17.12: Structuring a Story Within a Story
Your Hosts: Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal, Peng Shepherd, and Howard Tayler
One common structure—both macro and micro—is the “story within a story,” or “framing story” structure, and yet somehow we’ve never really explored it on Writing Excuses. Guest host Peng Shepherd is here to help us set things right.
Liner Notes: Here are some examples of story-within-a-story structure…
- Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer
- Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
- Hyperion Cantos, by Dan Simmons
- Neverending Story, by Michael Ende
- One Thousand and One Nights
- Sun the Moon and the Stars, by Stephen Brust
- Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alix E. Harrow
Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.
Homework: Take or create an artifact within your current WIP, whether it’s a letter, a diary entry, an in-world almanac or spellbook, etc., and flesh it out for a chapter. See what it adds to your worldbuilding or plot.
Thing of the week: Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke.
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Key points: The story within a story structure can give a mythical or mystical feeling. It also engages the reader in discovering the link between the two. Often it adds essential information or explanations. You can also use story within a story to illuminate the theme. Smaller narratives can make the story feel richer. It’s especially useful for twists and reveals. Is it one frame around a single story in the middle, or is it a photo collage frame with lots of little stories inside? Frames can add verisimilitude. They can also help control pacing. Sometimes they can help the writer figure out what kind of story they want to tell.
[Season 17, Episode 12]
[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Structuring a Story within a Story.
[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.
[Peng] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Peng] I’m Peng.
[Howard] And I’ll be relating Howard’s tale.
[Dan] Very good. So, this is another structural element we… I don’t think we’ve ever talked about on the show before. Story within a story. Peng, what do we want… Where do we want to start talking about this?
[Paying] Story within a story is such a beautiful and really delicate type of structure, I think. I think it works really well for stories that you want to have a kind of mythical or mystical feel to them. There’s always this element of like discovery that you want to uncover the link between the two. So, I think, I mean we could start by just talking about some stories that do this really well, or ways that you can kind of back into this structure.
[Dan] Yeah. Give us an example so people know what we’re talking about.
[Peng] Sure. So, I think a really great example, well, everybody knows Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, but a more recent example might be the 10,000 Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow. In that book, it’s about a girl who… She’s got magical powers that she doesn’t fully understand where she can open portals to other worlds. Early on in the novel, she finds a journal hidden away in the attic of this house that she lives in. As she starts reading the journal, you realize that it has a much stronger connection to her story then you might at first realize. It turns out that she… Oh, should I spoil it? I don’t know. Maybe I shouldn’t. Um…
[Mary Robinette] You realize things.
[Peng] Yes. Which is… I’m sorry. It’s just such a great book. I just realized that I was about to spoil it. But it’s a great example of how you can have an artifact… Not an artifact, you can have a story within the greater story that you’re telling, and it ends up adding like essential information that you might need to understand the present narrative or explains magic or something like that.
[Howard] A couple of examples that are not recent. There’s the Canterbury Tales which I was alluding to, obviously. I will be relating Howard’s tale.
[Howard] He’s not the knight, he’s not the baker, he’s the cartoonist. Also, not going to Canterbury. And One Thousand and One Nights, which is a compilation of Middle Eastern folktales, compiled during the Islamic Golden age. The editors who put this together created multiple layers of framing stories connecting this material. It’s one of the most outstanding examples of story within a story because of how many layers there are and the way it’s structured.
[Dan] Yeah. The kind of modern… One of the modern takes on Canterbury Tales is The Hyperion Cantos, which updates it into this big kind of sweeping space opera story. The way they use story in a story, there is a much larger thing going on, this kind of sweeping across the whole galaxy, and by the end of the second book, you know they have fundamentally altered everything about this vast space faring civilization. So they use the story within a story element to kind of illuminate different aspects of that society that they’re about to… That they’re eventually going to change. So we get to see what the different… Some of the different cultures are like. We get to see some of the different religious beliefs. We get this very widespread vision of the world as we are doing this much larger story that will change it all.
[Peng] I think one of the other… One of the best ways that you can employ this technique, this structure, is, I think, often when you’ve got a story within a story, you’re able to illuminate your theme a lot more directly in a way that isn’t going to hit people over the head with it or come off as soapbox-y because you’re doing it within the story that is within the story. So you have a little bit more room there to, like, explore something like the theme that you’re trying to get at or the lesson, if you have a lesson.
[Mary Robinette] One of the… One of my favorite examples of this is The Neverending Story, which is…
[Peng] Oh, yeah.
[Mary Robinette] I don’t… Most people know the film. The book, the physical artifact of the book, is just also a beautiful thing. One of the things that happens in it is that as the… As we go between the embedded story within the book, we are also… And then come back out to the hero’s main… Real life and then back in, the lessons that he is learning in both places affect the way he moves through the world. It’s really, really lovely. The other thing that I kind of want to say about this idea of story within a story is that while you can use it for big overarching structure, you can also illuminate a story or have the idea of story within a story affect something on a smaller scale or a microcosm. Honestly, the thing that comes to mind most is a Star Trek episode, the Darmok episode, in which there’s the Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra. It’s this culture that entirely speaks in embedded metaphors. At a certain point, the only way to communicate is when Picard tells them another story. The thing for me about this is that these smaller stories, even if it doesn’t become a huge structural element, embedding smaller narratives into your work can make it feel richer. Because it gives you these views into the culture and again contrasts, I think.
[Dan] Yeah. I agree. That’s one of the strongest… That’s actually my favorite Star Trek episode out of any of the series. Part of the reason is it provides this kind of mythic backdrop to it. I mean, Patrick Stewart reciting Gilgamesh would be powerful in almost any context. But once they have established the importance of story as a cultural element, then him sitting down and relating the story of Gilgamesh by a campfire just gives it this absolutely epic tone that is absent in a lot of other Star Trek.
[Dan] We are definitely far enough into this. We’re well over half. Let’s have our book of the week, which is also Mary Robinette.
[Mary Robinette] Oh, that’s right. So I’m going to briefly pause to embed another story in the episode. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke is a fantastic novel. I listened to it in audiobook. The narrator was Chiwetei Ejiofor. He’s just so good. But one of the things that… the whole novel is him writing journal entries. As the story unfolds, he comes across a trove of additional material. I’m going to say it that way to avoid some spoilers. That unlocks a bunch of things and makes you realize that what is happening in the story is not at all what you thought was happening. It’s a really, really clever use of the story within a story.
[Dan] Cool. That is Piranesi by Susanna Clarke.
[Mary Robinette] Yes.
[Dan] Excellent. Now we’ve talked a lot about ways that story within a story can kind of recontextualize what’s going on in the larger story, the frame that the other story’s within. It seems like this is very useful for twists or reveals. Is that the best use? Is that the only use? Are there other things we can be doing with the story within a story?
[Peng] Well, that… Yes. I think so. But I would say that that’s one of the… At least one of the best uses. Because often times when you have a story within a story, it’ll start with the character who finds the story within the story in whatever form it is, a book or an almanac or something. They, when they find it, are usually not clear on exactly what it is or how it will relate to their life or their journey. So, I think it just creates this kind of an automatic desire in the reader to solve the question and figure out in what way does this story relate to the present narrative, or is it real or is it not. Because that’s also usually one of the first questions that comes up when you encounter the story within a story, you’re wondering if it’s purely some kind of a fable or if it’s a second reality that is also happening or has just happened.
[Howard] Yeah. I’ve found that the… Up until now, I typically just called this structure the framing story structure. Where there is a frame that is its own story, and there’s a story on the inside. The realization that I’ve had recently is that with things like The Canterbury Tales and the One Thousand and One Nights, the frame is framing multiple stories. One of the first structural questions that I’d ask is are we going to build it like, for instance, I think it was Name of the Wind. There is an outer framing story, and then there’s the meat of the story which is just one thing in the middle. Or are we building a single frame… A frame like those photo collage frames…
[Howard] You’ll get at the big box store, where you have lots of little stories stuck inside. The big framing story I think is… It’s a fun way to make a thing feel epic, but the photo collage approach is a great way to build a very complicated puzzle which resolves itself as you make your way through the various stories.
[Dan] So let me ask a question of you all, because I’m curious. Now that we’re talking about frames, Frankenstein, for example, is famously a frame story. There… It is the story of somebody telling the story to someone else. But, also rather famously, most adaptations of Frankenstein, the movies that have been based on it and things like that, do away with the frame. What do we get by adding… What is the value of adding a frame to a story, of doing a story within a story, instead of just telling us the tale of Frankenstein without the frame around it?
[Mary Robinette] So, historically, one of the reasons that you would have a frame story was to lend a sense of verisimilitude, that this is obviously a true thing that is being shared with you because there is a narrator here in the here and now that you can relate to and that will guide you through the story. So one thing that a frame story can do is to do that and give that sense of trust. But, the other thing that a frame story can do is that it can serve as, in much the same way that a frame would for a painting, that you may have a painting that needs a very narrow, thin band just to set it off from the things that are around it, but that helps you focus in on the important things. Or you may have like a miniature that needs quite a large frame around it in order to give you time to get into the meat of that tiny, tiny little thing in the center. So I think that those are things that that frame can do. I also think that frequently it is a tool that authors will reach for because they don’t trust themselves to tell the center story.
[Mary Robinette] So as a modern writer, we’re no longer having to deal with some of… Like, you used to have to do a frame story because that was the only way you could tell fiction.
[Mary Robinette] So you have a lot more leeway now to do that. So you have to figure out whether or not it’s serving the story, the emotional experience that you want the reader to have. The other piece of that, I would say, is whether or not your frame story is only around the outside or whether or not it has interjections and interludes within. Those can be a way to control pacing. Those are often useful in that way.
[Dan] Peng, let me get your opinion on this. If an author is looking at their work, the story they want to tell, what are some signs that they might want to wrap another story around the outside or insert another story into the middle?
[Peng] Well, it’s a really interesting thing that you just said right before this, Mary Robinette, because what I was going to say was I often find that this technique can be really great to use if you’re stuck. So it’s interesting that you said sometimes you feel that writers might use it if they’re lacking confidence in the thing that they’re writing. But I would wonder if a lot of stories that end up having a story within a story ended up that way or rather started that way because the writer was stuck and they were having trouble figuring out exactly the kind of story they want to tell. So, if you’re stuck, and this will kind of relate to our homework, but it can be really useful in some cases to try to go deeper and to write a story within the story you’re trying to tell, because you’re working with this really encapsulated smaller version of the thing where you just trying to explore the purpose and figure out exactly what you’re trying to say. Then, once you have that thing as a guide, you can build the larger story around it, or it can help you move the larger story forward. So it’s sort of like a guide in reverse, because it’s a smaller thing, but it’s a lot more straightforward in some ways.
[Dan] Your description actually calls to mind the Greenbone Saga by Fonda Lee. Which, each of those books includes little interludes that are basically small in world stories or legends or history pieces that are only a couple pages long, but that she definitely is using to kind of help explain what’s going on in the present. To give you cultural context for something or just to let you know who this important historical figure is that someone’s about to reference a few chapters from now. Yeah. Anyway.
[Mary Robinette] They also serve as pacing. Because, if I’m remembering correctly, there is usual… They often, as kind of an [entre act?], A thing where there’s going to be a jump in time. So helping give that also emotional distance from the stuff that happened in the chapter prior.
[Dan] That’s true.
[Mary Robinette] Which is a… I know that we are close to the end. We are over time. But I did just want to mention The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars by Steven Brust. That has a story within a story which is… The basic set up is there is a painter, modern day. He’s trying to… Well, it was modern day when I read it in the 80s. But he needs to do a painting. The book follows him from beginning to end. One of the things that he does, there’s a Hungarian folk story that is cut up and interspersed through the novel. There’s no explanation for why you’re getting it. Until, at a certain point, you realize that it is a story that he is telling to his studio mates every evening. Because he doesn’t tell you where it’s coming from, as a reader, you try to draw parallels yourself. That is another thing that I think that this structure can do, is that it can engage the reader by giving them another vessel in which to put themselves and draw their own parallels, so that each reader can wind up having a… Their own intimate relationship to this work.
[Dan] All right. Peng, you have our homework this week.
[Peng] I do. Your homework is to take or create some kind of an artifact within your current project. Like, a letter or a diary entry or an in world almanac or a spell book you’ve got magicians. Flesh it out for a passage or a scene or a chapter. See what that adds to your story. If it enhances the world building or if it lends depth to a certain part of the plot or reveal something about your characters that you otherwise weren’t getting at.
[Dan] Sounds like fun. This is Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.