First: Yes, I realize that there could have been a better replacement from the above picture. I am no great fan of Lion King, but I put this here to illustrate a point. Soon, it should be pretty clear as to what my purpose was in choosing this (or, if you’re a big fan of Disney, you may already know).
Second: You may have noticed that I haven’t been blogging daily. For this, I apologize. My Christmas schedule has been hectic and has prevented me from blogging over the weekend. Hopefully, I should be able to get back to the normal schedule at this point.
Now, to the point: In stories, there is often a story within that story. This can take multiple forms: a tale around the campfire, a quick cautionary tale told to children, a quick narration of something weird that happened to one’s ancestors, A bit of history or lore, and so on.
Now, this goes without saying that you don’t necessarily need tales within tales. It could be said that all lore is a form of this, but usually the story within a story occurs in the midst of it. If all your lore and important “setting the scene” stuff happens in the prologue, it can be written like a history book and is exempt from other rules that may be traditionally used.
But what about when Strider gets all the hobbits around a fire, and they ask him to tell the tale of Beren and Luthien? Now, if you want that to be natural, you’d have to phrase it a little differently than a mere history book.
First, try to keep the general image that the reader’s aren’t in the second story, but are clearly in the first one watching someone narrate. If you decide to phrase the tale within a tale as a narration with the narrator forgotten (much like how you are writing the novel itself) it blurs the distinction. This isn’t a critical error, but I counsel you to try and keep the reader from being engrossed in the second story.
To do this, it’s best to use the good old-fashioned dialogue method. Something like: “And there I was,” Said Mr. Gritchus, his eyes growing wider. “Surrounded by two savages with pikes and a man in a cloak. I reached for my gun, but one of the savages knocked it from my hand.” Just keep reminding your readers that it is Mr. Gritchus who is telling the story, not you. This will make them more detached from the second story and more engrossed in the first one.
Now, the question may be raised: should a story within a story be short or long? Most of the time, I’d keep it short. Remember, the point of the novel is that you’re telling the story you started out with, not the story that starts in the middle. If the tale within a tale you have in mind is long, give your reader the skinny.
The story within the story (Hint hint, Lion King 1/2) can be used to convey a bevy of purposes. From illustrating a point to telling the hero a short story about his father’s exploits, it serves many purposes.
Good luck, and happy writing! See you in 2022!