Fiction within fiction – made-up worlds and stories inside stories

Stories within stories, dreams and made-up universes are all tricky because once you leave your story’s established world the reader may leave you too. How do you keep them with you?

Stories within stories can go badly wrong. The reader knows it is not ‘true’. Yes, fiction isn’t true anyway, but the reader allows that because they bought into it when they opened the book. But they didn’t necessarily agree to read the characters’ fiction, or spend long periods in their dream worlds. The reader needs to be connected securely with the other world and want to go there.

I’ve just been reading Tony and Susan by Austin Wright, which I discussed recently on Guys Can Read. Tony and Susan does story-in-story with aplomb. Here’s how.

Susan, who is comfortably married with 2 children and a nice home, is sent a novel written by her ex-husband, Edward, who she hasn’t seen in 20 years. When they split up decades ago, he was a discontented drifter making incompetent attempts to be creative. Now he comes out of the blue and asks Susan to read his novel because she was ‘always his best critic’. Susan feels awkward about it – and not just because she’s worried the book will be awful. There’s difficult history between them – she feels complicated and guilty – and she’s dreading what she’ll find in the novel.

So, by the time we get to this novel within a novel, we’re curious. We want to see if it will be bad – but we’re not too worried about that because the (real-life) author has been assured and entertaining so far. And also we’ve become connected to Susan’s reactions. We have inklings that there is an older, raw Susan in dread of being woken. So we are eager to see what is in Edward’s book and how she reacts.

So the first rule of stories within stories is this: give us something we want to find.

When do you introduce it? As soon as you like, so long as you tick those boxes.

You may not need to wait very long. Tony and Susan has a prologue and a short first chapter and we’re into the book within the book. (Yes, a prologue. This writer is happy-slapping several writing taboos – and getting away with it.)

Another of my favourite books with several tiers of fictionality is The Bridge by Iain Banks. The Bridge starts with a man trapped behind the wheel of his crashed car, in pain and terrified. A mere two pages and we are into a parallel fantasy world which is his consciousness while he is in a coma. In the coma world are clues that anchor us to the real-world scene we’ve just read. Some random delirium words – ‘the dark station’ – become the first line of the coma world. There are other details too – a strange, O-shaped bruise on the man’s chest, which has given him his coma-world name, and which we know was from impact with the steering wheel. (Although the book does get flabby after a while, with dream sequences run to briar…)

Second rule of stories within stories

Give us details that anchor us and help us understand what we’re seeing. Another master-stroke about Banks’s coma-world is its setting on a giant, neverending bridge – the Forth Bridge, where the accident happened.

Here’s the third rule of stories within stories

Make both stories satisfying. Tony and Susan’s story within the story is a harrowing thriller, with every bit as much tension as the story around it. Often I see manuscripts where the writer is more interested in one strand than the other. It’s often tricky to make sure the crescendos complement each other, but, hey, you knew it would be a challenge,

Fourth rule

Make both stories affect each other.  So the characters have to be changed not only by what they are doing in the real world, but what is happening to them in the other one. It all needs to knit together to make something bigger than both stories separately – otherwise why have them in one book at all?

Again, Tony and Susan has it nailed, and in rather an interesting way. The Tony part (Tony is the fictional MC) is a story of literal, bloody revenge. The Susan part is about psychological revenge. Edward (the writer) knows exactly how to push Susan’s buttons and prod her insecurities. Because of what Edward is making Tony go through, he’s forcing her to have a relationship with her again, through the book, because he knows he’s making her react. That’s all very uncomfortable.

Do you have any rules for writing stories within stories? Do you have any favourite novels – or films – that do this particularly well? (Thank you THQ Insider for the picture)

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  1. #1 by Eva on March 20, 2011 - 5:26 pm

    Margaret Atwood’s “The Blind Assassin” may have 2 or 3 stories within a story. You have the main first person narrator in the present, her detailed flashback story, a 3rd person story about an affair and the novel that one of the affair’s participant’s is writing.

    Atwood handles all deftly but the book requires the reader’s patience because you’re not sure where she’s headed. She also intersperses news clippings that, at first, you’re not sure about. Needless to say, it all falls together and is a thing of beauty.

    • #2 by rozmorris on March 20, 2011 - 5:45 pm

      Eva, thank you – The Blind Assassin is one one of my reading lists and now you’ve given me another reason to read it. It’s a long time since I read any Atwood but I remember a sense of assured, beguiling control. It will be very interesting to see how she handles nested stories like this.

  2. #3 by erikamarks on March 20, 2011 - 5:26 pm

    Roz, I am in such awe of writers who can make this work–and work well. You’ve compiled a wonderful tip sheet. Tony and Susan sounds so compelling–I’m adding it to my list.

    • #4 by rozmorris on March 20, 2011 - 5:45 pm

      Thanks, Erika! Tony & Susan is the kind of book that makes me want to go write!

  3. #5 by Dave Morris on March 20, 2011 - 5:40 pm

    Agree that Tony & Susan was first rate. The story-within-a-story was a compelling read and it had a real bearing on the primary story. Can’t say I enjoyed The Bridge nearly so much, though. The secondary story meandered on and on, and when we started hearing about the imaginary dreams the character was having inside his imaginary world, I found I didn’t have the will to turn another page.

    This whole metafictional idea became kind of a vogue subgenre in the 1980s, but very hard to carry off successfully, as Erika says.

    • #6 by rozmorris on March 20, 2011 - 5:47 pm

      Yes, I have to admit there were parts of The Bridge I skipped. And metafiction can get seriously up its own backside, and is often used as an excuse for not writing a proper story. As if the writer is saying, it’s fiction anyway – it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work.

  4. #7 by Nancy Duci Denofio on March 20, 2011 - 6:02 pm

    Roz – I have been going through your blogs and find them all quite interesting, great work. Now I am waiting to find something about “based on a true story – that begins in 1892” of LOL it doesn’t matter year, Nancy

    • #8 by rozmorris on March 21, 2011 - 9:57 am

      Nancy, you’d better write it! Although I did a post a short while ago about using real people in stories… and being so scared of the consequences you might need to change your name. Is it too late for you?

  5. #9 by Cathy on March 20, 2011 - 6:07 pm

    Most insightful, thank you. I’m particularly excited about 4: Make both stories affect *each other*. This is challenging; in my own novel I have 2 story lines somewhat parallel to one another but now I see the parallel (with occasional interweaving) just isn’t intimate enough. To work!

    • #10 by rozmorris on March 21, 2011 - 9:58 am

      Thanks, Cathy. It’s tricky but your novel will be richer for it. Good luck.

  6. #11 by Charlotte on March 20, 2011 - 6:22 pm

    Paul Auster does it really well in many of his books, but I’m thinking of Invisible here. He’s not scared off all kinds of levels and layering and he pulls it off by keeping the secondary story interesting and making it relate back to the primary tale. just as you describe.

    • #12 by rozmorris on March 21, 2011 - 9:58 am

      Charlotte, thanks for the recommendation. I hadn’t thought Paul Auster might have done this – checking it out.

  7. #13 by netta on March 20, 2011 - 6:50 pm

    Meilin Miranda uses this device quite well in “Lovers and Beloveds” by using a story within the story to teach lessons to the protagonist. The inside story gives vital details to the history of the kingdom he is destined to rule while highlighting the internal battles he faces in order to become the king he is meant to be. I don’t usually enjoy this type of storytelling, but she really pulls it off.

    • #14 by rozmorris on March 21, 2011 - 10:00 am

      Netta – good to see you! This kind of story can be irritating if done badly and blissful if done well. Thanks for the example.

  8. #15 by Shasta Kearns Moore on March 20, 2011 - 9:29 pm

    How funny that our posts on TRDC were so close together again this week! I was pleasantly surprised to be reading your blog again and, though I have no immediate need for this information, I found it interesting nonetheless. Thanks!

    • #16 by rozmorris on March 21, 2011 - 10:03 am

      Thanks, Shasta! TRDC is a great melting pot – never know whose worlds you collide with.

  9. #17 by Abhishek Boinpalli on March 20, 2011 - 11:15 pm


    Lots of rules!! I never wrote a story in a story!! I am planning to write one soon!! So thanks a lot for underlining all the major rules!!

    with warm regards

    • #18 by rozmorris on March 21, 2011 - 10:04 am

      Them’s the rules, Abhishek. Break them only if you have a very, very good reason! And good luck.

  10. #19 by Dr. Tom Bibey on March 21, 2011 - 12:46 am

    My book is “The Mandolin Case.” It is fiction, but I lived it every day. I couldn’t wait to get up every morning, go to my computer, and find out what the characters had been up to while I slept.

    The story is a medical legal mystery resolved by musicians, and involves a cast of bluegrass pickers, Navajo code talkers, golf hustlers, and a part Choctaw Indian physician who smokes and drinks too much, but takes good care of his patients in spite of his flaws.

    When I finished the novel I missed the characters so much I started another book.

    Dr. B

    • #20 by rozmorris on March 21, 2011 - 10:05 am

      Well Dr Tom, that sounds like quite a medly you’ve got there. Good that you’ve got the band playing again.

  11. #21 by Alexander M Zoltai on March 21, 2011 - 1:12 am

    The best example of this I’ve read is John Gardner’s October Light where the female MC is periodically reading a trashy “blockbuster” novel 🙂

    • #22 by rozmorris on March 21, 2011 - 10:05 am

      Hello, Alexander! John Gardner… very practised storysmith. I’ll check that out.

  12. #23 by BellaVidaLetty on March 21, 2011 - 2:49 pm

    This was the perfect post to read today since I’m working on a second draft for a screenplay w/two story lines. One thing I need to work on is I did focus on one way more than the other.

    • #24 by rozmorris on March 21, 2011 - 3:00 pm

      Thank you – it’s easily done, and often we don’t realise the mistake unless we look specifically for it.

  13. #25 by Rosslyn Elliott on March 21, 2011 - 2:55 pm

    Excellent post! I agree, it’s very hard to do those framed stories well. I do use a couple of dreams in my debut novel which is about to release. I kept them very short (about a paragraph each), and they’re an echo of trauma the protagonist has experienced. My approach to dreams is that they should work the way they do in real life, as a working-through of issues the protagonist can’t articulate consciously. Readers know the weird Lewis Carroll logic of dreams, and if you make the dream follow that logic, they will buy it. If it’s short. 🙂

    • #26 by rozmorris on March 21, 2011 - 3:03 pm

      Nice to see you here, Rosslyn. Dreams can so easily become a self-indulgent splurge. Evelyn Waugh uses them well in a delirium sequence at the end of A Handful of Dust, with precisely the maxims you lay out here – they are short, weirdly logical and say what the main character can’t articulate or isn’t allowed to articulate.

  14. #27 by Victoria Mixon on March 21, 2011 - 10:16 pm

    Did you ever read what Flannery O’Connor said about this? She apparently spoke to some local writers’ group (imagine Flannery O’Connor speaking at your local writers’ group!), and someone asked her how to write a frame-within-a-frame story, and she said, “I don’t even know what that IS.”

    Emily Bronte of course was the Grand Poo-bah of frame-within-a-frame, but there are also Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Henry James’ ghost story “The Turn of the Screw” (classic ghost story structure), and Lawence Durrell’s I-don’t-know-what-but-it’s-brilliant ouvre, The Alexandria Quartet.

    For the record, I just read an early Durrell novel, The Dark Labyrinth, that I stumbled on in an obscure little used-bookstore in Grant’s Pass, Oregon, and it reminded me once more why great writers are considered great.

    My god, that man could write!

    • #28 by rozmorris on March 21, 2011 - 11:46 pm

      Grand poo-bah Bronte… how could I have left her out? It’s years since I read Turn of the Screw – shall have to revisit it. I’ve never got round to Larry Durrell, although brother Gerry was congenially readable in My Family and Other Animals (but that’s not fiction). Never read O’Connor either – but I like her very much for having the guts to admit when jargon has her flummoxed!

      • #29 by Victoria Mixon on March 22, 2011 - 5:55 pm

        O’Connor’s stories tend to end rather oddly, but there is no greater comic anti-hero than Enoch Emery ofWise Blood. When O’Connor went to NY once on publishing business, Enoch apparently went with her and threatened to throw himself out her hotel window. She was a marvelous letter-writer and used to make herself laugh out loud with Enoch’s antics.

  15. #30 by Hugh on March 22, 2011 - 9:47 am

    “The Blind Assassin” is to be recommended (the first paragraph alone is a classic Atwoodian cracker), but not necessarily for the way in which it handles nested stories. As the first commenter says above, it’s stuffed with examples, but the key story, the saga of the blind assassin himself, arguably disobeys Roz’s rules 1 and 4 except in the very loosest senses. But, yes, read it Roz and see what you think.

    • #31 by rozmorris on March 22, 2011 - 10:16 am

      Hello, Hugh! ‘Arguable disobedience’… I must certainly check that out.
      Actually The Bridge disobeys no 4. The real-world strand is the character’s life before the coma, and whatever is going on there can’t be changed, only examined. Although coma-man should emerge with fresh insights, but there isn’t this dynamic seesaw going on.

  16. #32 by Paul Greci on March 22, 2011 - 3:06 pm

    Great list of story-within-a-story rules. I have put books down when the stories weren’t somehow anchored together. As a reader, I have to care about both stories in order to keep turning the pages.

    • #33 by rozmorris on March 22, 2011 - 3:30 pm

      Thanks, Paul. I think writers of stories within stories have an even harder job than main plot/sub-plot format. We are looking for the reason they belong together. If we don’t find it, we’re more likely to be disappointed.

  17. #34 by Amanda Hoving on March 24, 2011 - 1:15 pm

    “This writer is happy-slapping several writing taboos — and getting away with it.” Love that line, Roz, and I’m glad that some writers can break the rules and make it work.

    Regarding stories within stories, it’s not something I’ve felt comfortable tackling. This is a great list, though, and I’m eager to read a book from such a rule-breaking writer.

    • #35 by rozmorris on March 25, 2011 - 10:51 am

      Thanks, Amanda! I think rules can happily be broken – if someone knows what they’re doing. They’re not so much prohibitions as guidelines – but like wearing red and green together, can sometimes be fresh and wonderful.

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