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I've been writing a mystery story recently, but I've run into a problem concerning the major plot twist, and was hoping for some guidance from more experienced writers.

Here's the scenario:

Person A (the narrator) and Person B are twins, and thus are very close. Recently, a series of murders has happened in the area, and the group of friends that Person A and B are part of are trying to find out what's going on.

Person C, one of Person A's friends, is convinced that Person B is responsible for it all. She provides compelling evidence that proves her claim, and says that they should confront Person B as soon as possible. However, Person A refuses to believe her and provides counterclaims that are equally as valid as Person C's.

The twist is that Person C was actually right, and Person A was blind to it because of how much he cared about his twin- not even considering the chance that Person B could have actually hated him (which Person B indeed does).

Of course it's more detailed than that, but I don't want to make it too complicated. I just want to know if this is flat out lying to the reader or an unreliable narrator.

Also, do any of you think this is a cheap twist?

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From this Wikipedia article

The Pícaro: a narrator who is characterized by exaggeration and bragging, the first example probably being the soldier in Plautus's comedy Miles Gloriosus. Examples in modern literature are Moll Flanders, Simplicius Simplicissimus or Felix Krull.

The Madman: a narrator who is either only experiencing mental defense mechanisms, such as (post-traumatic) dissociation and self-alienation, or severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia or paranoia. Examples include Franz Kafka's self-alienating narrators, Noir fiction and Hardboiled fiction's "tough" (cynical) narrator who unreliably describes his own emotions, Barbara Covett in Notes on a Scandal, and Patrick Bateman in American Psycho.

The Clown: a narrator who does not take narrations seriously and consciously plays with conventions, truth, and the reader's expectations. Examples of the type include Tristram Shandy and Bras Cubas.

The Naïf: a narrator whose perception is immature or limited through their point of view. Examples of naïves include Huckleberry Finn, Holden Caulfield and Forrest Gump.

The Liar: a mature narrator of sound cognition who deliberately misrepresents themselves, often to obscure their unseemly or discreditable past conduct. John Dowell in Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier exemplifies this kind of narrator.

I believe your narrator is The Naïf.

As for a plot twist being cheap or not: if everyone knows everything it is not a mystery novel. All of the stories in that genre are build on the fact that only the criminal knows exactly what happened (while still could be wrong about a great many other things).

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    Oh! I was unaware that "unreliable narrator" was usually assumed with one who lies, so I'm grateful you showed this to me. I think The Naïf is pretty accurate. I guess it's not technically cheap if it has a term, then, but I still feel a bit iffy about insisting Person C is wrong (it's 3rd person limited, from A's perspective) only to have her be right in the end. Again, thank you very much, and thanks to everyone else who answered! – moe Mar 29 '17 at 22:31
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I'm not sure if what you are describing is unreliable narrator at all. An unreliable narrator is not one who is mistaken about facts. An unreliable narrator is one who is deliberately deceiving the reader.

You say the twist is that B is really right about who did it. But how do we know that this is the twist? Since A is the narrator, how do we know that B was right. Does A finally tell us that B was right? In that case they are not an unreliable narrator, they are reliably narrating a story in which the jumped to a wrong conclusion and were finally convinced of the right solution. That sort of thing is pretty common in first-person detective stories.

Or does A maintain to the bitter end that A was right, while at the same time revealing enough evidence to convince the reader that B was actually correct? That is going to be extraordinarily difficult to pull off, and some percentage of readers are always going to be left confused. You had better be doing it for some reason other than as a gimmick or it may be torches and pitchforks for you.

But even then, this is not really an unreliable narrator, just a narrator who is honestly relating an interpretation of facts about which they are mistaken. A truly unreliable narrator would be one who is genuinely attempting to deceive the reader, or one that is genuinely delusional. That is obviously pretty hard to pull off in the context of a detective story. It raises the question of who they are attempting to deceive and why (which presumes a narrative addressed to someone other than the reader) or of why this person's delusion are germane to the story being told.

The episode of BTVS when Buffy thinks she is a patient in an asylum and her friends and her vampire slaying are an illusion comes to mind here. But of course that episode is inconclusive. The whole series might indeed be the imaginings of mad Buffy. But does leaving the reader with similar doubts work for a detective story? Is that your intent?

  • I would only add one small comment - an unreliable narrator may be deceiving himself, not the reader. An example in film would be (spoiler) Johnny Depp's character in "Secret Window". – Graham Powell Apr 14 '17 at 20:41
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An unreliable narrator is one who knows the truth but doesn't reveal it to the reader. It sounds like your story has a narrator who does not, in fact, know the truth.

Dr. Watson is sometimes seen as an unreliable narrator of the Sherlock Holmes stories, because he deliberately hides or shades details from his readers. He alludes to the case of "the lighthouse, the politician, and the trained cormorant," and "the Giant Rat of Sumatra," saying the world is not yet prepared for such stories, and doesn't go into detail about why he and Holmes have to leave London for a few weeks in the summer of 1895. He also flat-out says that he's changing names and details to protect the identities of some clients.

In your story, Person A can't lie to the reader if A doesn't actually know that B is the murderer. It's possible that A knows things which s/he is withholding from the reader, which C/D/E etc. would then bring up, but the reader would then have to see/hear that happening. If A is narrating, A has the "ability" to refuse to "tell" the reader what the other characters say. (If the story is just from A's POV but in third person, it's easier to determine if A is telling the truth or not.)

  • "An unreliable narrator is one who knows the truth but doesn't reveal it to the reader." I know that you and @markbaker are technically right, but this defies my personal concept of an unreliable narrator. If the character does not know the truth and tells us what they think is true, how does it make them reliable narrators? The information they convey to the reader is still wrong, regardless of their best intentions. Or is there a special term just for that particular scenario? – Lew Mar 29 '17 at 21:04
  • More on this: The Wikipedia article has this as one of the examples of unreliable narrators: "The Naïf: a narrator whose perception is immature or limited through their point of view. Examples of naïves include Huckleberry Finn, Holden Caulfield, and Forrest Gump."(en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unreliable_narrator) – Lew Mar 29 '17 at 21:12
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    @Lew I think you're misunderstanding what reliable means here. It doesn't mean "You can count on this character to convey the Absolute Truth as it happened," but rather, "This character will convey events truthfully as s/he perceived them." So Watson saying "We left London for a few weeks; why we left is not important" is not reliable, because it is important (Oscar Wilde's trial). But Watson saying "I saw a great glowing hound atop the moor" is reliable, because even if the hound is painted in phosphorus (which he doesn't know yet), he does see, at that time, a great glowing hound. – Lauren Ipsum Mar 29 '17 at 22:22
  • It seems to come down to varieties of unreliability. There is the character who is unreliable (eg, immature, mad) who narrates as best they can. There is the characters who is mistaken in their beliefs but relates them honestly, (Every first person detective story ever). And there is the character who narrates unreliably. Of the latter, there are those who do it as a literary device (to create false suspense), and those that do it as a matter of character. – Mark Baker Mar 29 '17 at 22:29
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    But I see nothing to be gained by calling the honest but mistaken narrator unreliable. In fact, if we were to classify this as unreliable then every first person narrator would be unreliable to some degree and the term would lose all power of discrimination. – Mark Baker Mar 29 '17 at 22:30

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