Tag Archives | Shutter Island

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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