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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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3 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

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
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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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