Avoid dead narrator plot gimmick in story

Among the plot clichés in a number of works – especially in the science fiction, paranormal, and the literary genres – is that of the dead narrator. This occurs when the story is told by a character who at tale’s end turns out to be dead.

The problems with such a story are plenty. First, it stretches the reader’s ability to get lost in the fictional dream that the author must establish. After all, how can a dead person tell a story? If not confusing for the reader to figure out that the narrator is dead, the story instead must spend a lot of time establishing the setting where the narrator exists, which often distracts from telling the main story. Secondly, such a plot device undercuts the story’s suspense. If the tale is about how the narrator died, the fact that the narrator still exists somewhere means the he really hasn’t ceased to exist. In any case, rooting for such a character is difficult; after all, the reader knows the character won’t live – or truly die, either. Third, such stories risk being too heavy with exposition. The narrator often gives long info dumps to set up scenes. Rather than drama, the reader is presented with a “talky” story.

This is not to say there haven’t been great books whose narrator was dead; Alice Sebold’s “The Lovely Bones” is one such example. But the book is less about the narrator than her family and friends coming to terms with her death, and in this particular novel at least a plausible explanation is given so that we know the narrator is still “alive,” just on another plane of existence (Well, plausible unless you’re an atheist, of course.). Still, some critics have called the novel mawkish and hence emotionally dishonest, so despite the beautiful writing, even it failed to maintain the fictional dream.

If thinking of using this plot device, you would be better to change the story’s narrator and perhaps use a second person point of view. For example, what if a character who was alive told the tale of another character who dies (though the reader doesn’t know this until the end)? It’s believable, suspense is high, and the exposition can remain a low percentage of the overall tale. While not gimmicky, it’s a more honest story to tell.