Narrative Voice: Using More Than One Narrator

January 8, 2021

Depending on how your plot is structured and the way your scenes are woven together, both your narrative and your readers may benefit from being able to experience your story through multiple different narrators. 

The Easy Stuff

This storytelling choice allows the readers to experience different moments and episodes within the plot, perhaps when one narrator is present but the other is not. It can also allow the readers to experience two or more characters’ versions of a single moment, conveying the idea that one character’s perception might not be the absolute truth of the moment, though this effect is best used sparingly.

Usually these types of stories work by alternating narrators every few, or every other chapter. If you’d like to switch who is in the driver’s seat within a chapter itself, it is best practice to put in a scene separator between the sections of story. Three asterisks or a pound-sign are the most commonly used separators.

The Hard Stuff

However, multi-narrator stories are also easy to get wrong. One of the most common mistakes with writing in multiple First Person Limited or Third Person Limited POVs is a phenomenon known as Head Hopping. This is when, suddenly, in the middle of a scene with no prior warning, the “driver” narrator changes. We’re in Character A’s head, experiencing the story through them, and then the writer swaps out the driver, and we’re riding along with Character B and in their head instead. This can be confusing for the reader.

To avoid this issue, ensure you’re always writing from the contained perspective of one single person if you’re writing in Limited. Continue to remind yourself: What do they know? What do they not know? What can’t they possibly know?

For example, let’s say that in a scene, Character A can’t know for certain that Character B has a secret. However, they can put together the contextual clues that suggest that Character B is being secretive: their body language, the volume and tone of their speech, nervous or tell-tale gestures, stories that aren’t adding up. Unless you’re writing in Third Person Omniscient, you would not write:

“I love you,” Character B lied.

If Character A is your first person narrator, they can't know for certain that Character B is lying. A better approach would be:

“I love you,” Character B said. Character A could tell by the way his gaze darted away that he was lying.

You can still convey to the reader the information that Character B is lying (and you can later confirm or deny it if you switch POV), but you can’t say for certain that it’s true because your narrator, Character A, can only guess or suspect. 

In summary

Just like with a story told through a single narrator, a multiple-narrator tale allows the reader to experience the moments of the story through the filtered perspective and experience of one narrator at a time. This can help create depth of understanding, and can even be used to establish how different characters think and feel about the same single episode.

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Narrative Voice: Using More Than One Narrator is the second post in a five part series. 

Other articles in this series:

<-- Previous  Part 1. Narrative Voice: Who is Telling Your Story?

Next -->  Part 3 Narrative Voice; Creating a Narrative Voice