Guest Slot Chapters: Why and How to Include Shifts in Perspective in a Novel
Have you ever been tempted to include chapters that veer away from your protagonist or narrator?
I think of these as guest slots and it’s incredibly tempting to use them to flesh out your novel and add in details that your main narrator couldn’t possibly know. But… approach with caution. They don’t always work as well as we would like them to.
So, what qualities determine whether these shifts in point of view are effective or not?
First person or third?
These chapters can work well whether you’re predominantly writing from a first person point of view or from a third person perspective. But it’s also important to consider how shifts in person will affect the novel overall. For example, if your novel is largely in the first person, narrated by your protagonist, it’s probably a bad idea to include one first person chapter narrated by someone else. Why? Because having just the one chapter from this new narrator doesn’t give the reader the chance to get used to being in this person’s head and create a connection with them. In other words, the advantages you might get from writing in the first person do not come across in that one chapter. There’s no benefit to it, but you’re still making the reader work harder to get used to the new narrator, whereas a third person narration provides a more neutral base than a new first person perspective. And vice versa, if the rest of your novel is in the third person, don’t shift to first for just one chapter. Third person is like the writing equivalent of comfy jeans. It’s expected, it’s neutral. It’s not always perfect for the situation, but it’s a good comfort zone for the reader.
To be clear, I’m talking about one-off chapters that shift perspective. If you have a story that is told between two first person narrators throughout or from the perspective of two or more characters in the third person, these are entirely different creatures. The big difference is that you build and grow that relationship with the reader through these chapters.
What does it contribute?
Okay, with the chat about perspective out of the way, it’s important to address exactly why you want a shift in perspective. There are lots of unhelpful reasons a writer might want to do this; boredom, feeling stuck, not being sure where to go next. These are not good reasons. There’s really only one really good reason to include a guest slot chapter and that is because it introduces something you can’t achieve in any other way. Now, that’s quite a broad reason. For example, it could include foreshadowing a dramatic or catastrophic event that the protagonist is unaware of. This creates tension because the reader sees this event coming and the character doesn’t. Especially when the rest of the narrative is in the first person, there’s no other way to do this. A prologue that flashes forward to the end of the book to show something dramatic happening before telling the story from the beginning functions in much the same way. Tension through anticipation. By and large, these cut-away chapters need to contribute something in terms of plot or tension, sometimes character.
However, you do need to be careful here. Blacklands by Belinda Bauer uses a chapter with a shift in perspective to strong effect, but I personally thought it wasn’t the best choice. Spoilers ahead. For context, the chapter appeared towards the end of the novel as it was building to a final confrontation. The antagonist had escaped prison and was on his way to meet the protagonist with whom he’d developed a dangerous obsession. The perspective shifts away to a brand new character who had not yet appeared in the novel and would not appear again. This character was a soldier during training, specifically rifle training. And when he happens to catch the antagonist in his sights, he can’t resist taking a shot and seriously wounds him. The chapter details the soldier’s life and fascination with killing in order to justify his decision in that moment. Now, this chapter is a roundabout way to impede the antagonist so that there is a more even playing field between him and the protagonist, who is a child. However, the decision to cut away to an entirely new character saps a great deal of the tension. It redirects all of the reader’s attention away from the main drama because not only do they have to get to know this new character, they are also inevitably trying to figure out why any of it is relevant at that moment. Of course, strange coincidences do happen in the real world and these can be presented on the page, but this isn’t the way to do it. Maintaining the tension, especially towards the end, is crucial and Bauer ignores this in favour of a simple plot device which sadly ends up appearing contrived.
Where to put it?
Personally, I’m a big fan of regularity. If you begin alternating chapters, I advise you continue to do so throughout. But aside from this, there are a number of points in a novel where a break from the main narration will read more naturally and won’t interrupt the main flow of the story. The most obvious one? Prologues. They get a bad rep sometimes, but I like them. Make sure you do really need one though. If you can jump right into the story and not lose anything important, do it. What else? Epilogues, although this should help round off a story and bring it to a close rather than add anything to the plot (with the exception of setting up a departure point for a sequel). Aside from the start and the end, the gaps between acts can also be fertile places for one-off chapters. Where there is a lull, or break in the narrative may be a good choice, as might be just before any significant time-skip. What you don’t want is a frustrated reader who skim reads your guest chapter because they’re impatient to get back to the main plot.
Who’s telling the story?
Whose perspective the chapter is from might be the most important detail of all. Usually, I would expect what the chapter contributes to the novel and who the chapter is about to fall in step together. For example, in a crime novel, it might be a viable option to have a chapter from the perspective of the killer in order to build tension. Part of the reason that the chapter in Blacklands didn’t work for me was that the character hadn’t appeared prior to it and they didn’t have a role afterwards either. This definitely runs the risk of feeling contrived and can really break the suspension of disbelief for the reader. On the other hand, it’s not always the best idea to include a chapter from the perspective of a character who appears frequently on the page but isn’t the narrator. This tends to be because once you have a firmly established character who appears frequently and plays an important part in the story, their role has already been defined. And generally this means you can’t comply with my second point; the chapter must add something new that you cannot include in any other way. So either your important secondary character isn’t fulfilling their main role in the story – which results in weak characterisation and messy plotting – or they can’t add anything new to that guest slot chapter. There’s a fine line to be trod. If you can satisfy both the needs of the one-off chapter and of the main narrative, then well done! But it’s going to come down to you having a really good reason for including this shift in perspective.
Let me know what you thought of this post!
Are there any examples of this in the wild that you thought worked really well?