them and they liked it. I, however, am not one of them.

That’s a cheap trick in my book.

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About Katie St. John-Shin

I believe in living life and not letting it pass you by. I mean, come on, if you really want to do something but don't have the courage to do it so you let the opportunity disappear, you may regret it for the rest of your life. How can you know what you're capable of unless you go for it? Like every writer, I naturally plan on becoming a world-famous writer. I love reading, writing, fitness, coffee, watching my favorite movies/shows, listening to music, and trying new things even if they're sometimes terrifying. I'm a stay-at-home mom, a writer, and a POP Pilates instructor. I didn't think I'd succeed at that last one but I did it! I confronted my fears, dealt with things I didn't want to deal with, and completed the training! POP Pilates classes are coming soon to mid-Nebraska!
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2 Responses to Lying to the Reader

  1. ShadowDancer says:

    Me, I’m a HUGE fan of the unreliable narrator. I frequently write POV characters who wouldn’t know the truth if it bit them on the nose…though usually through flaws in character, not because they’re maliciously withholding. Like when I write stories with a lot of teens or young adults, one of them will take everything at face value and completely miss underlying social cues. Exploring perspective is something I enjoy a lot, and not everyone gleans the same info from the same situation. I love that fact of human nature. 🙂 As a writer, I love that this is where so many interpersonal misunderstandings arise – from the simple act of viewing a situation from different places.

    That said, though, I think if I read a Poirot or any mystery novel and the POV character outright lies, I’d be super pissed. The whole point of a mystery is to be challenged to find the culprit. Writing them, the point is to keep the reader guessing. While I suppose it would certainly do that, it also isn’t fair. At all. Especially when it’s a novel in a looooooong series. Your expectations become A and the book provides not just B, but such a different idea that you’re down on P by the time the book is done? Not cool.

    When you’re done reading the Poirots, you should see if your library has (part of) the Poirot tv/movie series starring David Suchet. He’s AMAZING. They’re wonderful shows.

    • Yeah, I’m cool with unreliable narrators IF they’re telling the truth. We’re in their head after all. They could be lying to themselves and even that’s understandable. But that’s not what this narrator was doing. He was deliberately lying to me! Rotten. I was very surprised that Agatha Christie would stoop to that kind of tactic.

      I have seen the Poirot tv series with David Suchet. Whenever I’m reading the books, I imagine him and Hugh what’s-his-face who plays Hastings. They’re awesome! My husband really likes them too. Even my son likes them because they ride trains and drive cars sometimes. He’ll sing along with the theme song. It’s funny to watch/listen. But we’re running out (or have already run out, I haven’t kept track of what we’ve seen) and are moving on to Miss Marple. It’s different. Much more complicated. I like them but I’m not sure what I think of her detective skills because we’re rarely privy to her thoughts or even facial expressions. She just kind of watches people as they talk and most of the time the movie seems to be following someone else entirely so she’s not even in the scene. I borrowed one of the Miss Marple books so we’ll see what those are like. They’ll probably shed more light on her detection methods etc.

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