My daughter was watching a show on PBS about a dog who travels through time. It worked on multiple timelines with several threads weaving the overall narrative. A pretty complex structure for a kid’s show, or so I thought. I paused by the television on my way to the kitchen for an espresso and she looked up at me and explained, “this story is happening inside another story.”
It was then that I realized how natural is the narrative concept of story within a story. My daughter, barely five, is hardly thrown by a complex narrative.
Story within a story, as a device, is as old as storytelling itself. Take The Arabian Nights and Sheherazade’s desperate bid to prolong her life serving as a framework for a string of tales. Take Guillermo Arriaga’s multi-threaded storytelling in Amores Perros and Babel. Take the picaresque collection of tales in Big Fish, each exaggerated story serving the greater narrative about a complex father-son dynamic. Or consider the simple story within a story told by Tom Hanks in Charlie Wilson’s War that amounted to the finest moment in that film: he tells the story of how he became involved in politics as a young boy, ending the tale with, “And that’s the day I fell in love with America.”
The technique is used so often in film and fiction that it’s hardly original or distinctive. It can be done well, as in Joseph Conrad’s Youth, which is a story within a story delivered around pints of beer by a sailor in a pub. Or it can be as clumsy and hamfisted as the oft-maligned flashback. But a flashback is just another form of story within a story, an if you do it well, nobody will complain.
Way back in grad school, I was taught that story within a story was a useful technique that could help you advance a narrative. The instructors in Columbia College Chicago’s fiction program used an exercise called the “steeple chase.” Basically, you’d take a short story or novel excerpt and put it through the ringer, telling parts in first person, parts in second, switching narrators and tense, or telling part of it as a letter or newspaper article. We were also required to tell part of the narrative as a story within a story. Often it served the purpose of unsticking a stuck narrative. So if you’ve got a novel or script that you can’t seem to bear to finish, try having a character tell a story within a story, or launch into some tangent, and see what effect it has on the narrative…it might just set things into motion again.
Whatever the case, it’s a natural device in storytelling…so inherent to the art that it’s simple for even a five year old to grasp.