I like stories, and so stories that are about stories seem doubly cool to me. I decided to analyze three of my favorite “stories within stories” and the different ways that this concept can be handled.
A Tale: “The Tale of the Three Brothers” in Harry Potter
I’ve read various cautionary articles about inserting a “tale” into fiction. Interrupting the flow of the plot for “storytime” can slow the action, take the reader out of the story, and is often a thinly veiled excuse for an unnecessary flashback. While all of these are true, I think there are still ways to use the “tale” inside a story without interrupting the main plot. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows does this very well with the “Tale of the Three Brothers.” One of the main things that makes it work is that this tale is vital to the rest of the main plot of the book. This tale isn’t an excuse for lame backstory or filler for a slow plot—without this little story-within-the-story, Harry wouldn’t learn everything he needs to know about the Deathly Hallows, which is vital to the rest of the story.
Plus, the tale was treated beautifully in the film. Honestly, it’s my favorite part of the movie:
Nested Stories and Flashback Tales: The Historian
If you’re not supposed to use tales within a story as an excuse for a flashback, then this book breaks that rule with every single chapter. This book is a bit unique, though, because the entire thing is a flashback within a flashback, and the different time periods of the story mesh perfectly to create the larger plot. I blogged about this book in a post I did about narrators, because all of the flashbacks are told in the first person, but by different people. This book isn’t really a good model for the average writer to follow, even though this author handled the writing style brilliantly. If you want to write a story within a story, it would probably be wiser to stick with a Harry Potter-esque “tale,” or a story about a story, as in the following example.
A Story about a Story: The Princess Bride
Since the book of The Princess Bride is very different from the movie—and probably more people have seen the movie—I’ll focus on the film for my example. The “main plot” of the story is the relationship of a little boy and his grandfather. Very little action happens, but there is character growth as the impatient boy realizes that his old-fashioned grandfather really isn’t as out of touch as he first thinks, and that they both share a love for a good story. The bulk of the movie, of course, is the fairy tale that the grandfather reads to the boy, The Princess Bride. The occasional hops out of the tale, like when the boy complains about the kissing scenes, are just frequent enough to remind the audience that this is a story within a story, but they don’t interfere with the flow of the plot.
Now over to you! Do you have a favorite “story within a story?”
Or a favorite Princess Bride quote? Just because.