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I'm currently writing a story in first-person that has a connection to a series of external events - things that the main character has no way of knowing but are vital to the progression of the overall storyline.

I've been toying with two ideas.

  1. Put a brief third-person snippet at the beginning of each chapter, kind of like a teaser. This short narrative would make sense by the end of the chapter, or several chapters later. Some happen concurrently, some happen in the past but have thematic ties to the current chapter.

    Benefit:

    • The reader will become familiar with this regular change in viewpoint.

    Drawback:

    • some of the third-person narratives are longer than a 'snippet' should be.

  2. Create separate chapters for each third-person narrative. This alternate point of view would make it clear that the character focus has changed, and would allow me to advance a parallel story.

    Benefit:

    • The reader will be able to see two complete stories develop in parallel (until they meet near the end)
    • I wouldn't have to provide a third-person chapter on ever other chapter, just as needed.

    Drawback:

    • some of these third-person chapters are quite short, especially early on when they are more teaser-like than a fully-developed chapter should be. Is it reasonable to create a three-paragraph chapter?

One thing I'm not fond of is a combination of the two. I tried this out when I was writing the early chapters, but the result was not what I was looking for.

Also, with the change in viewpoint comes a change in perspective as well. The third-person narrative is darker. I don't want the reader to understand the character motivations early on (like I would for the first-person sections).

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  • Have you considered the possibility, that your story is not suitable for a first-person point of view? I'm not saying, that your approach does not work. But you should make clear, that your story does not benefit from a general third person perspective. – John Smithers Dec 19 '10 at 21:20
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    @John, I haven't dismissed the idea. I like the impact of the multiple viewpoints, but I'll play around on a re-write to see if third-person works all the way through. – Peach Dec 21 '10 at 2:11
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Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card did something like this, although they weren't quite integral to the plot. The entire story was told from Ender's point of view, but the beginning of each chapter had a radio transmission or other news-type broadcast that was talking about the current events in the rest of the world, outside his secluded space station.

But it seems like you actually need to have developed characters and narrative in your brief sections. There's nothing wrong with a short chapter, but if you're going to get more detailed than a quote or two you probably shouldn't stick it at the beginning of another chapter.

From the options you're toying with, I like number 2 because it doesn't force you to come up with some kind of snippet every chapter when there really shouldn't be one. I once wrote a novel with a similar forced format to your first option, and it resulted in a lot of fluff and a lot less tension. That's probably a lot because I was a terrible writer at the time, but it is also partially because of the restriction.

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  • Good point about tension. I'll have to take another look at Ender's Game (it's been years since I read it) to refresh my memory on that part of the book. – Peach Dec 19 '10 at 17:09
  • Not the entire story was told from Ender's point of view. Remember the Locke and Demosthenes sub-plot. – Cyphase Aug 8 '20 at 7:25
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An idea: instead of re-hashing the same scene(s) from different viewpoints, let them feed progressively off each other. A real-time description of an event can use something inherent to the event itself that moves on and touches on each involved character: a simplistic example: a rolling wheel from an accident - a character involved in the accident sees the wheel role away; another doing something else needs to dodge the wheel; and so on, with at a later time yet another character encounters the same wheel where it finally came to rest. The idea is to have a flowing description of a situation/event that naturally moves into the different characters experience, giving the opportunity to add their vital bits to the plot.

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Have you considered doing away with chapters? See my more recent question about chapters, or rather the lack thereof.

That way, you at least don't have to worry about "short chapters" anymore.

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    This is an interesting idea, but textually some notice of the shift will be helpful to the reader unless intentionally confusing moves the plot/tension/theme/character development forward in some important way. – justkt Dec 22 '10 at 14:05
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Take a look at The Martian by Andy Weir. It's told mainly as first-person log entries of the main character, but also with third-person narratives following other people, and even some secondary out-of-band snippets following inanimate objects that become important later (e.g. the manufacturing and shipping process of a part that fails in a big way for the main character later on).


I'm currently writing a story in first-person that has a connection to a series of external events - things that the main character has no way of knowing but are vital to the progression of the overall storyline.

Put a brief third-person snippet at the beginning of each chapter, kind of like a teaser. This short narrative would make sense by the end of the chapter, or several chapters later. Some happen concurrently, some happen in the past but have thematic ties to the current chapter.

Honestly I wrote the first part of this answer before reading the question closely, but having read what I quoted above from your question, I think even more so that The Martian might be helpful to you as an example, at least as something to skim.


As an aside, it's a great book; I highly recommend it. This thinking about it has me considering adding it to my re-read list (again).

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Is there a way to frame the first person narrative within the third person narrative? For instance, Person A is in prison. He can write outgoing letters, but not receive them. So the frame story is the third person narrative on the outside, and the first-person narrative is contained within the letters. Or, the whole story is being told, after the fact, by Person A, who now has access to the information he didn't know at the time, and can fill it in as needed.

Another strategy is to have events take place that Person A experiences but doesn't understand. This is tricky to pull off, but was done effectively in the novel Room, which features a lot of events understandable to the adult reader, but not to the child narrator.

A final thing to consider is whether the reader really needs to know things the POV character doesn't know. It might be a more compelling story if much of what goes on in it is a mystery. Try dropping the 3rd person sections entirely, and then asking yourself, honestly, if you're really missing them. Many of my favorite books (Dhalgren, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, The Raw Shark Texts, Zelazny's Amber sequence) are filled with mysterious circumstances that the main character understands only at the end --or maybe never really understands. This may feel like a cheat or a betrayal if the reader comes to feel there's no real answer, and the events are just random, but can make for a lot of genuine suspense when there are actual (inaccessible) answers to the questions.

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