08 May 2020

Deconstructing a Narrator

A few years ago, a writer friend forwarded me a call for submission for an eclipse-themed mystery anthology. Though my previous fiction writing focused on thrillers, this time I would venture outside my comfort zone, into a new-for-me sub-genre of mystery.

I tried my hand at writing the oh-so-trendy psychological suspense. And by psychological suspense, I mean that my story would be told by an unreliable narrator. Rather than have my narrator lie to the reader, my goals was that she (a desperate mother) legitimately believed she was not only in the right, but that there was no question in her mind that her twisted actions were morally justified.

After countless agonizing rewrites, I finally locked in on a royal flush of techniques to nail my narrator in my first ever attempt at psychological suspense.  The result was my short story, "To the Moon and Back," thus far the darkest piece I've ever written.

I was thrilled (still am!) that Kaye George, the anthology's editor, accepted my short story for DAY OF THE DARK, which was published by Wildside Press and released a few months before the 2017 solar eclipse.

As a newbie psychological suspense author, I invited Kaye into the virtual hot seat to objectively assess the effectiveness of the techniques I used to pull off the unreliable narrator in my story.

If you'd care to ride shotgun--pun intended since the story involves a road trip to see the total eclipse--you can read "To the Moon and Back" online <here>.

#1 . Voice. To pull off psychological suspense, I needed to immerse the reader inside my narrator's mind. But for some reason, writing in first person POV wasn't intense enough. So I decided my (unnamed) narrator would deliver a monologue, sometimes by thinking and sometimes by talking to herself, to her daughter, and to outsiders. 

Kaye - This worked extremely well. I think it was probably difficult to do the progression from kind of kooky babbling woman, at first, to...other aspects. The first alarm bell rang for me when she explained away the crowbar to her daughter. Then didn't have her purse with her.

#2. Timing. I kept the time span of the story to a minute-by-minute correlation between both the reader's and character's experience during the road trip. In effect, the entire story is encompassed in one scene (driving the car on a lonely back road in the middle of the night) lasting about twenty minutes. That said, I did use flashbacks.

Kaye - As I said above, I admire the development of this character and the way you revealed her to us, bit by bit by bit.

#3. Engineered perception. Rather than plot the sequence of events, I plotted the ideal beats for a reader's experience. I wanted the reader to make the following progression:
  • First quarter - This character is normal but quirky
  • Second quarter - Okay, she has baggage, but I understand why.
  • Third quarter - Wait, I think she has a couple screws loose.
  • Fourth quarter - This lady bought a one-way ticket on the crazy train years ago.
Kaye - No wonder it was done so well!  You planned this out meticulously. I started out liking her because she was a garrulous ditz and I know a lot of those. I become one myself sometimes. You also develop the daughter, or un-develop her, as we go along. That gets more and more alarming.

#4. Embedded crime. (No spoilers!) Within the psychological suspense genre, I needed to solve some kind of mystery. But instead of the crime being a product of my narrator's flaws, I wanted it to be a morally-justified solution that fit naturally within her warped view of reality.

Kaye - Total success! And that was revealed in baby steps, too. I admire this story so much and am so glad you sent it to my submission call.

#5. Generate empathy. Through this emotional journey, I wanted to leave the reader torn between right and wrong. To understand the pain this narrator had experienced in such a heartbreakingly unfair turn of events. By the end of the story, I'd have hoped the reader would reflect, what would I have done? 

Kaye - As I said above, I started out sympathetic to her. I don't think I ever entirely disliked her. I do think I understand her emotions and her actions, given what she was going through. BRAVA on this accomplishment!  I just reread the whole thing and still love it.

Thank you, Kaye, for revisiting my contribution to the eclipse-themed anthology. If you would like to know more about Kaye George, her novels, and DAY OF THE DARK, please visit her website <here>.

Have you written any psychological suspense?  What tips and tricks can you share to create an unreliable narrator?

Fun fact - Kaye arranged all twenty four stories in the DAY OF THE DARK anthology according to their location on the eclipse's actual Path of Totality across North America. Creative, eh?  Since my story was set on a road trip from Virginia to Greensboro, South Carolina, "To the Moon and Back" was the nineteenth story.

PS - Let's be social:
Twitter @KKMHOO
Facebook - Kristin Kisska
Instagram - @KristinKisskaAuthor
Website - KristinKisska.com


  1. Great post, Kristin.

    Years ago, I was in a workshop where George Garrett told us that in a first-person POV story, no matter what else is going on, the most important action is the TELLING because that narrator has a reason to do it. That means there's something at stake.

    I'd never thought about that before, and I've never forgotten it.

    Thanks for this reminder.

  2. Congratulations on your story and best of luck with the anthology!

  3. Great look inside a story, Kristin, and why it works! Enjoyed this.

    (Hi, Kaye George!)

  4. Steve, that's a really insightful point about 1st person POV. Thanks!

  5. Wow! What a GREAT story! You nailed it, Kristin!

  6. I'm glad I survived the hot seat today! Isn't that a wonderful story? I'm so glad Kris submitted it. The anthology is stronger for it.
    (Hi, John!)

  7. Thank you, all, for the kind words. So glad you enjoyed my post and/or short story.

  8. Early this morning, I stopped reading your article until I could read your story. It's excellent! Congratulations to you and Kaye.

    It seems to me your story isn't merely 1st person. Couldn't one argue it's a rare example of 2nd person? Perhaps I'm wrong, but it seems 'you' and 'yours' occur far more frequently than personal pronouns. I'm out of my depth, but perhaps the answer depends whether the reader assumes the rĂ´le of the one spoken to. I could use some grammar guidance here. My head's been rattling around in a musty trunk.

  9. Leigh, I see where you're coming from, but I'll disagree. It's first person POV, in other words the person's view we're seeing, where the thoughts are coming from, is the first person. She's addressing us, the second person, but we're not doing the talking. I did do a story in second person once, just for the heck of it. It's called "You Can Do the Math" and it's in an old anthology, ALL THINGS DARK AND DASTARDLY. It was a blast to write, but I wouldn't want to do that too often. And it's a very SHORT story. I once read a novel in third person plural that blew me away. I wish I could remember the title and author! Thanks for the thoughts!

  10. Leigh & Kaye, Good point! I still argue the story is in 1st person POV. The mom is talking throughout the bulk of the story to her daughter, Katelyn. My decision to not use quotation marks for dialog was intentional, because (spoiler alert) I didn't want the reader to know at the beginning that the daughter couldn't respond. The "conversation" was one-way. The byproduct was that no quotation marks also blurred the reader's perception of whether the mom was actually talking or internally deliberating, which helped keep the narrator unreliable, especially by the last scene. Perhaps I should've flagged this a 6th technique in my blog post.
    Glad you enjoyed the story!

  11. Kristin, so sorry I missed reading this yesterday (bad day). What a terrific autopsy you gave of your story, a story that sounds fascinating. And I liked it that you asked Kaye George, editor of the anthology, to "talk" about it with you. Obviously, you pulled off your first mystery with apolmb!


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