Get ready to lie.
Crime fiction is surfing a wave of evolution right now. The highest-selling fiction genre has always carried with it similar dark themes, gripping story arcs and with twists and turns that aim to drag the reader one way then another as the conclusion of your arc becomes apparent. Those elements will always remain etched within the pages of crime thrillers because … well … because the word ‘thriller’ is a give away. And if you want to thrill your readers, then you’re going have to do so sticking to the tried and tested formulas.
However, the formula for success in the Crime Thriller genre is desperately carving a new path for itself.
With agents and publishers always be on the look out for the massively-selling “police procedural” (still the top selling genre within the top selling genre) a new breed of crime thriller is filling the charts, attempting to match the police procedural stride for stride. In fact, in discussions with a number of agents and publishers over the past year, I have come to the realisation that separate genres the ‘crime thriller’ and the ‘psychological thriller’ have grown up, got married and have now begun a family of their own.
After the success of multi-million selling thrillers Gone Girl, proceeded by The Girl on a Train, the genre of crime fiction has changed its face. The police procedural will always be alive, will always sell in the millions, but there is no doubt that a cross-breed is growing in popularity, so much so that these first person narration books, told through the eyes of an unreliable narrator, can now be considered ‘contemporary’ crime fiction. The success of Gone Girl and Girl on a Train has spawned multiple high-selling books over the past six years. In no way will police procedurals be overlooked by publishers or agents, but there is no doubt that these publishers and agents are now having their ears pricked up by mention of the word ‘psychological’ in crime manuscripts that are submitted to them.
At the time of writing, the top twenty charts in crime fiction on amazon amasses ten books that could be considered ‘psychological’ rather then ‘police procedural’ – which goes to prove this evolution. Half of crime books selling right now do not involve police men/women and do not involve court cases.
Despite his evolution, a crime/psychological thriller should carry most of the generic traits any thriller should. Just because the genre has evolved somewhat, doesn’t mean that the ingredients that make a thriller a thriller need to be totally ignored. They certainly don’t. Even if you do want to approach your next book in a unique way, by attempting to bend the genre even further, there are certain ingredients that you must include. Every thriller needs, of course, a gripping story arc. A thriller must produce red herrings, it must make the reader question most characters’ motives. It must be paced with precision – using the approach show-not-tell as often as possible. A thriller should have cliff hangers. The genre simply can not afford to evolve past the centuries-old use of pulling the reader back for more using a What. The. F*ck. Moment.’ at the end of most chapters. These tried and tested formulas should be a given. However, there is one particular genre within this genre that is (not to sound too Paris Hilton – or indeed too Mugatu (you got to see Zoolander if you didn’t get that reference)) so hot right now. And that is the massive evolution in the use of the unreliable narrator.
If you can nail an unreliable narrator, your submission might just sound like sweet music to the ears of a publishing agent in 2018.
So, I thought it would be valuable to writers if I used this platform to give details on how to write an unreliable narrator. It was through researching the history of the unreliable narrator that I conceived the idea for my debut novel – Midday. Midday doesn’t just have one unreliable narrator – it has four. And the challenge I set my readers is to try to find out which one is telling the truth.
Creating these characters isn’t easy … but it sure is a hell of a lot of fun.
If you wanted to practise creating an unreliable narrator, I would propose the following. An unreliable narrator is a character who tells part or all of your story, yet your readers aren’t fully sure whether to trust them or not. So the perfect starting point in creating an unreliable narrator is to come up with a reason that this character may be lying to your reader. Like Anna in Gone Girl, your character may have mental health problems. Or like Rachel in Girl on a Train, your character may be an alcoholic, not even sure herself when she is telling the truth. Maybe your character could have a split personality? A drug problem? Be a fantasist? Your aim is to create a character who the reader doesn’t fully trust, yet perhaps they can’t quite put their finger on why they don’t trust him/her.
When you concoct your reason for making this character unreliable to the reader, you may even find a lot of your story arc pulling itself together. Creating this type of character can even be a starting point for your entire novel.
Once you have concocted your character’s reason for being unreliable, you may muddy the waters even further through the use of lying through omission. This is an advanced technique that begins during the process of penning your novel, not necessarily before. The best-selling novels in this genre lie by omission in the cleverest of ways. If you think through the plot of We Need to Talk About Kevin, the approach in which the author, Lionel Shriver, holds back information from the reader borders on genius. Aside from the writer’s beautiful talent with words, it’s this technique that really helped this novel stand out. The same can be said of Karen Joy whose We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves has the same head-spinning effect on the reader.
It might also help you to paint your character as somebody who feels they are much more clever than they actually are. You can use secondary characters to prove this, showing their interpretation of something the unreliable narrator has done. Your unreliable narrator may view it as clever, whilst your second narrator may not. Giving your reader a dilemma.
It may come across as if I am tempting you to lie in order to create art. But that’s not really true. I’m asking you to paint a character who lies. And perhaps you are the only one who knows he/she is lying right up until you hit your reader with that exact twist at the tail end of your arc. Or maybe you will place the fact that your narrator is unreliable right from the off, setting alarm bells off inside your reader’s head every time they are in control of the narrative. Or maybe you can allude to them being unreliable half-way through the story, sending your plot in a totally different direction.
Creating an unreliable narrator is a great challenge for any writer. It’s both fun and intimidating at the same time. You have to ensure that, while lying, you are staying true to your plot. And that is one hell of a balance.
Try creating an unreliable narrator.
It works 100 per cent of the time. I wouldn’t lie to you. Would I?
(c) David B. Lyons
Four men. Five hours. Eight million euros.
When his alarm goes off at 7 am, bank manager Vincent assumes he is waking up to a regular working day. He couldn’t be more wrong.
Minutes later, one of the most ambitious heists in Dublin’s history is underway — and Vincent finds himself at the centre of it.
While his boyfriend Ryan is held at gunpoint by two aspiring gangsters, Vincent is tasked with entering the vaults of the four branches he manages to steal two million euros from each one.
If he doesn’t return by midday with all of the money, Ryan will receive a bullet to the head.
As each minute ticks by, it becomes clear all is not as it seems.
But just who is calling the shots?
And can Vincent make it back in time to save his boyfriend’s life?
The clock is ticking.
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