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?