April 27, 2015

The Unreliable Narrator

An unreliable narrator is a point-of-view character in a story who isn't being completely honest with the reader, and perhaps even with himself or herself.  The unreliable narrator in a novel or short story is nearly always the first-person narrator of that story.

The unreliable narrator may do things like:
  • Lie to the reader
  • Leave out important details or facts that are uncomfortable for them to admit
  • Hold back information that paints the narrator in a bad light
  • Seem to have ulterior motives for their actions
  • Behave in ways that seem out of character
  • Exaggerate or brag about their accomplishments, actions, etc.
  • Share a distorted view of the world due to mental illness or immaturity
  • Distorts the facts to enhance the humor of a situation
  • Seem honest and truthful, but have their lies brought to light by other characters
  • Tell an inaccurate or incomplete story because they don't have all the facts
It may be evident from the start that the narrator is unreliable.  It may come to light during the story. It might not even be shown clearly at all, leaving the reader to wonder if the story is true or not.

Why Would I Need an Unreliable Narrator?

Many stories would not benefit from an unreliable narrator.  Some will.  As an author, there are a number of reasons why you might choose to employ an unreliable narrator for your story.  These include (but are not limited to):

  • You want to establish that the character is untrustworthy.
  • Facts you want to hide from the reader are facts this character would not want made public.
  • You're demonstrating the depth of the character's mental problems.
  • You want to show that the character is boastful, self-absorbed, or narcissistic.
  • You want to show that the character is uncomfortable discussing a situation honestly.
  • You're showing the character's cunning.

Using an unreliable narrator will knock the reader off balance.  They will wonder as they read your story whether they are learning what's actually happening, if they're being fed a lie, or if there is more going on in the story than they realized at first.

Example: Fred

Here's an example of how you might use an unreliable narrator to increase the tension in a story...

Fred says good night to his boss, goes outside, and gets into his car.  We see a conversation he has with his wife over the cell phone, in which he tells her how much he loves her and how lucky he is to have her.  He talks to his kids and congratulates them on their school work.  After he hangs up, he pulls the car into the parking lot of a gun store and goes inside.  He tells us that he stops here to unwind every so often.

The shop clerk calls him by name, and asks if he wants the usual "burglar blaster" ammo and pistol today.  He says yes, and pays for time on the shooting range, too.  He takes the pistol and ammo to the range and starts firing.  When he's done, he's hit 24 out of 25 shots.  His "miss" is only an inch from the bullseye.  A policeman in the next stall is impressed, and asks if he was in the military or police force.  Fred tells him no, that he's just an accountant who's practiced a few times.

Later in the story, we learn that Fred's family has been killed, victims of an apparent home invasion.  The police describe the ammunition used by the killer, and it's the same stuff Fred used at the shooting range.  Later, the police learn that Fred has been going there every Wednesday like clockwork for the past six months, not "every so often" as he claimed, and always uses that ammo despite the fact that there are much less expensive varieties that are suitable for target practice.

The reader is now left to wonder.  Is the fact that his family was killed with the very ammunition he likes to practice with just a coincidence?  Has Fred been planning to kill them for a while, and using the target practice to prepare?  If Fred says he didn't do it, do we believe him?

By casting some doubt on Fred's honesty, we may be leading the reader on (if Fred really didn't do it, and there's irrefutable evidence - like he was at a televised fundraiser for the mayor at the time) or planting clues that show Fred's guilt (and making it believable because he's lied to us already).


An unreliable narrator isn't necessary in every story you write.  Many stories are better served by an honest narrator, or by a narrator who can tell us each character's thoughts and plans.  This is just one more tool in your toolbox that can help to produce better stories.

April 20, 2015

Ashleywilde Software - Storybase 2.0 - Review

Ashleywilde Software's Storybase is a brainstorming tool for writers.  It's designed to help you generate ideas for increasing the conflict in your story.  It does this by using a database of "narrative situations" that it proposes in response to information you provide it.  I think of the output of Storybase as something like emailing a writer friend to briefly describe your characters and story, and having send you back a bunch of ideas about things that might happen in your story.  Just as with ideas generated by a friend or colleague, Storybase will provide some ideas that you look at and think "Yeah, that might be interesting" and some that you read and think "What were they smoking when they came up with that idea?"

Finding Scenes and Situations for Your Story

To demonstrate the software in real-world use, we'll use a hypothetical story.  I'll give it the working title "The Rat" and define three main characters.  Jack Barnes is the hero or protagonist of our story.  He's in love with Melanie Hastings, and so is another man named Tim Garner.  Let's say that right now, that's all I really know.  I've no idea how I want this to play out, so I fire up Storybase.

In the Something window, I give Storybase those three character names and group them as a set called "The Rat":

Now that I've filled in the character set and names, I click the "Mindset" tab to tell Storybase up to three words that describe my protagonist's mindset.  Choosing "Any" makes all mindset options available.

Since it sounds like making Jack Barnes obsessed and insecure might make for an interesting story, I'll select those options:

Next, I'm asked to select the Thrust of the story, or what the conflict is about.  I'm thinking that Jack wants to date Melanie, but he's worried that she's more interested in Tim.  I'm going to choose "Triangle" as the Thrust:

When I click the Conflicts tab, Storybase offers a number of possible story situations that I might consider writing between Jack, Tim, and Melanie:

In the lower-right corner, we see that Storybase has found 102 different situations I might choose to write between these three characters.  Let's say I select "Knowing something about Tim Garner, Jack Barnes warns Melanie Hastings to stay away."  Now I click the "Leads" tab to identify conflicts that might lead into and out of that conflict.

In this window, you see the conflict I chose earlier in the middle box.  Above and below it are boxes offering situations that lead into and out of that selected conflict.  Storybase offers me 12 ways I can lead into the "Knowing something about Tim Garner" conflict and 9 ways to lead out of it.

Here are the 12 lead-in situations Storybase suggested:

  • Jack Barnes is unaware of Melanie Hastings's prior relationship with Tim Garner.
  • Jack Barnes thinks Tim Garner did something when really it was Melanie Hastings.
  • Jack Barnes asks Tim Garner to deliver a message to Melanie Hastings.
  • Jack Barnes regrets introducing Melanie Hastings and Tim Garner.
  • Jack Barnes believes Tim Garner is hiding something from Melanie Hastings.
  • Jack Barnes is surprised by what Tim Garner knows.
  • After a personal setback, Jack Barnes notices Melanie Hastings losing interest.
  • Jack Barnes is crushed to see Melanie Hastings getting together with Tim Garner.
  • Jack Barnes feels that Melanie Hastings has a fundamental misconception of Tim Garner.
  • Jack Barnes learns something about Tim Garner that Melanie Hastings doesn't know.
  • Jack Barnes explains to Melanie Hastings why a relationship wouldn't be good for either of them.
  • Jack Barnes admires the sacrifice Melanie Hastings makes for Tim Garner.'
Let's say I've decided that this is an early situation in the story.  Jack's decided that he wants to date Melanie, and he is worried that she might be more interested in his friend Tim.  Maybe Tim's more handsome and wealthy than Jack is, so Jack's a little threatened.  Jack knows that Tim once conned an older woman into giving him the money to start a business that he sold for a million dollars. He thinks if Melanie know about Tim's swindle, she might not like Tim as much.  

I'll choose the lead-in "Jack Barnes feels that Melanie Hastings has a fundamental misconception of Tim Garner."  She thinks Tim's basically a nice, honest, self-made man... when in reality he isn't above lying and cheating to get what he wants.   

Now I'll look at the list of lead-out situations Storybase suggested.  These include the following (and several others I'm not listing):
  • Unforeseen events delay a rendezvous between Jack Barnes and Melanie Hastings.
  • To achieve an objective, Jack Barnes boldly defies social standards.
  • Jack Barnes does something that causes Melanie Hastings to laugh hysterically.
  • Jack Barnes tries to destroy Tim Garner's ability to communicate.
That third one sounds intriguing.  Perhaps once Jack gets together with Melanie, he tells her about how Tim Garner convinced an older woman to give him a bunch of money under false pretenses.  When Jack tells her this, thinking it will destroy her image of Tim, she begins laughing at him.  She tells him that she knew all about that that, and in fact was in on it with Tim.  She played Tim's devoted wife and gave Tim the credibility he needed to pull off the con.  This little news is likely to rock Jack's world and shake his image of Melanie!

I double-click the "laugh hysterically" item in the bottom box.  Notice that it now moves up to the middle, allowing me to select lead-out events for that one:

I'm really only offered two here, "Jack Barnes starts to doubt feelings for Melanie Hastings" and "After looking elsewhere, Jack Barnes begins to appreciate Melanie Hastings."  The first one seems more realistic to me, so I'll choose that one.

This is the gist of what Storybase is all about.  Using your actual character names, the mindset of your main character, and the thrust of the story, you get a list of suggested scenes or situations that you might want to consider using (or not).  It doesn't "give" you a story to write, doesn't force you to write to a particular model or structure, or anything like that.  It's like having a friend who can throw lots of "well, what about this..." kind of situations at you when you need them.

Keyword Search

If you don't want to go through all that, the Keyword search tab can help you find situations that match up to that keyword.  For example, let's say I ask it to show me situations involving the word "secret":

I click "OK" to see the list of results:

Storybase offers me 57 different situations that involve secrets in some way.  I can pick and choose the ones that will help me in my particular story.

Tutorial and Help

Although Storybase isn't a particularly complicated or confusing program to work with, Ashleywilde Software has included help and tutorial functionality within the product.

Above is not the entire help system.  Many of the underlined words are links that can take you to additional information about a particular topic.

Requirements and Installation

Storybase has very light hardware requirements, which pretty much any PC made in the last several years can meet.  You need the Windows operating system (95, 98, 2000, XP, Vista, 7, 8, or 8.1), a Pentium 166 MHz or higher processor, 64MB or more RAM, 128MB of free hard disk space, a screen resolution of at least 800x600, and a CD-ROM drive.

Installation is quick and easy.  You launch the installer on the CD, click through a wizard-based installation process, and the software is installed.  It took me about 1-2 minutes to install.

Conclusion and Recommendations

I see Storybase fitting into my writing toolkit in a number of ways.  If I've got in mind a partial story that I'm trying to flesh out, I think Storybase could help me there.  I could easily sit down with it, enter in my character names, then poke around with the Keyword search and Conflicts functions to start identifying situations or scenes I might want to toss my characters into.  In this situation, Storybase would help me flesh out the story idea.  I'd transfer the ideas it sparked into some other package to do the actual writing.  Storybase has a very simple text editing window, but not one that I'd personally want to do more than keep notes in before transferring them to Microsoft Word, Scrivener, or some other tool.

The best way to get a feel for whether Storybase is a worthwhile purchase for you might be to check out the Storybase.net Beta site that is online as of this writing.  That site has a subset of the features of the full Storybase product, and gives you a good way to test it and see if Storybase will help you in your own writing activities.  If so, then you can pick up a copy on Amazon.com for $49.95.

April 13, 2015

Crafting Science-Fiction Story Openings

Any good story begins with a good opening line.  Science-fiction stories are no different.  A good opening line in a fictional story will give us:

  • One of the story characters
  • Depict that character in a location or setting
  • Show the character doing something
  • Ideally, include interesting wording or imagery

A science-fiction opening should do all of these things, but should also try to:

  • Show something that is true in your character's world, but not in ours.
  • Foreshadow the ending in a way that, when a reader re-reads your book, he or she will wonder how they didn't seen the ending coming from that opening.
This helps your story two ways.  You engage the reader's mind as quickly as possible.  By incorporating something untrue in our world but true in the world of your story, the reader begins to wonder about and imagine your story world.  This also achieves what Poul Anderson called "the twin pleasures of surprise and rightness".  When the reader finishes your story and later re-reads it, the foreshadowing makes them wonder how they didn't see the ending coming.

You might not be able to achieve all the above goals in your opening sentence, paragraph, or page, but that's the goal to work toward.

Here are examples of some opening lines that achieve many of these goals:

  • "As I approached the front door of The First Bank of Bit o' Heaven, it sensed my presence and swung open with an automatic welcome.  I stepped briskly through and stopped. But I was just far enough inside so that the door was unable to close behind me. While it was sliding shut I took the arc pen from my bag - then spun about just as it had closed completely."

    This opening, from Harry Harrison's A Stainless Steel Rat is Born, shows the main character Jim DiGriz, an intergalactic thief and con-man, in action at a bank.  We hear some interesting phrases such as "Bit o' Heaven", "automatic welcome", and "arc pen" that don't fit in our world.  We may even wonder what an "automatic welcome" or an "arc pen" is.  We may also wonder why the main character uses the arc pen to weld shut the door that might be his escape from the bank he's about to rob.  While nothing here hints at the book's ending, this opening does cover almost all of the other criteria.
  • "The Volante's engines roared as the ship descended towards Cathua, one of three inhabited planets in the Oxed system.  In the flight deck, Hal Spacejock was paying as much attention to the coffee mug balanced amongst the instruments as he was to the approach. He could surivive without watching the landing, but he only had one mug."

    This opening, from Simon Haynes' Hal Spacejock 3: Just Desserts shows us the main character, shows him on his ship heading somewhere, demonstrates how his world is different from ours (we don't fly spaceships), makes us a little curious as to why he's almost more concerned about his coffee mug than landing his spaceship, and hints that this is going to be a humorous or at least offbeat story.  Although not included above, the rest of the opening chapter contains some arguing between Hal and his robot companion Clunk about how badly the ship's business transactions are being handled.  This foreshadows the ending, where Hal offers Clunk some of the (generally non-existent) profits from the ship's activities in exchange for him helping to make the ship more profitable.
  • "Why did I think the bank manager was a super-villain? He didn't particularly look like one. Then again, he wouldn't have been much of a super-villain if he had."

    The opening of Michael A. Stackpole's "superhero noir" story In Hero Years... I'm Dead" shows the main character, a middle-aged superhero coming back to town after being held captive for years, trying to make sense of a disquieting feeling he has.  The sentence places us in a bank, with our hero, who's sizing up this bank manager, and wondering why he reminds the hero of a super-villain.  Since there are no super-villains in our world (at least none of the comic book variety), this lets us know that the normal rules don't apply in this universe.  Superheroes and villains exist here.
You can probably find many more good examples in your reading.

Crafting an opening like this can be relatively simple, but may require you to go back and revise the opening once you've written the ending.  You may want to insert hints as to how the story will end, in order to give readers that "should have seen it coming" thought.  You may want to borrow phrases or ideas from later in the book and insert them in the opening to show how the story world differs from the real world of today, and so on.

This is one reason that author Brady Allen suggests that authors practice writing opening lines, opening paragraphs, and opening pages.  Doing this gives you not only good practice in hitting the points above, but also gives you lots of story prompts you can use when you're looking for something new to write.

April 6, 2015

Create a Believable, Likable Character - Part 7

In the last post, we saw the debriefing that ended with Paul Garrick taking command of the Prospect and being prompted to Captain.  The following scene shows Paul handling his first mission as the Prospect's commanding officer.  (Bear in mind that this is only a first draft, without revision, created just to put me into the character's head and world.)

The Mission to Gamma Hydra V

"Computer, begin recording.  Captain Garrick's journal, day twelve of command.  I've been given my first assignment.  The admiral tells me it's gonna be a cake walk.  We go to Gamma Hydra V, send down an away team, gather some rock, soil, water, and air samples, and come back up.  The Prospect isn't the first ship to visit the place, and the others found nothing to account for the death of the planet's population.  Judging from the artifacts and records that remain, the experts say it looks like there was an invasion.  No idea who or what invaded, but they seem to have killed or captured the entire population of the planet within a few hours.  We've never seen anything like it.  The Alliance wants the samples to make sure that it really was an invasion and not some kind of plague.  They found a lot of interesting tech down there that they want to salvage, and they want to make sure it's a safe place for civilians.  Never mind that four previous missions came and went without a problem."

The Prospect's comm system beeped to get his attention.  "Incoming message from the bridge."

Garrick turned to face the comm panel.  "Accept message.  Garrick here."

"Captain, this is Commander Morris."

Garrick smiled.  "After twenty years, you've earned the right to call me Paul."

Morris relaxed a bit.  "We're in orbit over the planet.  I'll need your away team selections."

"Sending now."  Garrick press the send button on his computer panel.

Morris smiled like a cat who'd caught a big, juicy canary.  "You're serious about this?"

"Damned right.  You're my best friend.  If I can't trust you to go down there and supervise some rock collecting, you don't deserve to be my second-in-command."  Garrick smiled.

If the smile on Morris' face could have been any wider, it might have formed a circle around his head.  "Yes, sir."

"I know your previous commander liked to get his hands dirty, and he liked having someone he could trust back here running things while he was away.  I'm not him."

"No, Paul, you sure aren't.  Three and a half years on this ship and I've left it exactly three times.  And two of those were on Earth."

"Have fun down there, Carl.  Just be careful.  Good first officers are hard to find."

Garrick checked to make sure his uniform was clean, and made his way to the bridge.  The communications officer saluted as he entered.

"Landing party status, Lieutenant?"  

The comms officer nodded slightly.  "The party is in a shuttle and making its way down to the surface.  They report minimal winds and cloud cover.  They should touch down in about 90 seconds."

"Good.  Tell them to break out the hazard suits and rebreathers.  Let's not take unnecessary risks."

The comms officer delivered the message.  The tab in Paul's hand vibrated.  A text message from Morris:  "Are you serious?  You know the atmosphere's breathable, right?"

He sent a message back:  "If something happened to you before the wedding, Rachel would kill me."

"That's six months away."

"I don't care.  Follow the orders, Commander."

"Aye, sir."

Garrick imagined Carl cursing him under his breath.  It was his first real mission off the ship and he'd be spending it in a hazardous environment suit... on a world where no Alliance citizen had ever been injured or died. "Yeah, he probably hates me," Garrick thought to himself.

After the shuttle landed on the planet, the viewscreen showed four point-of-view displays from the landing party's head-mounted cameras.  This video was overlayed with sensor readings from the environmental suit headgear and their handheld devices.  The sensor data showed nothing out of the ordinary.  No radiation, no airborne toxins, and minimal bacteria.

Commander Morris's voice came through the comm system.  "Captain Garrick, Morris here.  Are you sure we need these hazard suits?  They're slowing us down and the sensors aren't picking up anything harmful."

Garrick sighed.  "Rick, humor me here. Stay in the suits a while longer.  I'll let you out if the sensors keep showing nothing."

"Aye sir," Morris said.  "Everyone fan out and grab some soil samples.  Get one from the city over there, another from the forest to the east, one from here, and I'll grab one from the lake over to the west."

The others acknowledged the order and the landing party spread out.  Garrick watched their progress, occasionally asking questions about things he saw.  Several minutes later, Morris reached the shore of the lake and took out his sample kit.

"Pretty place," Garrick told Morris.

"Yeah," Morris said.  "I could imagine taking a little boat out there and going fishing."

Garrick looked at the sensor data. "You might even catch something.  I see life signs in the water."

"It's mostly small stuff.  Although I am picking up something a little larger just off the shore."  Morris stepped forward toward the water.  Suddenly, the camera angle jerked upward and the screen filled with the image of murky water."

"Garrick to landing party, converge on Commander Morris' position on the double!  Paul, are you OK?"

Paul didn't respond.  Garrick's heart raced as he watched the landing party views making their way toward his friend.  He could see Paul on his back in the hazard suit.  He didn't appear to be moving.  It seemed like an eternity before the others reached Paul.  Paul's display still showed the murky water but also his declining life signs.

"Get the Commander back to the shuttle and aboard the Prospect as fast as you can.  Garrick to MedBay, Commander Morris has been injured on the planet's surface.  It looks like he took a bite to the leg from some kind of alien creature.  His life signs are dropping fast."

Dr. Porter acknowledged the message and took a team to the shuttle bay.  Garrick went also.

Morris looked pale and slightly blue when the medical team pulled him from the shuttle and rushed him toward MedBay.  Garrick followed behind, giving the doctors room to do what had to be done while staying as close to his friend as he could.

"How is he, Doc?"  

"I'm not gonna lie, Captain.  It doesn't look good.  There's some kind of toxin running through his system.  I haven't seen anything like it.  We'll see if we can run his blood through a purifier and try to get the toxin out of him."

"Do whatever you can."

"I will," Porter said, and returned to his patient.

Garrick knew there was nothing more for him to do here, so he returned to the bridge and ordered the landing party back to the planet's surface to complete the mission.  He watched the viewscreen but couldn't focus on the activity.

The comm system chimed. "Captain Garrick, Dr. Porter here."

"How's Commander Morris."

"I'm sorry, Captain.  We couldn't save him."

"Understood, Garrick out.  Lieutenant Hernandez, you have the bridge.  I'll be in my quarters."

Garrick tried to keep a blank expression on his face as he made his way to his quarters.  Thoughts of Paul flooded his mind as he passed through the corridors.  He saw the day they met in grade school, the time he pushed Paul to ask Rachel to dance in middle school, and dozens of other little memories from the past forty years.  When the door to his quarters slid shut behind him, the tears came.  They were a trickle at first, and then a flood.

* * *

Garrick opened the comm channel to Martha, Rick's mother and only surviving relative.  Martha's face filled the screen, and she smiled.

"Paul, it's so good to see you!  How are--"

Paul saw her face as she registered the expression on his.  Her smile vanished.  Her brow knitted together and her lower lip protruded slightly.

"Martha, it's Rick.  He's gone.  I'm so sorry.  I--" The tears came again before he could finish the sentence.  He wanted to tell her that he felt responsible, that he was trying to do Rick a little favor before his tour of duty ended, but it had all gone wrong without warning.  He let the tears flow for a few seconds, then took a deep breath and calmed himself as best he could.

"How did it happen?"

"He'd been telling me he wanted to get off the ship.  They gave us a mission that was supposed to be a cake walk.  He just had to go down to a planet, grab soil, air, and water samples, and come back. It's a planet the Alliance has visited a half-dozen times without incident.  I even made him wear a hazard suit, which he was mad at me for.  I thought it couldn't be any safer.  He was scanning some kind of underwater creature when it bit him and poisoned him.  The entire medical team worked on him, and did all they could, but we lost him.  They say the poison in that creature mixed with some kind of bacteria in the water and made things worse."

Martha wiped the tears from her eyes with the back of her hand.  "That's it, then.  The end."

"Yeah, that's what happened."

"No," Martha said, the tears flowing again.  "I mean it's the end of the Morris family line.  Rick was supposed to carry it on.  He and Rachel were planning to have children as soon as possible after the wedding.  I was really looking forward to grandchildren."

"I know, and I'm so sorry.  If I had it to do over again..."  He hung his head.

"It's OK, Paul.  I know you did your best for Rick.  He'd been telling me for months how much he hated serving under Captain Martin.  Martin never let him off the ship, he said. You gave him that chance."

"I did, but I feel terrible about it."

"Don't.  You didn't kill him, Paul.  Remember that.  I need to go.  I've got to tell Rachel."

"OK.  Please tell her I'm so sorry.  If I'd thought there was any chance he'd have been injured down there, I'd never have sent him."

"I know, Paul. I know.  Goodbye."  The comm connection closed, and the display went back to showing a dashboard display of the ship's status.

Paul took out a washcloth and dampened it in the sink.  He cleaned his face, checking the mirror to make sure he'd gotten everything.  He didn't think the crew should see him cry.

"You really screwed up, Paul," he said to the image in the mirror.  "First mission, and you kill your best friend... and ended his family line.  Some friend you are.  Some captain...  What the hell was Admiral Boxleitner thinking when she put us in charge of the Prospect?"

He took a deep breath, put down the washcloth, and stepped out into the corridor.


I know that the writing world tends to be made up of "plotters" who like to nail down every detail of their stories before they write them, and "pantsers" who define very little ahead of time and discover the story as it's being written.  I think the approach here can be beneficial to both types of writers.

Plotters may find that putting the extra time into developing their characters and writing all this backstory detail helps them do a much better job when they write the actual story.

Pantsers may find that the discovery writing done in this part of the process helps them understand the character better before starting to write the "real" story they're imagining.  It might save them from a rewrite or two.

Whatever your personal inclination may be, I hope this series has helped you understand character development better for your own writing.