Stories Within Stories

This is my 40th post on this blog, and today is also the day we will reach 2,000 total hits. Thank you all for stopping by! With one more follower we will also reach the impressive number of 70 followers, if anyone wants to help out with that.

All these big numbers make today a good day for reflection. I originally hoped to finish Wanderlust by the end of the summer. Ha! Summer is definitely gone, and my book is not completed. I need to update both the “Grace” and the “Wanderlust” page with some more realistic goals. I would love to give you a solid status update on Wanderlust right now, but it’s just not that easy. I’m sort of on Chapter 7 of my 12 chapter book in the last round of editing—you know, except for all those things I skipped in chapters 4, 5, and 6, and all those pieces of information that need to be inserted back into chapter 1. It’s coming along, guys, and I’d  love to spend all day working on it, but I have to spend most of the day house-painting for money so I can afford tomorrow’s harp lesson (these are very reasonably-priced lessons but that’s just how broke I am) and pay some bills and start saving for christmas presents and, after that, for my very own harp. I do feel like I’m in some sort of final push on Wanderlust, though. I believe the last half of the book will fall into line more quickly that the first half because most of the last half is relatively new material, and therefore more malleable and not so set in its ways. Still, I can’t see clearly enough right now to give you a definitive when. I am, however, still gonna do this. I’m telling you because I must tell myself, each and every time I balk at how much work is still before me. I’m going to do this. I will.

One of the things that’s been getting me down lately is how to handle stories-within-stories. When I started this this thing I was all “Won’t it be cool if I base it on Irish Mythology?” That was me in high school. I then had to go find the Irish mythology, which I proceeded to skim over and take from what I needed. Five (or so) years later I’ve actually read all the source material, and I know too much! The issue now is paring down the full stories, and conveying them in such a way that they support and enhance my narrative. I’m very concerned that every time I switch over to Irish-story-time, my readers will get bored. It’s not that the stories themselves are boring, but when you’ve been doping along reading about Vanya and Taniel and suddenly they’re gone from center-stage and you have to concentrate on new characters from an Irish-myth story that you haven’t met in the novel yet, well, won’t you get frustrated? My impulse is to skim over the story and get back to Vanya and Taniel as soon as possible, but if I do that I think it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy and the myth-stories really will be boring because I’ll expect them to be.

And sometimes I Illustrate the stories in the story!
Illustration © me

I probably need to give my readers more credit. Story breaks are fairly common in fantasy literature, after all. I didn’t stop reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Summer Tree, for instance, when the narrative took a break to convey the tragic story of Lisen. The story itself was beautiful, and it explained the hostility of Pendaren Wood, which threatened characters in the novel’s present tense. Far from skipping over the poems about Tinuviel and Nimrodel and Gil-Galad and Earendil in The Lord of the Rings, I’ve spent countless hours committing them to memory. (“Gil-Galad was an elven king/Of him the harpers sadly sing/The last whose realm was fair and free/Between the mountains and the sea.” (Aaaand I just noticed that the first poem I ever memorized from LOTR mentions HARPERS. A sign?)) So the story thing can be done. I think part of the issue is that I’m too perilously close to the manuscript just now to know whether I’m doing it right—although I have some hope. I believe that, in this draft, I’ve made it more apparent to the reader through foreshadowing and other means that these myth-stories are important to the actual narrative of my book. I hope I am tying them in better, and I hope my readers will both be able to see how the stories connect to the current plot, and find them interesting enough in themselves to keep reading. That’s the goal, anyhow. I will continue to muddle through, and then, when I am finally comfortable enough with a draft to show it to other people, perhaps my first readers will let me know whether I am successful or not.

Have you read any books that feature a story within the story? Can you think of any authors that do it particularly well? Has a story within a novel ever made you so bored that you skipped past it, or put the book down?


9 thoughts on “Stories Within Stories

  1. In fact, I can think of books that have stories within stories! We’re actually discussing that in my Narrative Genre class–it’s called Meta-fiction. Like most things, it can be done well, or it can be done totally NOT well… And that’s the difference between keeping your readers along for the ride or having them skim over those sections. One particular book I can think of off hand that I love that has this in it is called Watership Down. You might have read it–it’s about a bunch of rabbits trying to find a new home. Anyway, during the story the rabbits often tell tales of a Brer-Rabbit like figure to inspire themselves and learn lesons and shiz. I like the use of the stories in Watership Down. 🙂

    • Watership Down is still on my list! I saw a truly terrifying animated movie of it when I was a child, and was too traumatized to read the book afterward, but I bet I could handle it now. Thanks for the suggestion.

  2. I’ve been really into the Game of Thrones series lately (I know, I didn’t want to read them but then I did and they’re really really good if not too brutal sometimes but excellently written and and and). He jumps perspective a LOT. I know it’s not a story within a story, REALLY, but he jumps to characters that are outside of the plot line that you’re currently reading ALL THE TIME. And he’s successful at it. It could be something to consider? Instead of having your characters tell stories and it getting all prose-y, have the stories turn into one with characters?

    Of course, I’m not sure how you’ve written it since I last read those chapters.

    • I’ve only read Game of Thrones book 1, but I agree, it’s really really good. His whole thing is having a gazillion equally interesting storylines. I don’t know how he does it! Two main characters is pretty much all I can handle!
      There IS some different stuff going on with the Wanderlust stories now, but they’re probably still too prose-y. You suggested something similar before and I thought about it, but it doesn’t really make sense to me to switch to direct narrative in the stories like that because part of the *thing* about the stories is that they’re being TOLD by Taniel and the POV of the whole book is very limited third person with little separation between the narrative and Taniel’s thoughts, so I couldn’t suddenly use the same narrative style of the whole book for a new character in the story because… that just feels weird, and way too meta, and the stories need to be kind of in Taniel’s story-telling voice (which, granted, may need some work). Also I feel like what you’re describing would give the sense that the myth-stories are happening concurrently with the narrative, which isn’t really what I’m going for. HOWEVER I’ve been thinking all day and it’s occurred to me that it might be very appealing to have the stories separated from the main text, not with italics because that would get real annoying real quick, but with maybe a different font and a slightly smaller type-face. It would be implied that everything in this typeface is Taniel speaking, but I could get rid of all the quotes-within-quotes and format it like a regular story (within its pattern of different formatting). There could still be necessary interjections from the main narrative of the book (Vanya asking a question, etc,) but for these interjections the text would return to the main narrative typeface, and therefore maybe the whole thing would be better differentiated and easier to follow. Anyway I just thought of that, which might be a sort of compromise between what I’ve been doing and what you’ve suggested. What do you think? I’m going to give it a try in chapter 7 (which is the last little meta-story I hope thank GOD) and see if I like it.

    • Oh geez. I think I really like it, but it sort of changes the flavor of the whole text (I found a font that feels sort of old-manuscript-y) and requires going back into chapter one AGAIN. Scary!

  3. Ooh stories within stories! The ultimate would be Arabian Nights, which is fantastic but eventually gets me mixed up with which story is which : ) Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind is amazing for stories within stories!
    Your ‘Wanderlust’ sounds really interesting, and the illustrations are very expressive! It’s really inspiring that you’ve gotten so far with it. Hope to do so too one day.

    • Ah, Arabian Nights, of course! I haven’t read Name of The Wind but it’s been recommended a number of times, so maybe it’s high time I check it out. Thank you for your kind words about my book project. 🙂

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