Unreliable narrators, mysteries, and Shutter Island.


Because of opening images in the trailer for Shutter Island, I was convinced it was a horror movie. So I refused to watch it. But I kept hearing that it wasn’t horror. So I watched but with really low expectations. And guess what? I loved it.

So, here’s my take away after watching the movie.

When writing an unreliable narrator, you must present the character as stable and confident to win the belief of the reader.

  • Unless you want the reader to know your character is unreliable.
  • In this movie, I was totally fooled.

Use weather and setting to create the mood and it must be an intricate part of the plot.

  • The Marshall couldn’t get off the island due to hurricane winds. The winds increased and escalated the tension.
  • And it had to be an island so the criminally insane could not escape the island. This added high stakes, since there was no escape into the frigid Atlantic waters.

 You must have clever clues the readers don’t know are clues until the end.

  • When the Marshall arrives, the guards look stern – well, duh, the Marshall is really their most violent and dangerous criminal.
  • The Marshall had to hand over firearms without explanation.
  • The head doctor could not hand over any information on the staff. (I just thought the guy was a complete wacko and was hiding a terrible secret about the island.)
  • The psychiatrist left that morning on the ferry. (I was further convinced of nefarious ongoings, but really, the psychiatrist was playing the role of the Marshall’s assistant.)
  • One inmate scribbled on a napkin for the Marshall to run. (She knows he’s a criminal, but I thought it was further proof the island was a terrible place.)
  • These kinds of clues were sprinkled throughout the entire story.

The evidence that points to the “false” mystery needs to be explained in the “real” mystery.

  • The medicine they gave the Marshall for his headaches we were led to believe were hallucinatory drugs. But it was really just aspirin.
  • Toward the end, the Marshall experienced more hallucinatory dreams and real hallucinations. That’s because for this experiment, he was off his heavy meds.
  • The little girl who appears in his flashbacks from the concentration camps, stating why didn’t you save me, is really his daughter and his guilt.

At some point, you need to create doubt in the reader’s mind.

The Marshall sees his partner dead on the rocks below a cliff, so he climbs down but then can’t find the body. Then he sees a light from a cave and finds the person who explains and confirms the Marshall’s “suspicions”. (At this point, I told my husband that the Marshall was either really hallucinating or it was bad script writing. Well, he was really hallucinating, but, even then, I had my doubts.)  

Create empathy for the main character throughout intense action.

  • The Marshall experienced intense dreams and flashbacks to his military days of freeing concentration camp victims.
  • Throughout the movie, his wife “helps” him. We see his pain and love for his wife.

 Big surprises and revelations.

  • The head doctor (bad guy) turned out to have the most empathy for the Marshall. Throughout this experimental role play, the doctor was trying to save the Marshall’s life.
  •  His wife, who we believe was murdered in a fire, really murdered the Marshall’s children.
  •  And the biggest surprise – the Marshall turned out to be a patient. (I only figured this out like two minutes before they revealed it.)  The Marshall had created a fictional world to escape the fact that he killed his wife and he had lost his children.

Sorry for my longest post eva, but this movie (based on a book) had so many great craft elements. And I promise, my next post will be super short. Have you read a book or watched a movie that absolutely did everything right? Hard to find, I know. Now if you haven’t seen it yet, go watch the movie to find out what happened at the end.

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12 Responses to Unreliable narrators, mysteries, and Shutter Island.

  1. patti August 9, 2010 at 10:56 am #

    My son and daughter enjoyed this film, though I must say it probably won’t make the Netflix cut with Poppa and Momma.

    I LOVE what you said about unreliable characters, for this also works in fiction.

    Last year I read a book, though I CANNOT remember the title, where a murder testimony unfolds through the eyes of the protagonist, whom we later learn is insane.

    Whew. Not my Normal read.

    Blessings, dear one.

  2. Jody Hedlund August 9, 2010 at 11:20 am #

    I really like how you break down the elements of the movie! I usually get too into movies to remember to pay attention to the craft!

  3. Stina Lindenblatt August 9, 2010 at 1:58 pm #

    I love how you broke downt the elements of the movie. Can’t wait to see you do it again. 😀 (and no, your post wasn’t too long).

  4. Karen Strong August 9, 2010 at 2:59 pm #

    This is one movie that I really loved the imagery and symbolism. Beautiful cinema indeed.

    I also loved how you took this movie and broke it down in practical steps.

    I was trying to think of another movie or book with an unreliable narrator and the first one to pop into my mind was LIAR by Justine Larabalestier.

  5. Catherine A. Winn August 9, 2010 at 3:01 pm #

    This was a wonderfully informative post. I wouldn’t see the movie for the same reason, now I want to.

  6. Laura Marcella August 9, 2010 at 5:41 pm #

    My husband and I watched this a few weeks ago. I knew what was going to happen because I looked online (I wouldn’t have watched it of it was scary, so I had to make sure it wasn’t!). But my husband guessed the entire plot and ending by the middle of the movie. Jeez. If I hadn’t known, I probably would’ve been convinced the island was holding a nefarious secret!

    Great tips here! I love books and movies that keep you guessing and have hugely surprising endings.

  7. Susan Kaye Quinn August 9, 2010 at 7:34 pm #

    OK, now I might be able to go see this! I didn’t want to-for the same reasons as you – and I used up all my “this isn’t a horror movie” credibility with my husband in watching Zombieland. But he likes mystery, so this could be good!

    • Laura August 9, 2010 at 7:50 pm #

      Thanks for commenting everyone. I seriously held off watching this movie for a long time, even thought I heart Leo. But it really isn’t nearly as bad as they make it look. And yes, the imagery and symbolism throughout the movie is incredible!

  8. Sherrie Petersen August 9, 2010 at 10:07 pm #

    Well now you’ve got me curious about this movie and the book. Like you, I avoid horror, but I love good tension and surprising twists so thanks for the recommendation!

  9. Robert Guthrie August 10, 2010 at 6:46 am #

    “Kite Runner” made a better movie than book. No real surprises, though. At least the kid wasn’t happy-perfect at the end.

  10. Margo Berendsen August 10, 2010 at 1:46 pm #

    Reminds me of the movie the Sixth Sense. Still not sure if I’ll watch it though… it still sounds creepy, even if it’s not horror!

    Movies are such great tools for plot analysis,because they are so condensed. I’m trying to pay attention to the really good movies in this way, too.

  11. Ansha Kotyk August 10, 2010 at 2:57 pm #

    Okay… because it’s you and we have similar tastes… I’m going to try to watch shutter island tonight… and THEN read your blog post… because I LOVE unreliable narrators!

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