We’ve looked at stories that are told by subjective narrators within the narration of other narrators, which I referred to as ‘framed narratives’, but there are other types of narrative which I wouldn’t class as ‘framed narratives’. In these third-person, or even another first-person narrator, is used to show events or aspects of characters, that the primary narrator isn’t privy to. For instance we may switch to another narrator to follow them on a plot pertinent path that the narrator doesn’t follow them on.
This can sound like an easy way to fill out those bits the first-person narrator doesn’t see but they can have their perils. For example, if we have a chapter where we change to a third-person narrator to show another character’s actions or perspective we can’t really do it just once. We could do it once for that character then do it again for a different character and so on but a single third-person chapter within a first-person novel can be difficult to pull off, though not impossible. Generally speaking if we were to put only one third-person chapter in the middle then it would be jarring because it would likely feel out of place as if we’d just done it to fill in this plot point. It could work if it was a long chapter, or a collection of chapters together, or a section with an alternate narrator because this would devote more time to that perspective so it wouldn’t give them impression of being thrown in for convenience.
However, a chapter at the beginning or/and end can work, particularly if we’d killed off our narrator and need some ends tying off. And yes, just because a character is telling their own story doesn’t mean we can’t kill them off. If they’re telling their own story and they die at the end then it’s unavoidable but it can be tricky if we still need to tie off some plot points, if we use an alternate point of view to do this then it would work best with an established character rather than one who appears at the end for the sole purpose of finishing the story. As we’ve discussed before characters who randomly appear towards the end to effect the plot in major ways rarely work.
Just as we can use third-person to introduce a different perspective on events we can also use another first-person narrator. This has its own problems though because a first-person narrator needs their own distinct voice so were we to use two first-person perspectives they would, ideally, need to speak differently which is where thinking about a first-person perspective in terms of dialogue/monologue can help, but this is a later article.
Simply because filling in parts of the plot with alternate narrators might seem easier it doesn’t mean you need to do this. A story can be told entirely from a single character’s perspective and be completely satisfying. To do so we need to let go of the ideas of omniscient narration where the reader needs to be privy to the thoughts and feelings of every and any character and embrace a few of the benefits of not being able to dip into every character’s thoughts.
For more writing advice see my Advice Page. For more on narration/narrative see Finding Your Perspective and Finding Your Voice. You may also find my internal monologue series useful under Finding The Characters.
NOTE: Each article series comes in five parts published between Monday and Friday. Check back tomorrow for the next part.