In my novel there will be a chapter-length flashback as one character relates a story from his past. The rest of the novel is written in limited third-person, seeing into one person's mind at a time.

Does it make sense to switch to first-person for the flashback, as if the entire chapter is a quotation from the storyteller, or should it be told in the same manner as the rest of the book but focused on this character as if it is happening in the present?

The previous chapter ends with the character starting to tell the story, so it should be obvious either way that this chapter is his flashback. But I don't know which format would fit best while still keeping the first-hand account feel.

3 Answers 3


Personally I wouldn't change from third to first person in the middle of the story, it's always a little bit jarring for the reader. That being said, maybe being jarring is what you want in this case. It would make the flashbacks stand out.

Being in first person for the flashback would also make it feel more personal, something you might want for that element in the story. If we're seeing a lot more of what is going on in their head first person might work better.

My advice... write the first part of flashback both ways, no more the a page or two. Then you can look back and see which one flows the best with the narrative. It's not a lot of extra work to go through to find out which way you prefer.

  • I agree. Do a little of each and read it over, or show it around to your betas and gather some opinions. Jun 4, 2012 at 15:46
  • Thanks, I will try that. I'm leaning towards keeping the third-person narrative too. Jun 5, 2012 at 19:14

Does it matter if you use first or third person for that chapter? Yes? Why?

You are confusing the reader. That's not a bad thing by itself, but you should have a reason to do it. Just "maybe it's better" is not a reason. Does the switch fit to your story? Yes? How?

It depends on the story, it's your story, so only you can decide. Follow Fox' advice if you can't figure it out. Here are two examples why it could be a good idea:

If you had several flashbacks, using first person for all of them would give the reader a distinction when a flashbacks begins and ends. It would be a special style of your novel and worth considering. But well, it's your only one.

If it is a story teller scene (person tells his tale to an audience, maybe just a few friends), then the first person could work if you want the distance of the story teller POV.

Then it's also possible to interrupt the first-person-chapter with scenes in the present time where e.g. the audience asks questions and the story teller gets into more detail about that.

This does not only interrupt the flashback, it also interrupt the reader. But you are doing this anyway if you switch to first person. It is unlikely to keep the reader full immersed during the first-person-chapter one way or another. The switched narrator's perspective will keep him "outside" the story at a distance ("That's not the real story, just this old guy telling tales.") Again, not a problem by itself, the question is, do you want to keep the reader at bay? Yes? Why?


I'm writing a limited third person novel with a few flashbacks (stories being told aloud). The novel follows character K. She asks character S about something in his past. I reveal that story through flashback instead of conversation or storytelling, and keep it third person for a couple of reasons.

  1. As you mentioned, first person feels like a quotation from the storyteller. But this doesn't seem natural. People don't tend to talk in storyteller mode - especially my character S. I wanted to give a proper narration of the past event, instead of only the details S would give. (However, depending on your character it could work.)

  2. K also has some flashbacks. There are several details she wouldn't tell the other characters, but I want the reader to know those details. I narrate it centering around Y (K's previous/secret identity) and tell the reader: this is her story, she just leaves out names, etc. when she tells it aloud. For these flashbacks, it made sense just to stick with third person. So for the sake of continuity, I used that for S's flashback too.

In my opinion, having a different style for a particular element works better if it's a recurring element. E.g. if there are multiple flashbacks, the shift in style immediately clues the reader in that it's another flashback. Whereas if it happens only once, the style change could seem out of place.

My shift in style is in POV character (literally for the S flashback, more figuratively for the Y flashbacks since technically she's the same person as K.)

In The Host by Stephenie Meyer, the shift is in tense - past for main story, present for the memory flashbacks.

Your shift in style could be a shift between third and first person. If it works, then it works. I chose my particular shift because it just felt right. Find what feels right to you.

  • "There are several details she wouldn't tell the other characters, but I want the reader to know those details." This is a great point; it might come down to whether the reader should hear the unbiased truth or the view of a potentially unreliable narrator. May 22, 2015 at 14:38

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