The Ten Commandments of Fiction Writing, Part Five

As a student of the art of fiction, there are several axioms and pieces of advice that I come across again and again; "show, don't tell", "write what you know", "don't trick the reader", etc. These aren't items from a single book, they're everywhere. Some of them surely originate with specific authors, but as ideas they've taken on a life of their own, becoming more than something one person said.

In this series, I will try to gather all those admonitions, encouragements, and adages into a single, definitive list; the Ten Commandments of Fiction Writing. Hopefully this will be as fun and educational for you as it is for me.


Commandment Five: Thou shalt not bear false witness unto the reader

This one is bound to stir up some controversy, but I'm pretty convinced of this rule. In short, you should never mislead the reader.

The operative word there is "you". You, the author, have a responsibility to the reader. Whether you want them to or not, they assume whatever you say is true, within the context of the story. Assuming you've written it clearly, they imagine things just the way you say them. If you then pull a switch on them, you break that trust. For the remainder of your story (and possibly your career) readers will be eyeing every word with suspicion, and that knocks them out of the story. Instead of focusing on your plot and characters, they're focused on figuring out what sort of tricks you're playing.

One of the most cited examples of this mistake is the technique of beginning with a false awakening. On one hand, false awakenings are a real part of human experience, so writing about them is justified in that sense. But on the other hand, they break a story's momentum right at the beginning. It's not fair to open on a dramatic situation, get readers into it, and suddenly tell them it's not real. (That said, I have been guilty of the false awakening beginning. But I had a reason: my story centered on a character who suffered from nightmares, which in turn fueled his chronic hypnophobia. Without a glimpse of his nightmares, I felt the hypnophobia would have been less believable.)

Similarly, the "twist-for-twist's-sake" ending (employed most famously in the works of M. Night Shyamalan) is almost always a poor choice. In most situations, a gigantic twist at the end of a story simply negates everything that came before it. It signifies that everything we've just read or watched didn't really matter. Who wouldn't feel betrayed by that?

If you're writing a mystery, misdirection can be good. In fact, some degree of it is expected. Mystery as a genre challenges the reader to figure out the truth before the protagonist does. But really, that's not the type of misleading I'm talking about here. In a mystery, a clue is presented as possibly true. The detective eyes every piece of information with suspicion, and so does the reader. And more importantly, the detective and the reader are aware of the same things. The detective does not hide anything from the reader.

What I'm against is unreliable narrators--unless they are a character in their own right. Let me explain. (If you've read my articles about Narrative Mood and Point of View, you might be able to guess where I'm going with this.)

If your narrator is going to lie to the reader, they have to have a motive. If the narrator is simply you, the author, then your only possible motive is to seem clever to the reader. True, readers do like surprises, but not when they arise out of an effort to be cute. It's the literary equivalent of a pun. Readers get it, but it makes them groan internally.

Readers expect a disembodied, non-character narrator to be impartial. Whether that narrator is omniscient or not, they exist merely to recount events as they happen. When they disregard that task, their reason for existing is called into question, and the fourth wall breaks down.

However, if your narrator is a character in their own right, they might have any number of motives to lie. As a character--even if they're not directly involved in the story--they are behind the fourth wall, and thus their disingenuous narration does not break the fictive dream.

As with so many of these commandments, this boils down to avoiding any practice which makes the reader aware of you instead of the story. The joy of reading fiction is that you become immersed in another world, and anything that threatens that threatens the joy of reading.

So don't lie to your readers. By all means, have your characters lie to them, but don't do it yourself. (Like this quote? Click here to tweet it!)