Excavate The Inner Life Of Your Story

You may have a clever plot that is masterfully structured and filled with complex twists and complications, but if there is no connection between the External Activity and the Internal Life of the story, it will be dull, boring and ultimately disappointing.

When it comes to expressing inner values and establishing a personal perspective on a story, opening the inner life of the story allows the writer to play on the reader’s perceptions of the characters—the motives and the reliability of the storyteller are automatically in question.

Stories within a story may disclose the background of characters or events, tell of myths and legends that influence the plot, or even seem to be extraneous diversions from the plot. In some cases, the story within a story is involved in the action of the plot of the outer story. Sometimes, the inner story serves as an outlet for discarded ideas that the writer deemed to be of too much merit to leave out completely, somewhat analogous to the inclusion of deleted scenes with home video releases of films. Often there is more than one level of internal stories, leading to deeply-nested fiction.

As a writer, you have to:

  • Illuminate the thoughts and mindscape of your characters: You have to show us what a character is thinking, what is going on inside the character’s head, and how the character’s point of view guides us into a rich inner life that is meaningful and rewarding.
  • Reflect on the thematic purpose of your story: If your story deals with ‘Man versus Nature’, you have to delicately weave this into your line of dramatic action by creating subplots. Amplify your theme without preaching.
  • Reveal the memory or history of the events and characters in your story: As your character journeys through the external plot of your story, you contrast the physical action with a rich emotional landscape that takes us into the past that informs the present.

It’s a delicate balance between the Internal Life and External Life of your story that culminates in an emotional landscape that takes us into the past, which informs the present

A story within a story, also referred to as an embedded narrative, is a literary device in which a character within a story becomes the narrator of a second story (within the first one). Multiple layers of stories within stories are sometimes called nested stories. A play may have a brief play within it, such as Shakespeare’s play Hamlet; a film may show the characters watching a short film; or a novel may contain a short story within the novel. A story within a story can be used in all types of narration: novels, short stories, plays, television programs, films, poems, songs, video games, and philosophical essays.

The inner story often has a symbolic and psychological significance for its Protagonist. There is often some parallel between the two stories, and the fiction of the inner story is used to reveal the truth in the outer story. Often the stories within a story are used to satirize views,

Mise en abyme is the French term for a similar literary device (also referring to the practice in heraldry of placing the image of a small shield on a larger shield).

In the Bible, Jacob has a dream about a ladder to heaven. Having a character have a dream is a common way to add an inner story within a larger story. (Painting by William Blake, 1805)
  • Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein has a deeply nested frame story structure, that features the narration of Walton, who records the narration of Victor Frankenstein, who recounts the narration of his creation, who narrates the story of a cabin dwelling family he secretly observes.
  •  Roald Dahl‘s story The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is about a rich bachelor who finds an essay written by someone who learned to “see” playing cards from the reverse side.The full text of this essay is included in the story, and itself includes a lengthy sub-story told as a true experience by one of the essay’s protagonists, Imhrat Khan.
  • Lewis Carroll‘s Alice books, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1871), have several multiple poems that are mostly recited by several characters to the titular character. The most notable examples are “You Are Old, Father William“, “‘Tis the Voice of the Lobster“, “Jabberwocky“, and “The Walrus and the Carpenter“.
  • Chaucer‘s The Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio‘s Decameron are also classic frame stories. In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the characters tell tales suited to their personalities and tell them in ways that highlight their personalities. The noble knight tells a noble story, the boring character tells a very dull tale, and the rude miller tells a smutty tale.
  •  Homer‘s Odyssey too makes use of this device; Odysseus’ adventures at sea are all narrated by Odysseus to the court of king Alcinous in Scheria.
  • In Manuel Puig‘s Kiss of the Spider Woman, ekphrases on various old movies, some real, and some fictional, make up a substantial portion of the narrative.
  • IIn Paul Russell‘s Boys of Life, descriptions of movies by director/antihero Carlos (loosely inspired by controversial director Pier Paolo Pasolini) provide a narrative counterpoint and add a touch of surrealism to the main narrative. They additionally raise the question of whether works of artistic genius justify or atone for the sins and crimes of their creators.
  • The book Cloud Atlas (later adapted into a film by The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer) consisted of six interlinked stories nested inside each other in a Russian doll fashion. 
  • Shakespeare adopted the play-within-a-play device for many of his other plays as well, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Love’s Labours Lost. Almost the whole of The Taming of the Shrew is a play-within-a-play
  • In the television series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, each episode was framed as though it were being told by Indy when he was older (usually acted by George Hall, but once by Harrison Ford). The same device of an adult narrator representing the older version of a young protagonist is used in the films Stand by Me and A Christmas Story, and the television show The Wonder Years and How I Met Your Mother.
  • The François Truffaut film Day for Night is about the making of a fictitious movie called Meet Pamela (Je vous présente Pamela) and shows the interactions of the actors as they are making this movie about a woman who falls for her husband’s father.
  • Dreams are a common way of including stories inside stories, and can sometimes go several levels deep. Both the book The Arabian Nightmare and the curse of “eternal waking” from the Neil Gaiman series The Sandman feature an endless series of waking from one dream into another dream. In Charles Maturin‘s novel Melmoth the Wanderer, the use of vast stories-within-stories creates a sense of dream-like quality in the reader.

In THE WRITE JOURNEY course, we will take you through the process of exploring the Inner Life of your story by creating a scene outline to build and dramatize each story event and to fully explore the exterior and internal lives of your story.