Thursday, April 05, 2007

Tales Within Tales

There are times when it may be appropriate to enclose a story within a fictional work. Perhaps a character is reminiscing, or the narrator is giving some background information to the reader. Regardless of the reason, there are some considerations we should make as authors of both the outer and inner tales.

Is this inner tale even necessary? In our society of “less is more,” we haven’t the time to delve into paragraphs or pages of something unrelated to the overall story. I think there is some leeway for a novel, in that an inner tale could simply be lending to the overall world building or character development, but for short stories, it seems better to omit trivial anecdotes.

When it does appear useful to delve into an inner tale, consider how it should be told. Which voice should relate the ideas? Your characters (should) have a limited point of view and tell stories using their distinct personalities, so that may work against explicit dialogue. On the other hand, you may want to use the limits of a character in order to keep certain details hidden. A character may also allow for a false story, whereas the narrator could be more truthful (depending on the narrator of course).

Part of telling the tale is deciding how detailed to make it. This may affect who tells it as well, so be prepared to switch speakers if a character can’t pull it off and remain in character. The level of detail in the inner tale should tie back to the overall purpose for its inclusion in the greater story. Describing a couch for two paragraphs seems pointless when the only important detail is the person sitting on the couch. Just as we hope to stay concise with the overall tale, we need to be that much more concise with an inner tale.

My usual preference for character specific inner tales is to imagine how I might share a news story with someone. I wouldn’t go into intricate details because that takes too long, and I probably wouldn’t know them. I would just give the overall picture and maybe lend my opinion. Now, what would my character do in my place?

The inner tale, like so many tools, can be either brilliant or foolish, depending on its usage. Evaluate its purpose and then craft it with precise strokes, placing it in the main story where it adds depth rather than killing the pace. Make it work for you.

1 comment:

James Enge said...

Describing a couch for two paragraphs seems pointless when the only important detail is the person sitting on the couch.

Well said!

I confess I find it hard to pay attention to stories nested inside other stories. If the outer story is just a frame, like the Decameron or the Canterbury Tales that's one thing, but if I'm actually interested in the primary narrative I don't want to be whisked out of it to hear about some unrelated story.