Let's talk about stories using the false document technique, whether well or poorly.

If you don’t know, the false document technique is a literary device in which a fictional narrative purports to be the retelling of actual events which its author is relating in a form other than that of deliberate fiction. Most of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories qualify; the idea is that Watson is publishing accounts of his and Holmes’ adventures, allowing CD to hide certain facts from the readers as Watson only relates what he himself sees and hears. (On more than one occasion, Holmes takes Watson to task because the way the former writes the stories both inflates Holmes’s success rates (Watson rarely writes up the cases in which Holmes fails, because those adventures don’t have an ending) and because Watson’s accounts focus too much on the sensationalist elements and too little on the science. Lord of the Rings is also a false document, and a considerably more elaborate one, since it’s also pretending to have multiple authors; Bilbo seems to have written Book I, Frodo most of the rest, and Sam the last chapter, and there are a good number of redactions, emendations, and additions by later Gondorian scholars).

What other false document literary works stand out in your mind–either because they were so well done, or so poorly done? (I"m only interested in works of written fiction, but if y’all want to bring in movies and TV, I obviously can’t stop you.)

I think I know what you’re going for but I might be confused… What I think would qualify:

Interview with a Vampire/ The Vampire LeStat. Both written from different character POVs, and in the example of Interview, the teller of the story (Louis I think it was?) was relaying a lot of incorrect information about LeStat that he just didn’t know, but that we learn about in the second book when LeStat tells his own story (for example, LeStat is much much older/more powerful than Louis thinks he is).

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is told through diary entries by various characters.

I don’t mean to only post vampire stories here, I’m not even that interested in the genre, they just popped into my head.

I’m a big fan of Isaac Asimov’s “Black Widowers” stories, but I don’t care for his “Union Club” stories. Both are armchair detective series, and both are formulaic, but in the former, the reader is “listening in” on the discussion as the characters attempt to solve the mystery at hand, while in the latter, a pompous old man is describing his adventures to a group of club members and challenging them to come up with the solution that he once did.

I think that’s what you mean by the “false document” technique (or maybe not, since the stories themselves are still written in the third person), and it’s the reason that those stories don’t work for me. It adds an unnecessary layer of distance between the reader and the story. I can imagine debating with the Black Widowers in real time, but Griswold just comes across as a self-promoting blowhard.

I’ve always liked Hornung’s “A.J. Raffles” series, as narrated by Harry “Bunny” Manders.

Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead, AKA the film The Thirteenth Warrior, purports to be the translation of a 13th century text by an Arab adventurer. It even throws in touches of faux verisimilitude like footnotes describing disputes over the exact translation of certain phrases by various translators over the years.

Incidentally, it’s Crichton’s least tedious novel IMHO. :smiley:


Told as the discovered “Flashman Papers,” found in an attic trunk many years after the “author”'s death. Excellently done, meticulously researched and hysterical in places.

Lord of the Rings sorta counts, as the story is supposedly from the Red Book of Westmarch. It’s a cute conceit.

I believe the Amber series, by Roger Zelazny, ends with the narrator talking about writing it all up and leaving the account where someone might find it. (Necessary, as the world was about to end…) (I need to re-read these; I might have it wrong.)

Does Poe’s “MS Found in a Bottle” count?


Moving out of the realm of print stories for a moment, “found footage” movies such as The Blair Witch Project are a thing too. In fact, The Blair Witch Project inspired a revival of the found-footage movie in the horror genre that’s still going strong today - just see Paranormal Activity.

That OP was long, wasn’t it? :wink:

Tons of early English novels were written this way. Decent people didn’t write fiction, so authors had to pretend they were publishing letters or diaries or other stuff so their moms didn’t have to hide in shame. Pamela is one such, though Shamela is a much more entertaining read.

Steppenwolf has a framing device in which the bulk of the “book” is said to be a manuscript left behind by the title character and published by his landlady’s nephew.

John Barth’s LETTERS is a series of letters that intertwine many narratives. It is one of my favorite novels.

Tristam Shandy is supposed to be Shandy writing his own autobiography.

There’s also John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, or Memoirs of a Lady of Pleasure

John Hersey’s The Conspiracy is a collection of internal memos, letters and surveillance reports centred around the Pisonian Conspiracy. I found it brilliant and rate it very highly.

Handmaids Tale - there’s the epilogue that takes place even further in the future detailing an academic lecture about the veracity of the book.

Rhymer Enterprises doesn’t have the resources to do that? I am surprised and somewhat disappointed. :frowning:

Asimov collected a bunch of stories in epistolary form in anthologies called Space Mail and Space Mail II

H.P. Lovecraft was a big fan of the technique. *At the Mountains of Madness *is a prominent example - it’s written in the form of a scientist’s manuscript.

Gene Wolfe’s New Sun books are depicted as manuscripts, complete with introductions and afterwords for “students of future history”.

If no one else will broach the movie theater’s doors, I’ll do it: The Blair Witch Project.

I am not sure if there are actually any documents involved at any stage, but most of Wuthering Heights purports to be a long narrative (or succession of narratives) told to the character Mr Lockwood by the servant character Nelly Dean (with Lockwood playing no role in the main story, and Nelly only a minor one). IIRC, in some parts of the book, the layers get even thicker, and we are hearing a story as told by someone else to Nelly, and then subsequently recounted by her to Lockwood.

Epistolary novels, supposedly made up of an exchange of correspondence between two or several people, surely meet the definition, and were very common in the 18th century (I rather think most novels back then were in this form) and still quite common in the 19th. The 18th century works of Samuel Richardson, who is sometimes credited with having invented the novel (though I think it rather depends on how you define a “novel”), are of this form. So, to a large extent is The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (from the mid-nineteenth century), which is a very important landmark in the development of the detective/mystery story form, and doubtless a big influence on Conan Doyle.

If anything, up until the mid-nineteenth or even early 20th century there were probably more novels and short stories that used the “false document [or false narrative] technique” than ones that didn’t.

LOTR does not purport to be a direct transcription or translation from The Red Book of Westmarch, does it? I have always understood that both it and The Hobbit are presented as being novelizations, by Tolkien, of material from The Red Book (which, itself, was produced in the way you outline, although I think Bilbo produced rather more of it than you give him credit for). That is, the “facts” are all supposedly taken from The Red Book but Tolkien himself is prepared to take credit for shaping a selection them into the form of novels that a modern reader will find entertaining (and perhaps for failing to do so in The Silmarillion. :p)