As touched upon briefly in the last blog piece, successfully writing a story within a story is incredibly difficult. So, today, we shall discuss how to write a story within a story correctly, and look at some examples as to how it has been done.
Two Key Points
There are two vital ingredients when considering how to write a story within a story successfully. These are that:
- There must be two (or more) stories going on simultaneously within the narrative; and that
- By the end of the narrative, the two (or more) stories must link together like pieces to a puzzle.
The Purpose Of A Story Within A Story
At this point, you may be asking why bother writing a story within a story? Why not just tell one story and leave it at that? Well, that is the point – It is one story. When thinking about how to write a story within a story, all you need to remember is that it is just another way of telling a story.
Yet, there are a variety of stories within stories. Moreover, each style tells us something different. Plus, they have each have differing advantages and disadvantages.
The Main Character Looks Back At His Past
This is the easiest way to write a story within a story. Simply, it is the main character virtually narrating the key events in his life i.e. the ones that have moulded him into the person he is at the start of the narrative. The most interesting aspect of this style of a story within a story is that the audience learns how the main character came to be the person he is.
The downside to this style is that we know how the story ends (and that the main character survives). Therefore, it does not matter what problems or life-threatening situations he faces, he will come out of them alive. This means that the tension that the writer can induce (when the main character gets into danger) will be little at most, and zero at worst.
Example – Kvothe
In Patrick Rothfuss’ The Kingkiller Chronicles, we first meet Kvothe in disguise at the Waystone Inn, calling himself Kote. The narrative is about him telling us his life so that a chronicler can write it all down. From Kvothe’s own (perhaps inflated) words, the audience gets the sense that Kvothe was extremely gifted and destined for greatness.
Yet, he has failed. (Why else would someone so talented be cleaning bottles in a small tavern in a remote village?) Thus, the fascination for the audience is how – how has Kvothe failed so spectacularly?
(Another example of this way of writing a story within a story can be seen in Anthony Ryan’s The Raven’s Shadow trilogy, which begins with Blood Song.)
Two Different Time Periods Being Shown Simultaneously
This form of telling a story within a story differs from the above as we do not meet the main character at the end of his journey. Rather, we meet him at a specific point in time and his journey continues in a somewhat linear fashion.
The reason for the somewhat is that at key moments, the main character has flashbacks. These flashbacks are not random moments in his life, but part of a competing storyline. By the end, these two storylines must clash (with the past catching up on him). At once, the competing storylines must explain why the main character has really ended up in the situation that he was in at the start of the narrative, and have consequence for his endpoint too.
Example – Jasmine from Blue Jasmine
Woody Allen’s 2013 OSCAR-winning film has two competing storylines, and both centre around the titular Jasmine (played brilliantly by Cate Blanchett). The first starts at the beginning of the movie, in the present, when she lands in San Francisco and turns up at her sister’s house after having a nervous breakdown. The second is her looking back at her glamorous former life in New York, while she was married to her (Bernie Madoff-like) ex-husband Hal (Alec Baldwin).
Yet, there is a reason why Jasmine is in San Francisco and it is not just because she had a nervous breakdown. Over the course of the competing storylines, we find out that she turned a blind eye to Hal’s financial improprieties (and that she is an inherent dishonest person). These come to a head at the climax when an unexpected person from her past shows up, and reveals the lies for what they are.
(Another example of this style of storytelling has been done by Mark Lawrence in his Broken Empire trilogy, as every other chapter is from four years before the story starts.)
Two Different Stories Being Played Out Simultaneously
When considering how to write a story within a story, this is the most difficult to put together. The writer must create (at least) two competing storylines that ostensibly have nothing to do with one another, but really are deeply intertwined.
In fact, the second storyline must help to explain why the main character is in the position he’s in at the beginning of the narrative. Plus, it must have consequence for his endpoint.
Example – Nocturnal Animals
Tom Ford’s amazing, OSCAR-nominated 2016 noir thriller, is about Susan (played superbly by Amy Adams), who is an art gallery owner in LA, who seems to have everything she could want. Yet, she is utterly miserable.
One day, she receives a novel in the post. It is from her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). As she reads the story, the film shows us what she reads (which is the competing storyline). On the surface, the novel has nothing to do with her storyline/life. But, actually, Susan sees the similarities with her own life and where her relationship with Edward went wrong.
In brilliant fashion, the more Susan reads of the novel, the more she remembers what happened with Edward. Tom Ford not only shows us this by going back in time to when Susan and Edward were together (thereby arguably creating a third competing storyline). He also shows us how the breakdown of their relationship has impacted Susan in her everyday life in the present.
What makes Nocturnal Animals outstanding is that the audience knows exactly which storyline we are watching at all times. It does not matter whether we are watching Susan in the present, Susan in the past, or events in the narrative. Each one is as distinct from the other as day is to night.
(Another example of this style of storytelling was done in the 2019 film version of Little Women, starring Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh and Emma Watson.)
Thank you for reading this blog post on how to write a story within a story. I hope you have found it interesting and useful. Do you enjoy watching films or reading books with stories within stories? Or do you prefer straight, linear narratives?
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