Brad Johnson, from Script Magazine discusses how characters perpetuate their own interpretation of the truth in movies. Sometimes this is an outright lie, but often it’s a severe distortion of reality.
Every story is told from the perspective of a specific character, but what if that character doesn’t see reality clearly? Most unreliable narrators come to provide a twist to a story. Whether it’s Edward Norton’s narrator being one side of a split personality with Tyler Durden (Fight Club), the revelation that Verbal Kent is the criminal mastermind Keyser Soze (The Usual Suspects), or the fact that Bruce Willis was actually dead the entire time (The Sixth Sense) Their narration purposely dupes the audience into believing one thing for the sole purpose of the big reveal at the end of the film.
Let’s take a look at…
500 Days of Summer
Part of what makes the use of an unreliable narrator is that they are usually likeable or sympathetic characters. You need to identify with them, to want them to succeed, so that you don’t question the lies they tell you throughout the story. That’s exactly the case with Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in Summer.
He’s an extremely likable guy. He’s friendly, funny, and talented – but a little unsure of himself. Who can’t identify with him? And these are the reasons that we cheer for him and Summer. We want their relationship to succeed even though an actual omniscient narrator tells the audience at the beginning of the film – “You should know up front, this is not a love story.”
It’s right there, but we cheer Tom on anyway because of our admiration of him as a character (and our assumptions about the genre of film we think we’re watching).
(500) Days of Summer goes out of its way to show the audience that Tom isn’t reliable. Hell, there’s even an extended dance number with animation after Tom and Summer have sex for the first time to show how much of a fantasy world he truly lives in.
Take a look at your script. Is it too direct? Too straight forward?
Think about the POV of your story. Can that character be trusted to tell the truth? If the answer is “No”, then adding an unreliable narrator just might be a new way for you to add another level of excitement to your story.