Can You Write a Story Within a Story?
A story within a story can exist, it’s an old technique, but they’re not as easy as they might sound. It’s a literary device that works by having two separate stories that don’t necessarily have to be linked. Don’t confuse it with a subplot, which is a specifically linked plot thread to the main plot. A story within a story is exactly what it describes.
The best way to try to understand them is the think of the inner story and an outer story. The inner story tends to be the main story while the outer story is used to tell the inner story, usually by way of a ‘narrator’, although there’s no reason that the outer story can be the main story and the inner story is used to help tell the outer story.
Whichever way around they are, one story sets up how and why the main story is told.
Writers like to use a character within the story as the narrator, by having him/her tell another character a different story. Other writers have characters that create their own stories within the main story. Swallows and Amazons author, Arthur Ransome, used his characters this way for his books. The characters – two families of children – played and had great outdoor adventures, which is their story to the reader, but also some of the books are adventures that the children created for themselves, so their stories lie within the main story.
Another example is Matthew Stover's novel Shatterpoint, where the protagonist narrates the story through his journal, while the main story is told from the third-person limited point of view.
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein also uses this device. In the novel, Robert Walton writes letters to his sister and describes the story of a creature as told to him by Victor Frankenstein. So there is one story of Walton, and another story featuring the creature, as recounted by Frankenstein. There is even another further story within it of the creature living with a family for a short time. So Shelley managed to frame three stories within one, often knows as nested narratives.
In the novel Moby Dick, Herman Melville uses chapter 54 of the book to show Ishmael – the narrator of the book - telling an exciting story of mutiny on the sea. It was a short story within the main story, which contained elements of the main story, but it was used primarily to show characterisation - Ishmael’s intelligent, beguiling orator.
Having a character tell a story to another character is quite common, and a good way to characterise because the author can show the reader the way the character converses with others, how he or she interacts and how others react to him or her, which reveal little personality traits. It also allows the writer to reveal background information or foreshadow events that will happen in the main story.
Let’s say you have the protagonist of the story who is recounting a tale to a journalist who is investigating a terrible murder that happened thirty years earlier. The focus of the tale is another character – the suspect – that the protagonist talks about. The story about the murderer is the framed story, or the story that is contained within a story.
How could this be written? It could be a third person POV, where it centres on the protagonist's viewpoint. He tells her about the murderer, and begins to tell the journalist what happened. This establishes the main plot and introduces the characters. Then the framed story can begin with a new chapter, which takes place thirty years previously and brings the murderer in as the main character, with his viewpoint. The story then continues as he goes about his crimes, which can then be interjected with chapters from the present day (the main story) with the protagonist and journalist.
That’s a simple example of how a story within a story works. One story occurs within the main story, but in this example, they’re related. One took place in the past, while the other takes place in the present.
Writing a framed story takes a little bit of planning to ensure that the story you want within the main story actually works. The best way to understand the concept is to read books that feature this. That way you can recognise interior and exterior stories, you can see how the author has developed and created them – whether that’s by using the narrator technique or by using character perspectives such as Robert Walton in Shelley’s Frankenstein, and you can see how often they switch between the two stories.
The best way to write is to read as many different novels as you can. That way you’ll learn the different techniques and literary devices and incorporate them in your own stories.
Next week: Author intrusion