Going Meta: A Story Within A Story

diary-srb-1118480-mAs 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.”

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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?
  7. 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.

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18 responses to “Going Meta: A Story Within A Story

  1. I tried something like this with one of my novellas. It was about a post-apocalyptic world where humans were living in the wilderness. The story focused on a teen who would make up fairy tales to give people hope. So every chapter was an event and an associated fairy tale. Not sure if this is 100% what you’re talking about though.

    • it really kind of is! that’s so cook, Charles!!! I LOVE that idea…. oh my gosh, fantastic. Fairy tales are so powerful… that speaks straight to the heart of what they are and the real truths they define.

      • The hard part was making up my own fairy tales. It’s a fun genre to write in, but so much has been done. There’s also a lot more rules than in other genres, especially if you’re aiming for a moral.

        • I can definitely see how it would be tough to write an original fairytale!!! I remember in one creative writing class we used someone’s breakdown of the standard plot of a fairly (a Russian scholar, can’t remember who) and wrote our own fairytales that followed the generic pattern.

        • Curious to find out how that went. I did something like that in 6th grade with the ‘quest pattern’ of a story. Still have it somewhere around here.

        • I remember I wrote about a boy and a flute of some kind, I think. Don’t remember much else. I’ll have to see if I saved the fine anywhere, haha! It would be fun to read it. I think I might have written it on paper to turn in though, not in electronic form.

        • My teacher actually gave us thin, empty books that we could write and draw pictures on. Think I wrote a story about my pet turtle and my sister’s pet hamster on an adventure to defeat an evil witch.

  2. Stories-within-stories can be fun and interesting, as long as the author isn’t using them as some sort of heavy-handed attempt to cram a moral in, or overdoing the Chinese Puzzle Box schtick (for an example of this, see Wind Through the Keyhole; normally I love King and the Dark Tower but the layered story just felt totally unnecessary there.)

    Interesting post, and something to think about. Maybe I should try throwing one in my next work. Hmm.

    • Layers within stories can be a lot of fun! And I love your reminder about not making it heavy handed. Subtlety goes a lot further in this kind of situation, I definitely agree.

  3. I love books that have frame tales and am currently trying to write one. We’ll see how successful I am, but so far, I’m loving it. One of my favorite frame tales was in Margaret Atwood’s, The Blind Assassin.

    • Frame tales ARE fun! I hadn’t been thinking about a frame narrative in this context, but it definitely fits. I always think of “The Heart of Darkness” when I think of a frame narrative.

  4. The story within the story fascinates me and it something I enjoy weaving into my manuscripts.

  5. Just how many levels of meta can one go?
    So far I have the following levels
    Series Story
    >>Book Story
    >>>>Individual character meta used to push the Book story.

  6. Alexandrina Brant

    “You can place the story to liven up downtime” I think I’d be worried that I’d make the downtime drag even further, though.
    Also, there is a different between a story and a flashback in context, but is there a difference in terms of literary and how a reader approaches either? I find that stories, regardless of their symbolism merit, take me away from the main action, and this can be annoying – just like a flashback.

    • that’s an excellent point about dragging downtime further down! might depend on the pacing and speed and tone of the story within a story.

    • Yes, this. I’m a slush reader of short fiction, and if you’re using the story-in-a-story framework, especially if it reads like a flashback, eight out of ten times you’ve lost me as a reader.

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