Question 80: Story within a story

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pandasgirls8 asks: How do I write a story within a story? For example, I wrote a story called A nightmare in San Francisco. The main character is having nightmares about Freddy Fazbear who is trying to kill her unborn child. Mary Shelley who wrote Frankenstein, told her friends a story. That it convinced her friends that Mary Shelley stories were true. I'm writing the story but the storyteller is telling the story to the reader.

There are a few different ways to present another story within your existing story.

Referencing Actual Existing Stories

When your story characters are talking about an actual book, it's important not to copy and paste large chunks of it into your story due to copyright issues. You can, however, include short quotes (like one or two sentences) as long as it's apparent that it's a quote and not your own work.

You could work it into dialogue like this:

"Story beginnings don't have to be complicated," Jane said as she opened her favorite book. She pointed to a passage. "Look how this one starts. 'When the warrior loomed in the doorway of my hut, I exhaled with resignation.' See? It's simple, but effective."

Instead of quoting from the book, you could also paraphrase it. In the case of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, your story character could simply talk about what the story is about. It could go like this:

"Frankenstein?" Jane closed the book in her hands. "Well, yeah, Frankenstein is a favorite too. I mean, it's a story about this scientist building an entire person out of spare parts, written by a woman. Of course I love it!"

When a Story Character is Story-Telling

When characters tell stories, it should be treated a lot like backstory. In other words, it shouldn't be one giant block of sub-story that takes the reader away from the primary story. The longer a reader spends away from the main story, the more disconnected they'll feel from it.

One way to approach this is to drop in reminders that a character is speaking. In other words, treat it like part of a conversation. I'll make up an example:

Jane raised her eyebrows. "You've never heard of Siena?"

Joe shrugged. "Maybe. What's it about?

Jane's eyes glittered with excitement. "Okay, so there's this girl who can heal people. She lives with this tribe full of mean people. Except for the cute chief's son who isn't mean."

"Don't tell me this is one of those melodramatic romance stories," Joe said, rolling his eyes.

"What? No! Just shut up and listen. So she escapes the tribe and almost dies in the forest."

"Okay, so she's dumb."

"Joe! You have no appreciation for storytelling! Just read the book, okay? It's good."

By maintaining dialogue during the story-telling, you keep the reader connected to the present. The same holds true whether the character is recounting past events or making up a ghost story. This makes the pacing even, and readers won't feel like they are jumping back and forth between two stories.

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