MG at Heart Writer’s Toolbox: Writing a Fallible Narrator

Jensen and Morrison Every Shiny Thing Cover.jpg

Since the MG at Heart May pick is Every Shiny Thing, the book I co-wrote with Cordelia Jensen, we’re handling this writer’s toolbox post a little differently than usual. I’m here as both MG at Heart contributor and author to tell you about a challenge I faced when working on Every Shiny Thing and some strategies I used to address that challenge.

Every Shiny Thing has two alternating narrators, Lauren, whose chapters are in prose, and Sierra, whose chapters are in verse. I wrote Lauren’s sections, and Lauren…is not exactly a reliable narrator.

She isn’t unreliable on purpose. She doesn’t withhold information or tell lies. Greta Olson, who wrote an essay called “Reconsidering Unreliability: Fallible and Untrustworthy Narrators,” would categorize Lauren as fallible rather than untrustworthy. Fallible narrators, according to Olson, are “mistaken about their judgments or perceptions or are biased.” This is Lauren, for sure. She’s mistaken in some of her judgments and perceptions because she has some fundamental misbeliefs.

Lauren’s central misbelief is that her parents were wrong to send her older brother to a therapeutic boarding school for autistic teens because the school is not a good place for him. This misbelief leaves Lauren feeling frustrated and alone, and it leads her to question a lot of things about her parents and the privileged world she lives in, which sets the plot in motion.

But I wasn’t attempting to trick readers into believing Lauren’s misbelief along with her. One of the main things our editor brought up in our edit letter was the challenge of “toeing the line between what the reader knows to be true (that Ryan’s school is probably a good place) and what Lauren believes is true (that her parents are making a selfish mistake in sending him away).” Our editor went on to say, “It’s delicate, but I think you can do it.”

Delicate, indeed! So how did I try to accomplish this feat? Here are three strategies I used.

1.) I built in self-consciousness and desperation at the sentence level to hint at the uncertainty behind Lauren’s words.

Let’s look at the very beginning of the book, when Lauren reflects on what it was like to visit Ryan’s school for Family Weekend. She says:

There’s nothing harder than saying goodbye to Ryan.

It was hard enough back in August, when Mom and Dad first took him to his new school. Back then, I knew I’d miss him. And I was afraid that this fancy therapeutic boarding school way far away in the middle of nowhere, North Carolina, wasn’t the right place for him, even though Ry said he wanted to go, and Mom and Dad kept gushing about what a wonderful opportunity it was, and his old occupational therapist, Jenna, said you couldn’t find a better school for a teen on the autism spectrum.

But saying goodbye today, at the end of Family Weekend? This was worse. Way, way worse. Because now that I’ve seen the place for myself and seen how Ryan is there, I’m not just afraid it isn’t right. Now I know it’s not.

It was awful. Really, it was.

Here, I tried to convey the sense that Lauren has a lot of intense emotions she doesn’t know what to do with. Lauren uses repetition and short sentences that pile on top of each other, reflecting how urgently she wants to hold onto her misbelief despite some evidence to the contrary when she says, “This was worse. Way, way worse,” and, “It was awful. Really, it was.” Lauren also goes a bit overboard emphasizing just how certain she is with italics for words like “afraid” and “know.” And when she mentions reasons the school might not seem so bad, she often does so in long, breathless sentences, like the one in this passage about all of the people (Ryan included) who think the school is a good idea. It’s as if she’s rushing past the things that might seem positive as quickly as she possibly can.

2.) I allowed Lauren to admit details that contradict her misbelief…but then she either lets them pass without commentary or discounts them.

In addition to admitting all the people who think the school is a good idea, Lauren lists other aspects of the school that might seem positive to people who “aren’t paying close attention.” For instance, she admits, “It’s actually sort of beautiful, with purple-gray mountains in the distance and a long, winding driveway and super-green hills.” But then she moves right past that description to get to the things that aren’t a good fit for Ryan, in her mind.

Lauren also narrates moments that show how hard it is for her parents to say goodbye to Ryan even as she worries that they have sent him to the school because they think their lives will be easier if other people are taking care of him. For instance, when Lauren remembers that her mom was crying at the end of the weekend, she says, “For a fraction of a second, I felt sorry for her, but she’s the one who decided it was a good idea for Ryan to go to this terrible school, where he obviously doesn’t belong.” So there’s this split-second recognition that her mom is struggling with this transition and loves Ryan so much…but Lauren isn’t ready to accept that her parents are doing the best they can, so she immediately downplays that.

Basically, I tried to include plenty of clues for the reader to process, even though Lauren doesn’t let herself process them.

3.) I showed the source of Lauren’s misbelief so readers could understand where she was coming from.

I didn’t want readers to be so frustrated with Lauren’s misbelief that they would stop reading, so it was important to show that she had some good reasons for worrying.

Also in the first chapter, Lauren says, “The thing about Ry is, sometimes he goes along with things that make him feel awful because he wants to make other people feel good, and then it all gets to be too much, and he melts down.” Then she gives examples of other times Ryan tried to do what he thought other people wanted him to do and finishes, “So now he might just be sticking out boarding school because he thinks it’s important to Mom and Dad. And then there’ll be nobody around but Scott the Smug OT to comfort him when it’s all too much to stick out.” And in her second chapter, we find out that Ryan attended another school at home where the therapies were detrimental for him, and it took her parents a little while to realize that school was not a good fit.

These parts make it clear that Lauren’s worry stems from a deep affection for her brother and past experiences that have made her fears seem plausible. These insights into the valid reasons for Lauren’s not-so-valid belief help readers feel for her, I think.

I hope these strategies are helpful for other writers who are crafting fallible narrators, or for readers who are reading books that feature these kinds of characters. And if you read Every Shiny Thing with us this month, I’m sure you’ll notice lots of other ways Lauren’s fallibility comes through…some of which I likely didn’t do consciously. I’d love to hear about them if you do!

. . .

Our newsletter about Every Shiny Thing will go out on 5/28 and our Twitter Book Club Chat about the book will be on 6/5 at 8pm EST with the hashtag #mgbookclub. Hope you can join us!

Laurie Morrison Headshot 2.jpg


Laurie Morrison taught middle school English for ten years and is the author of two middle grade novels: EVERY SHINY THING, which she co-wrote with Cordelia Jensen, and UP FOR AIR, which comes out from Abrams/Amulet Books in spring of 2019. She has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives with her family in Philadelphia. She loves books for older middle grade readers, fresh-baked pastries, being outside, and the ocean.


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