How many times have you been completely captivated by a movie character, only to find out that their story is not what you thought it was? For me, that number is too high to count. And sometimes, that occurrence makes for some of the most captivating and meaningful movie experiences.
Before these movies captivated their audiences, their filmmakers captivated investors to raise funding for the project. Whether it was an internal studio meeting or a conversation over coffee, creatives attracted funding to their stories using the tactic of an unreliable protagonist.
Some of the best psychological thrillers such as The Sixth Sense and American Psycho tell stories through an unreliable point of view. Often times these movies use an untrustworthy protagonist or an unreliable narrator, defined by author Wayne C. Booth as “a narrator whose credibility is seriously compromised,” to advance the story.
Writing a screenplay with an unreliable narrator can be a very difficult experience. Your screenplay will most likely be grounded in the thoughts, dreams, and desires of that protagonist, and sometimes it can be frustrating trying to enter that headspace. With that said, these are a few techniques on how to create a story from the perspective of an untrustworthy narrator.
Play with types of point of view
One of the first decisions screenwriters need to make is what point of view from which to write their story. Thinking about your story in terms of different points of view can drastically change the outcome of your screenplay. It can help emphasize a particular theme or purpose for writing, which can ultimately strengthen your pitch when raising funding for your project.
Important: make sure your decision to use a unique point of view is driven by a story-based motive. You need to have a real reason that’s significant to your story. Don’t just use it because you like it or you think it may attract funding. It may, but it also needs to work on its own.
A brief explanation of point of view types
First-person point of view is most commonly used when telling stories with unreliable narrators. This is a narrative point of view that, in voiceover, functions with the pronouns “I” and “me.” First person helps the audience come to know the narrator more intimately and experience their life as if we were sitting inside their brain. The use of first person creates an innate trust with the viewer, and then when the unreliability comes in this trust breaks, creating drama and possible twists. Producers love funding projects with good twists.
Second-person point of view, in which the story centers around the audience as the protagonist, is used much less frequently in movies. However, second person, as well as all points of view, are worth experimenting with. In experimenting, you may find newer and fresher ways to tell your story.
Third-person point of view tells a story from the lens of an outside perspective, which can be effective if you want to leave some emotional space between the audience and the protagonist. This point of view differs slightly from an all-knowing or omniscient point of view, where the audience is exposed to all of the objective realities of the movie.
In literature, there exist two types of third-person point of view–omniscient and limited. For the purposes of this post, we’ll skip past those.
Your protagonist is a sort of god in your story
When thinking about movies with voiceover narration, most people’s minds naturally jump to the kind of powerful Morgan Freeman voiceover that accompanies a classic drama. But you can create a character with a god-like presence without having to adhere to the “God” stereotypes.
A good example of a god character is Patrick Bateman from American Psycho. Through intimate voiceover, the audience emotionally connects with Patrick and begins to see the world through his eyes. An audience will inexplicably trust a god character — even if they aren’t trustworthy at all — which you can use to your advantage in building an unreliable point of view.
Voiceover functions as an establishment of dominance, as highlighted in Patrick’s morning routine in American Psycho. As Patrick calmly and unsettlingly details every aspect of his daily routine in the beginning of the film, the audience builds a picture of him in their mind, the one he wants them to build. Using voiceover to create an omnipotent protagonist, regardless of how they are perceived by other characters, gives that character control over the story and allows them to twist reality as they desire.
Audiences love being betrayed by screenwriters, hence the adage “kill your darlings.” Build trust and then confuse your audience by ripping it away. That’s what makes stories gripping, and it’s what will help fund your project, too. When thinking about point of view, always ask yourself, is this the most gripping way i could tell this story?
Delineate your story’s timeline–to a degree
Often when writing a screenplay from the perspective of a certain character, you’ll want to create a more foggy, subjective atmosphere for your story to unfold in. An effective way to do this is to allow the storyline to take on a thought process of its own.
Take a minute and try to write freely about everything that’s happened in your life in the past week or past month. Most likely, you’ll think of events out of order, remember certain ones much clearer than others, and forget some entirely. You can apply this idea when writing through a protagonist’s perspective on their own life.
Delineating and jumbling experiences can effectively convey to the audience that we’re inside the protagonist’s mind. In other words, you don’t need your timeline to be crystal clear. Just as our memories of certain events become hazy and twisted, scenes in your movie can be too.
Take advantage of the details
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, we sometimes know we’re in Joel’s dreams, without truly knowing why we know. This is because the most powerful elements of the scenes lie in the details.
For example, the shelves of the dream bookstore Joel and Clementine visit boast books turned around or with blanks covers. This detail mimics our own dream experiences — rarely ever in dreams does our mind create fully fleshed out and comprehensive environments. But in watching the movie, we wouldn’t think about this fact consciously. Instead, we submit happily to the Eternal Sunshine world knowing somewhere inside us that something feels “off” enough about the environment to transport us into Joel’s dreamland.
These details are often what will legitimize your unreliable point of view. The purpose of using unreliable points of view in your writing isn’t solely to confuse your viewer (though that can be part of it). Use details to properly build your movie’s world and subtly convey knowledge to the audience.
Give the story a climax of emotion, then action
Keep in mind that you’re not just relaying a series of events — you’re telling a story about a person and their emotional journey in response to these events. For this reason, your climax should first and foremost be an event that both your audience and your narrator respond to emotionally.
If the audience is in the head of the narrator, it’s probable that they will become even more invested in that character’s emotional arc than they are in the physical events of the story. For example, the Sixth Sense script includes a moment for both the emotional and physical climax of the story. The emotional climax comes first, with the knowledge the protagonist gains being used later in the physical climax.
This chronology places the importance on the emotional trajectory of the story, a technique which is quite effective when using an unreliable narrator. It’s especially useful if you want to hit the audience with a shocking plot twist, which is oftentimes a realization that both the narrator and the audience have at the same time. They experience the emotional climax, but now what are they going to do with it? They are going to apply it to their objective reality and do something great with it. And that makes for a impactful ending.
Research mental illness
A go-to explanation for an unreliable narrator is mental illness in the narrator. That’s not to say it’s necessarily a bad explanation; when written correctly, a mentally ill character is exactly what you need to tell a meaningful and compelling story. But it can just as easily turn in the opposite direction. The last thing you want is your protagonist’s story seeming cheesy or outlandish because it’s not grounded in fact.
Let’s take a stab at a quick analysis of American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman (pun intended). He suffers from a variety of personality disorders that are fairly accurately portrayed in the movie. This gives the audience a way to make sense of Patrick by the end of the story, and the portrayal makes his experiences seem more real, more personal, and even more haunting. The closer an audience can get emotionally to an unsettling occurrence, the more likely they are to be deeply affected by it.
These are a few effective ways to fit an unreliable narrator into your screenplay, but remember that your protagonist and their journey can be deeply original and personal to you. Through experimentation and practice, you’ll be able to find styles and techniques that work for you, and that may place you up there with some of the classics.