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Flash Fiction And The Power Of The Unreliable Narrator

January 27th, 2017

MaryBevanWebJust now I am fascinated by the way flash fiction challenges us writers. We are given so few words to play with, which means we have to do a lot with every single word, choosing each for maximum meaning and suggestiveness. It also seems to me that flash pieces offer us a chance to experiment with new forms that will enable us to do more and more with less and less.

One of the first decisions you have to make in writing a flash piece concerns the ‘voice’ of the story. Will you choose third person narration, where you’re telling a story about people and events as seen from the outside, or first person narration, where you create an ‘I’ who tells the readers the story, giving his or her version of events? If you choose first person narration then you can go one step further and plump for an ‘unreliable narrator’, that is, someone who offers an account of events in whose literal truth the reader is led to disbelieve as the story unfolds.

A perfect example of how powerfully this narrative device can be used is one of my favourite short stories, Richard Ford’s ‘Rock Springs’. Here, as the story evolves, we realise that, though Earl the narrator sees himself as a good chap, always trying to do his best for people and always on the verge of ‘getting things on the straight track’, in fact he’s the very reverse. As we read, we learn from what he says – and crucially also from what he doesn’t say – that he’s actually a petty crook, self-serving, self-destructive and pretty much a failure.

Stories like this intrigue me because, from the very first sentence, we readers are forced to work, piecing together an alternative version of the story to the one we’re being told. And, if the story is handled skilfully, this means we experience a variety of emotions – pity, amusement, fear, superiority, sympathy, perhaps even empathy. It’s the way this kind of story engages and plays with the readers’ emotions that seems to me to make it such a good choice for short or micro fiction, where we have to achieve maximum impact in a short space of time.

Some of the power of this device stems from the fact that the unreliable narrator is much more than an interesting narrative technique: it’s firmly based in real life. Think of the last time you tried to explain and rationalise something you’ve done that you knew deep down was wrong. You probably quite unintentionally showed the perceptive listener how far you were deceiving yourself about the realities of the case.

For the writer, using an unreliable narrator means building up, sentence by incriminating sentence, a character’s carefully-constructed version of events. This involves some important choices. For instance, is the narrator setting out to deliberately deceive, or has he already convinced himself that his story is true? Has the self-deception been forced on him, perhaps by circumstances, or politeness, or  pain and loss? Will the deception become clear to the narrator himself in the course of the narrative or will it remain clear only to the reader? And so on. You’ll need  answers to all these questions as you construct your story.

One final thought. Whatever scenario you choose, when you write a story in the voice of a clearly unreliable narrator you are actually telling a story about story-telling. Isn’t that fascinating?


This post was written by Mary Bevan, winner of our 2016 Flash Fiction Competition

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About The Author: Diana Nadin

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