"The Great Gatsby" was told from the point of view of Gatsby's neighbor, Nick Carraway by name, with Nick using the first person. Nick gets to see a lot, but not all of Gatsby's dealings. A case in point is Gatsby's early dealings with Dan Cody, his mentor, at age 17. What gives Nick the "right" to relate these dealings? Can a narrator "show, rather than tell," by featuring dialog and interaction between Gatsby and Cody? Or must he limit himself to a second hand narrative of those dealings?

Actually, I created a story within a story as follows: First, I wrote it in third person from "Gatsby's" point of view. Then I put on my "Nick Carraway" hat and commented on the story that I was now able to read. Can a format like this make sense?

  • Is there any reason you can't switch POV throughout the telling. Using Nick for the scenes he has direct interaction with while telling the rest from a different POV? That second narrator could be Gatsby, Dan or even an anonymous, omniscient third party. Just keep the transitions clean, perhaps using chapter boundaries as the points where the narrator changes; and give each narrator a distinctive voice or bias so that the reader always knows who is talking. May 15, 2018 at 23:19
  • @HenryTaylor But it might work better with just one - I suspect The Great Gatsby would be a worse book with multiple narrators... May 1, 2020 at 16:55

5 Answers 5


In Jane Austen's novels, for example, it happens more than once that characters learn about an event second-hand:

Darling, I've just heard that...


It is only the desire to be useful that compels me to tell you that...

This allows you to introduce events that your narrator couldn't have witnessed, and it's not as boring as you might think: characters might learn about a past event in a dramatic moment (making previous decisions they've made suddenly wrong), the person recounting the event might colour it with their own emotions, their own POV, etc.

Taking this to an extreme, Roger Zelzny, in Chronicles of Amber has on occasion whole chapters of a secondary character telling the MC something that happened to them in the past, with no interruptions from the MC. It reads like a complete mini-story, told in first person. You wouldn't find a story told in first person boring, would you? Same here: it works.


If the events that you want to include in the story aren't visible to the narrator, then you have to either have the narrator relate them second hand, or choose a different narrator.

(It's been a while since I read Gatsby and I don't remember the details of the narration, and sorry, I'm not going to re-read it just to answer this question! So excuse me if I don't make any use of your example.)

If an event is relatively minor, it might be no big deal to have the narrator say, "Bob told me that ..." If the important thing is very subjective, a characters interpretation of an event or his feelings about the event, than having that character tell the narrator about it might be better than the narrator seeing it directly.

Otherwise ... who said that this person has to be your narrator? Choose someone else who could realistically be a witness to these events.

A piece of advice I heard a long time ago about writing: If something you wrote isn't working, don't be afraid to change it. It doesn't matter how much fun you had writing it, or how much work it will be to redo it. If it's not working, change it.

If you started out saying that the narrator will be the hero's brother, but this decision keeps getting you into trouble, then go back and choose a different narrator that makes the story work.

  • "I wasn't at the party myself, but by all accounts, it was a real barn burner. My friend Charles, whom you may remember, doesn't remember large portions of it, but from his stories, they'll be cleaning up for weeks. Mary refuses to talk about it, but when others bring it up, I notice a smile curl the corner of her lip for a moment before she retreats into denial." ... Something like that.
    – IchabodE
    May 16, 2018 at 18:51

I think this is a matter of opinion; successful stories have been written that break all kinds of writing conventions.

For my part, in particular for a beginning writer, I'd recommend sticking to the convention that such stories do NOT break POV, it is Nick Carraway (or Dr. Watson), all the way.

Engineer your story so that Gatsby has some reason to tell Nick Carraway what the reader needs to know, or so that some third party tells Nick.

That can be something that actually occurs in the future:

I did not know it at this time, but I learned later, from the officers conducting the investigation, that the following transpired:

How did the "officers" know it? The reader won't care about that, it sounds plausible that nosy Nick Carraway could have put the pieces together.

In the Sherlock Holmes stories, Watson pulls together the story from Sherlock himself, from victims and witnesses, from villain confessions, etc.

So, CAN messing with the conventions work? Sure, but if you are not already a well-known, published and respected author, it will likely be seen as an amateur move, a lack of imagination on your part because you couldn't figure out how to keep the book in character, and had to break the "fourth wall" in order to complete the story.

Don't think that because some best-selling author has done something, that gives you permission to do it also. Some authors get lucky and tell a story so compelling that their errors are overlooked by publishers. JK Rowling and Dan Brown get panned by better best-selling writers fairly often, but their writing mistakes are overwhelmed by their imaginative stories.

You can hope for the same luck, but I'd let your mistakes be things you didn't even know you were doing and couldn't help; I would not introduce errors you know are errors.


Have you tried making your POV an Unreliable narrator like Ted from "How I Met Your Mother?"

The premise of the series is that a much older Ted is telling his children the story that answers the titular question. It amounts to old!Ted telling the story of young!Ted some time after the facts have happened and while the important bits are remembered, there is ample exageration to go around. For example, Ted always censors himself when he talks about his group's habit of smoking weed, replacing any reference to the substance with "Sandwiches". So you'll get a seen where they are making "Sandwich Brownies" or they will have baggies of Sandwiches at a rock concert. He would also censor words that would not be allowed on prime time television, like in one Christmas episode, he had a fight with one of his friends after he calls her a "Grinch" but insists that "Grinch" wasn't exactly the word he used, but it's strongly hinted that it was in the "7 Words you can't say on TV" bit and it starts with the letter "C". At one point, he is in the presence of a child and the kid asks his if he can see "The Grinch". The narrator cuts in to point out that time, he was actually refering to the Dr. Seuss character and not the word it was a Euphemism for.

Often for the B-Plot that Ted was not involved with, he would say something to the effect of "Meanwhile your Uncle Barney..." or "your Aunt Robin..." and set the scene for that B-Plot to play out in his absence. Often the more ludicrous parts of the story were exagerated. One such plot, involving Marshall coaching basketball to 5 year-olds stressed that Marshall's team was so bad, that according to Marshall, the other team was about "six feet taller... (on screen all the opposing teams turn into pro-NBA players) and one was a Teen Wolf (cue werewolf in basketball shorts and Jearsey running down the court). In another episode, Ted has Barney and Lily in a fight and both are acting out of character and old!Ted can't remember why, until he realizes that Barney and Lily had been flipped and were making each others arguments. The scenes are replayed with this correction and Barney's lines make sense, but Lily's are still out of place... until old!Ted realizes that at the time, Lily was very pregnant and the scenes again replay and now make sense with the obvious pregnancy... but then old!Ted explains that the whole B-Plot was mis-remembered because Lily wasn't pregnant during the A-Plot's events but was definitely pregnant a year later and he doesn't have a clue what Lily and Barney were doing during this episodes B-Plot (out of universe, it did foreshadow one of the arcs for the next season, which was Lily's Pregnancy.).

Considering that the show was on for 8 seasons, it's a great source to mine for ideas as to how to make the unreliable POV.


I didn't want to "switch POV throughout the telling," as one commenter suggested.

But I had "Nick Carraway" narrate about the first 83% of the novel. the "public" part that is. I made one switch over to the main character for the later, private part, and then had the first narrator close the loop in the final three paragraphs, explaining why something didn't happen in the novel that the main character couldn't have known about, and giving the reason for that.


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