As an author, there can be lots of reasons to include a story within a story. It’s not something that’s necessarily necessary, but it can add a little something. Here are some things to consider before rejecting the infamous “story within a story.”
- STORIES, TALES, AND FICTION ARE UTTERLY HUMAN. We look at life as a story. Thus, stories help us to make sense of life. This is something human do, and it’s something that will help your characters feel more authentically human, if you are able to add a story within a story.
- IT ADDS DEPTH AND COMPLEXITY TO YOUR WORK. Not every novel is meant to be “deep,” and complex doesn’t necessarily mean better, but depending on your story and your genre and your style, more depth and complexity might be assets.
- THERE ARE VARIOUS MEDIUMS TO INCLUDE A STORY WITHIN A STORY. A character can read a story or tell it verbally. They can hear it on the radio or watch it on television.
- WHERE YOU PLACE IT CAN BE SIGNIFICANT. You can place the story to liven up downtime, provide comic relief, or even to juxtapose an event (make something light seem lighter, or dark seem darker in contrast). A story within a story can also support a character’s recent decision or show possible implications of a decision a character is pondering.
- SUPPORTING THEME. One of the major uses of a story within a story is to draw out theme. When your “real people” characters hear about characters who are fictional to them, yet grappling with similar issues, it’s a moment to enhance theme and also have your characters open themselves to self-reflection.
- THE MOST TIMPORTANT THING MIGHT BE HOW YOUR CHARACTERS REACT TO THIS STORY. Do they judge a heroic deed as foolish and silly? Do they admire good deeds but recognize as a result their own weaknesses? How we react to stories says a lot about who we are. If the story, for instance, furnishes a warning to a character who is pushing limits or doing bad things in a manner that’s parallel to what happens in the story within a story, a reaction on the part of your character is critical. Do they spurn the warning? Laugh it of or ignore it as stupid? Or do they take heed?
- YOU DON’T HAVE TO TELL THE WHOLE STORY, OR EVEN TELL IT ALL AT ONCE. Depending on the reason you are including a story within a story, and its length, you can tell it in installments or just tell a chunk of it, leaving out the rest. If you use installments, they might just hit the “high points” of a long story without telling everything…. Your characters might read about a group of heroes preparing for battle and then read later on about their reaction to defeat. You don’t have to include the fictional battle itself if that is not as important for YOUR characters as how the “fictional” characters handle the fallout.
Some of my favorite stories within a story come from “Don Quixote.” An episodic novel, the so-called “interpolated tales” in Don Quixote are just as important and as interesting as the adventures of the knight and his squire.