Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
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Stories Within Stories
by Victoria Grossack
Return to Crafting Fabulous Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version
July 5, 2012
Usually set apart from the rest of the novel, a frame story often sets up how and why the story is told. The events of the frame story often occur in a different time than the rest of the novel. Often there is a prologue at the beginning, and an epilogue at the end. In some books, the frame story is revisited periodically throughout the novel.
Frame stories have been around for centuries, probably millennia. A famous example is One Thousand and One Nights, in which the Persian king was so angry with women that he married a new virgin every day and killed her the next morning. Only the vizier's daughter, Scheherazade, kept her head by telling her murderous husband part of a thrilling new story every night -- and not telling him the end until the next night. (How many of us would want to rely on our storytelling abilities to save our lives?) Another celebrated example is Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, in which a diverse group of pilgrims en route to Canterbury hold a storytelling contest.
Prologues and epilogues allow you to give additional information, or extra perspectives on your story. You can use the prologue to create a level playing field. For example, in our novel, Jocasta: The Mother-Wife of Oedipus, we mention in the prologue that Jocasta inadvertently married her son, Oedipus. In a way we did not like to write this because it's the "big surprise" of the novel -- but plenty of people are familiar with the Oedipus myth anyway, and besides, we were explicit about the incestuous relationship in the title of the book. So, by telling people this in the prologue, we were able to set up why Jocasta finally spills the secrets of her life.
However, you should be warned that some readers don't bother to read the prologue or the epilogue -- especially not the prologue! They seem to feel that it is not part of the story; perhaps they confuse it with dedications, acknowledgements and prefaces. One way to avoid any misunderstandings is to rename your prologue "Chapter One." In a way this is cheating, but heck, who cares?
Frequently stories are nested within other stories. The frame story is generally the outermost story, in which the rest of your novel -- either one long main story or a series of other stories -- is nested. However, some authors have more than one layer of nesting. They begin the first story, which we'll call A. Before A is finished, they break off to start story B. And before B is finished, they break off to start story C. The author can continue with this approach, adding more layers. Eventually, one hopes, the story will return to the original threads, and resolve, generally in reverse sequence, the issues raised in C, B, and A.
This approach can add depth and perspective. However, it can also be a strain on your readers, as they try to keep the different stories straight. Even when A, B and C contain the same characters, they may be taking place at different times, or from different points of view. This kind of book can be challenging to read, and you should ask yourself: is it too challenging for my readers?
You should also ask yourself what each level of nest adds to your entire book. Sometimes each level is crucial to what you are trying to achieve. Other times, however, it seems to indicate that the author could not make up his or her mind on which story to tell. Other times the author seems to be procrastinating telling the real story.
Serial Stories in a Single Place
Another approach is to tell a series of stories, often about a place. This technique was perfected by James Michener, who often chose a particular spot on the planet, began with the geological processes that formed it, and then continue with various animals and people until reaching the present day. The same structure has been used by others, as in Steven Saylor's Roma, and Edward Ruthersford's London: The Novel.
This technique is hard to do well, because unless you make the book really long -- and many Michener tomes run past 1000 pages -- not all the stories may have enough space to develop thoroughly. Often some of the episodes are good, while others feel forced. And even when everything is done well, the reader will form emotional attachments to characters, only to have them destroyed and replaced when starting the next story.
Still, if done well, the result may be masterly, as in Michener's The Source, a look at a tell near Jerusalem and the different religions that developed or visited there over the millennia.
A-story vs. B-story (Subplots)
Many works of fiction have stories that are intertwined. In other words, you can't neatly pigeonhole them as frame story or as a series of stories, because they appear at different parts of the book.
Nevertheless, in most works you can tell which plot is the main plot (also known as the A story). By definition, the other plots are subplots. Usually they have less action; less development; less time on stage.
We see this often in TV series, especially those with large casts. Often it is difficult to give all the recurring characters a pertinent role in the A story -- so they participate mostly in the B story (or even a C story).
Many authors merge their A and B stories. Occasionally, this merging feels contrived, as was often the case in Nancy Drew books. Generally the stories should be related in some way, even if it is simply the development of a theme.
Character arcs refer to the development of your characters throughout the storyline. Throughout your novel -- or series of novels -- your characters should learn and grow. Each character should have a starting point in your book, including a certain viewpoint, wants and desires. By the end of the story, most of your characters should be in a different place, with their desires either thwarted or fulfilled, and their outlook on life changed or deepened.
The subject of character arcs is so important that it is worthy of several additional columns. Here we will just mention that it is important to tell the story of each of your characters, too -- another type of story for our collection.
Anecdotes and Other Tiny Tales
The word anecdote come from the Greek, meaning unpublished or not given out, and comes from a book published in the 500s called Anekdota and which contained plenty of stories about the Byzantine court. Gradually, the term anecdote was applied to any short tale utilized to emphasize or illustrate whatever point the author wished to make.
A short tale can enter your novel in many ways. Perhaps a traveler is recounting where he came from (in which case it is also back story). Perhaps a witness, during a trial, explains what happened. Or perhaps a preacher tells a parable, or a bard sings a song.
Some anecdotes may already be familiar to your stories. In our series set in ancient Greece, although we focus on the experiences of mortals, we frequently include myths about the gods. We try to add depth to these myths, often already well known to the readers, by showing how the characters react to them. For example, the hero Pelops in Children of Tantalus is inspired by a bard singing about how Icarus made wings of wax and feathers. If you include familiar anecdotes or fables in your story, enrich your readers' experience with a new interpretation.
This article has gone through many of the different types of stories found in novels. In a sense, classifying the stories within stories is like trying to pigeonhole a platypus -- what purpose does it serve, when the boundaries are so fluid? And yet considering the different forms may help you control and improve the different stories in your own work.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.