2016/11/01

Stories within Stories

Red Book of Westmarch

People tell stories to entertain, inform, and advise others. As fictional representations of people, it only makes sense that characters in stories often tell stories themselves.

Nested stories
The nested story--or story within a story--is one of my favorite literary devices. If you make a mental list of your favorite books, movies, plays, etc. right now, chances are that at least one of those works has another story nested within it. The Thousand and One Arabian NightsThe Lord of the Rings, and even Jaws contain--or are--stories within stories.

It's truly amazing how much you can accomplish at once by having a character within your story tell a story of his own. Nested stories can:

  • Introduce themes and morals
  • Provide exposition without an infodump
  • Make the characters feel more authentic
  • Add depth to the secondary world (Tolkien's specialty)
  • Set mood and tone
Plus a whole bunch of other handy uses I'm probably forgetting.

Nested story examples
There are two main types of stories within stories. One is simply when a character within a story tells another story. Another type is the frame narrative, in which the main story is bookended by introductory and closing segments that are part of a meta-narrative.

Examples of frame narratives:
  • The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are contained within The Red Book of Westmarch.
  • The tales within The Canterbury Tales
  • Every Tales from the Crypt story features an introduction and closing commentary by the Crypt Keeper.
Examples of non-frame narrative stories within stories are too numerous to list, but I've compiled a few prominent examples from some of my favorite movies.


The coroner's story from The Howling (1981) Skip to the 24:00 mark.
Director Joe Dante is an expert at using nested stories to great effect in his films. This supernatural horror movie features a brief nested story that has nothing to do with werewolves but ably reinforces mood and tone while setting the audience up for a major plot-advancing revelation.


Kate's speech from Gremlins (1984)
Here's Joe Dante again with a nested story that's so notorious that he just parodied it in the sequel instead of trying to top it. What's especially notable about Kate's otherwise heartrending tale is how you can't help laughing at it--or at least giggling a little. This story within a story masterfully encapsulates the horror-comedy tone of Gremlins.


Quint's story from Jaws (1975)
You know you're in for grade-A material when Spielberg's involved. The master nails it right out of the gate with Quint's chilling war story. It's worth noting that this story within a story is itself nested between episodes of merrymaking and camaraderie between the main characters, making the horror stand out in sharp relief.

Honestly there is so much going on here that Quin'ts four minute speech could easily serve as the basis for a whole essay, and I'd bet real money that more than one film school professor has given that very assignment.

Setting the tone? Pitch perfect. Informing the audience of how dangerous the main threat is? Check. Establishing Quint's badass credentials? In spades. Foreshadowing? You bet!

What really strikes me about this scene is the deft way that Spielberg connects the personal, primal dread we have for sharks with the existential terror of nuclear weapons. The director pulls a really clever trick here by telling us how much carnage 1000 sharks can cause in the context of a mission to deliver the Hiroshima bomb. The strong symbolism rubs off on Bruce, amplifying the threat he poses.

Quint's story also raises questions in the viewers' minds. Was Bruce at the wreck of the Indianapolis? Is he a freak mutated to gargantuan size by nuclear fallout like a piscine Godzilla? Does Jaws show a prior relationship between Bruce and Quint that the movie brings full circle?


Mr. Orange's anecdote from Reservoir Dogs (1992)
I leave you with the greatest story within a story in cinema history: the Commode Story. Enjoy!


Feel free to share your favorite nested stories in the comments below.

Also, feel free to check out how I use nested stories in my award-winning SFF-horror novels.

@BrianNiemeier

2 comments:

  1. The story within a story approach is excellent for introducing third party events and perspectives into a first person narrative that otherwise would be unable to present that material. I find it enormously helpful in my own writing. Thanks for your observations.

    ReplyDelete