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Keep Your Readers On Edge With the “Unreliable Narrator”

Now that we’ve covered setting and literary devices to keep your readers on the edge of their seats, it’s time to delve into some classic horror tropes you can use to make your horror writing even more suspenseful. This week we’ll be discussing a common trope known as the unreliable narrator.

The unreliable narrator is a popular technique frequently used in horror writing, recognizable in works of notable horror writers like Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. A story using this technique is usually written in the first instead of third-person point of view; this is what makes the trope so easy: it is the idea that the narrator of the story, usually the main character, is “unreliable” because of his or her limitations in understanding a situation completely, which makes the reader wary of fully trusting him or her. As humans, we are naturally biased in our experiences, and in writing a horror story from the first person point of view, the reader is only given the information to which that character is privy, leaving a great deal of unknown, something that only fuels that horror fire. Additionally, the main character may be hindered by other obstacles, mental illness being a popular one, making his or her perception even more unreliable.

Edgar Allan Poe uses this trope in his famous story “The Tell-Tale Heart,” as well as many of his other notable works. It is a short story in which an unnamed narrator begins by immediately confessing that he is not mad (insane)—which is the first clue to the reader that he is an unreliable narrator—but that he killed a man and was justified in his reasons. Armed with this knowledge, the reader then learns of the narrator’s obsession and fear of an old man’s blue eye and his subsequent plan to murder the old man to alleviate this fear. Because the reader only has the information given by the narrator, information that does not make sense (why is the solution to kill this man?), the reader knows there must be more going on but does not know what, which creates a feeling of uneasiness as the story progresses. The narrator then describes how the old man randomly awakens in terror one night as the narrator is stalking him. The narrator claims to hear the old man’s frantic beating heart and, fearful that someone else will also hear it, slays the man, hides his body under the floorboards, and meticulously cleans the crime scene. Police suddenly arrive, having been called by a neighbor who heard the old man cry out, and the narrator shows them around, proclaiming he has not seen the old man. He is so confident that he even leads them to the man’s bedroom, chatting amicably, until he hears the beating of the old man’s heart. Convinced that the police also hear the heart and know of the narrator’s guilt but are mocking him by continuing to chat with him, he confesses to the murder in a fit of madness.

This is a great technique to sow seeds of uneasiness early on in a story, forcing the reader to follow a character that does not truly understand what is happening. The reader is left to the mercy of the character’s own hindrances in perception and sometimes can fall prey to a character’s madness without realizing it until it’s too late.

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