Today we’re going to look at the idea of a story-inside-a-story. This is when the main story stops to tell a second story. The most common form of this is a flashback, which is why I used it for the title of the post. There are other types of stories-inside-a-story as well. Today we are going to look at the kinds of stories-inside-a-story, how to write them and what to watch out for.
Kinds of Stories-Inside-a-Story
Considering this is the title of the post, we’ll start with these. A flashback is a memory of one of the characters from something in the past that is related to the story.
This is not as common, but would be a glimpse into the future. It is clearly not something from anyone’s memory and so usually only the narrator and the reader would know it (unless one of the characters can see into the future). This would usually be used to build foreshadowing.
This means a story that the characters are reading or telling inside the main story. It can take many forms, depending on your story, such as the characters reading a book, listening to an audio-recording or listening to another character tell the story.
This might not always be considered a story-inside-a-story, but since some writers use them that way, I wanted to mention it. Dreams could be used as a flashback, flashforward (if the character was psychic) or sometimes just as a fake-out for the reader. A fake-out is where the reader thinks a scene is happening in real life and then the character wakes up. I’m not a fan of this technique, but sometimes it might be useful. Whatever you do, don’t make the whole story a dream. That makes the reader feel tricked.
How to Write a Story-Inside-a-Story
There are various levels you can use, depending on various factors. We will go from least blatant to most blatant.
This is where the narrator (either first or third person) tells us background information. This is often called exposition or backstory. It is best to use this in small chunks since, like other kinds of stories-inside-a-story, it stops the main story from going forward.
The drive down Route 14 was peaceful in a way the rest of my life wasn’t. It reminded me of the time I had taken this same highway down to the coast with my dad growing up. He was the one who had begun my love of all living things that eventually had led me to become a biologist. Now, as the tires hummed over the pavement, my mind went back to those days with him, so perfect now in retrospect.
In this paragraph, the first and the last sentences are the main story, about driving down the highway. The two middle sentences are exposition and you can see how it is a small story inside the bigger one. This is only two sentences long, but you can see how too much would be intrusive. If we wrote pages about all the times he had with his father, the reader would forget about the main story of driving.
Dialogue is an easy way of telling a story-inside-a-story since you can just get one of the characters to do it. The issue with this is if the story has several people speaking in it since this can be confusing for the reader.
Formatting Note 1: When a single character speaks more than a paragraph, you don’t need to close the paragraph with a right quotation mark (”) since she isn’t finished speaking, but you should start the new paragraph with a left on (“) to remind the reader that someone is still speaking. For example:
“Let me tell you about Mad Hester,” the woman said with a smile. “Mad Hester was a wild woman that lived under the Green Bridge about fifty years ago, they said. She was also stronger than any man or woman and would challenge people to an arm-wrestling competition when they tried to cross the bridge.
“One day, a blacksmith came to cross the bridge. Mad Hester stopped him. But instead of accepting her challenge, he only gave her a lily. She took the flower but refused him passage. He came with another lily the next day and so on until finally they fell in love. But they say that it was a month after they were married before Mad Hester finally let him cross the bridge.”
Formatting Note 2: Sometimes when someone is telling a story, there will be dialogue inside dialogue. As I mentioned in my post on Dialogue, we do this by alternating double and single quotation marks. In the US and Canada, we start with double quotation marks, but the UK and other countries use single quotation marks first. For example:
“You should have seen him,” Dan said, leaning back and putting his hands over his eyes. “All eyes and horns and legs. I met him in the forest, right by that big maple with the streamers on it. ‘What do you want?’ I asked, trying to look brave. ‘Your blood,’ he hissed.”
As you can see, the problem with telling a story-inside-a-story with dialogue is that it can get confusing if there are several people talking in it. It is possible to do this, but you should use it with caution.
Italics are when the letters are slanted, like this. This is one way to set apart a story-inside-a-story, the way I use them to give examples in these posts. You can use a paragraph of all italics to show something that a character is reading silently, for instance, or maybe remembering a scene exactly as it happened. There are other ways to show this too, but italics are the most common.
Formatting Note: italics are used for other things too, such as emphasis or foreign words, so sometimes you might need to use italics inside italics. There is no such thing as double italics, so instead you put the it in normal text, like this.
The twins bent over the book.
“It looks like a history of the house,” Cyrus whispered.
Jefferson peered at the words. The writing was not easy to read at first but as he studied it, he began to see the meaning come through the looping script.
In the first year after the building, the owner Mr. Nathaniel Hoff hired five workmen and built the garage behind the summer kitchen. When the garage burned down the next month, suspicion fell on the Russian workman, but others blamed the Devil.
“I don’t get it,” Cyrus said.
In this situation, we would use italics since it implies they are reading it silently. If they were reading it out loud, we could use quotation marks. Speaking of which…
4. A Separate Scene
This is the clearest and most blatant way to do a story-inside-a-story. This is where you stop the scene and start another one for the story-inside-a-story. This is often the best method to use for flashbacks and is the best one if the story-inside-a-story is long. For example, in the book Prince Caspian, four chapters in the middle of the book are Trumpkin the dwarf telling the story of Caspian. Even though he is actually telling the story to the other characters, this is done as a completely separate story-inside-a-story since it would have been very hard to read that much as dialogue.
Even if you start a new scene or chapter, it is good to signal that this is a story-inside-a-story, such as a flashback. One way to do this is by stating the place and time (or just time if the place is not important) at the beginning. For example:
Another way is to show a break by putting three stars or dots in the middle of the page, like this:
* * *
These three dots are called a dinkus, which is a wonderful word.
Why (or Why Not) to Write a Story-Inside-a-Story
With all writing, you should decide if something is necessary before putting it in your story. However, this is especially true with stories-inside-a-story. That is because you are stopping the main story to tell another story. Here is a summary of the methods I mentioned above and the good and bad parts of each:
Now it’s your turn
- As you read, look for stories-inside-a-story using the methods above. Exposition is the most common but you should be able to find the other ones too.
- Think of a story where you could use each of these different methods of writing a story-inside-a-story. Especially with the separate scene method, you need to make sure that it is absolutely necessary since it is very intrusive to the main story.
If you have any questions about writing or other topics you want me to talk about in Writing Corner, just send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.