Storytelling

How to Tell a Story Within a Story

Stories are great for taking us to extraordinary places, showing us compelling characters, and teaching important lessons. But what about stories within those stories? After all, it would only make sense that the characters would want their own tales of extraordinary places and important lessons. This can be a great tool for storytellers, but it can also turn bad in a hurry, which is why we’re going over the basics today.

To keep things from getting too confusing, we use the terms “outer story” and “inner story.” The outer story is what you’re actually reading, and within it is the inner story. Now, let’s get to it.

Choose the Type of Inner Story

Shadow art of the three brothers meeting death.

In broad strokes, there are two types of inner story you might employ: either putting the entire story within your text or inserting references to a longer work.

An Entire Story

This is the more common variety, at least in my experience. The inner story is presented in its entirety, usually by having a character read it or recite it aloud. Sometimes, a sufficiently detailed summary can also serve. Stories of this type tend to be fairly short, as it’s just not practical to plop a full novel inside your outer story. The advantage to using an entire inner story is that your readers can see what’s in it for themselves. The downside is that you need to keep the inner story as bare bones as possible; otherwise, it’s too much of a detour.

For this category, we compare Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to The Name of the Wind. In Deathly Hallows, we have the Tale of the Three Brothers.* Fittingly enough, this is a tale about three brothers who meet Death in their travels, as well as their fates afterward. In The Name of the Wind, we have an unnamed story about Taborlin the Great breaking out of a prison cell and getting away to safety.*

References to a Longer Work

If your inner story is on the longer side, you won’t be able to show readers the whole thing. Instead, you’ll have to reference it, either by putting snippets into the main text, or by having your characters talk about it. You could even do both! This option is simply more difficult than using a shorter story in its entirety, since readers can’t see the story for themselves. On the other hand, it also lets you pick an inner story with more complex ideas, and some outer stories need that.

For this category, we compare The Magicians and Middlegame. The Magicians gives us the Fillory and Further novels. These stories focus on a family of children who are whisked off to a fantasy land to have adventures, only to return again. We learn about them mostly from dialogue and internal thoughts in the outer story. From Middlegame, we get Over the Woodward Wall, a fairy tale about two children finding their way home through a surrealist wonderland. While the characters do occasionally talk about this inner story, most of what we know about it comes from snippets inserted at the start of each chapter.

Observe Storytelling Fundamentals

When you present an inner story in its entirety, that story needs to be entertaining in its own right. You’re making the audience read it, after all. If the inner story is boring, then you’ve seriously damaged that section of your outer story. You need to employ all the normal tricks of an author’s trade: compelling conflict, likable characters, a turning point for the climax, etc. You’re just doing all of that in miniature! This isn’t so much of an issue when you’re referencing a longer work, so let’s skip Middlegame and The Magicians for now.

Deathly Hallows

The Tale of the Three brothers is an excellent example of microfiction. It has a cool hook: three wizard brothers meeting Death. Frankly, you could use that as a hook for something much longer. It then delivers satisfaction in the style of The Three Little Pigs by showing how the first two brothers are doomed by their poor judgment, while the wise third brother is rewarded. We can see how his cleverness in dealing with Death pays off in the end, which provides a strong turning point. Granted, it’s a little weird that he greets Death as an “old friend” when Death has been trying to kill him for decades, but otherwise it’s a very nice creepy story.

The Name of the Wind

Unfortunately, Taborlin’s story isn’t nearly as good. It starts with Taborlin inside a stone cell, which is a decent hook, but then Taborlin gets out because he “knows the names of all things.” Apparently, this means he can make anything happen at any time simply by issuing commands. So he’s all-powerful. Not only is this unsatisfying, but it raises questions about how he was ever captured in the first place.

The story then tries to build tension by saying that some baddies called the Chandrian are coming, but who cares when Taborlin is essentially omnipotent? Can’t he just make the Chandrians explode via their true names? Oh, and he also has a magic amulet that protects him from harm, just in case you thought there was any conflict in this story.

Keep the Inner Story Simple

A hand of glory from the Middlegame cover.

When you introduce an inner story, you’re asking the readers to pause the main tale and go on a detour with you. It’s hard enough to keep track of what’s happening in just one level of fiction, so it’s imperative that you not increase the difficulty any more than you have to. Simplicity is your friend; otherwise, your readers will become overwhelmed.

Both Deathly Hallows and The Name of the Wind do a decent job here, as do most works that include an entire inner story within their text. I suspect that’s because it’s much easier to see if something is confusing when it’s all laid out at once. It’s trickier in works that only reference parts of their inner stories, as authors can easily forget the difference between what they know and what the reader knows.

The Magicians

The Fillory stories are super easy to understand for two main reasons. First, they’re heavily inspired by The Chronicles of Narnia. So heavily inspired, in fact, that anyone who’s read Narnia can easily guess what’s going to happen next. Nearly every element that lies through the wardrobe has a direct parallel in Fillory.

But even if readers aren’t familiar with Narnia, Fillory isn’t hard to follow because the story is really straightforward. Some kids go to a magical land, they learn lessons and perform great deeds, then they come home. The outer story also finds moments for its characters to explain the important Fillory sections, as most of them have read it.

Middlegame

In contrast, Middlegame relies almost entirely on quoted text to get its inner story across. Most chapters start with a short excerpt about two kids in a strange land and then attributes that excerpt to “Over the Woodward Wall, by A. Deborah Baker.”

This is confusing right from the start because it’s quite some time before we learn that Over the Woodward Wall is a novel within Middlegame’s world. At first, I even thought those kids were the actual main characters. Once I realized that wasn’t the case, I was left trying to piece together the story based on a handful of fragments. Imagine trying to understand what The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is about from only a dozen or so quotes, and you have an idea of the problem. Even though the heroes have both read the book, they rarely talk about it, so there’s almost no clarification.

To make matters worse, Over the Woodward Wall is a bizarre story that reads like a mashup of Oz and Alice in Wonderland. That would be a challenge to keep track of even with a better explanation.

Show Why the Inner Story Matters

A character reading a fantasy book from The Magicians.

Like every other element of your writing, an inner story should be included for a reason, and the reader should know what that reason is. Otherwise, it’ll be frustrating to essentially pause the outer story in order to read something else. You need to make it clear how this new material is related to the plot and characters you’ve worked to get the reader invested in.

Deathly Hallows

We’re off to a good start here. While Deathly Hallows has a lot of plot problems, it’s immediately clear why the Tale of the Three Brothers is important: Voldemort is looking for one of the three magic items it describes. Finding out more about them will help our heroes to defeat him. By the time the inner story is introduced, we’ve already seen plenty of signs that it’s also somehow related to the hunt for Voldemort’s all-important horcruxes, even if the nature of the connection isn’t entirely clear.

Later on, the story only gets more important as Harry learns that possessing all three items from the story might give him mastery over death. This matters a lot to Harry, since he believes that he has to die in order to defeat Voldemort.

The Name of the Wind

Taborlin’s tale is told right away, in The Name of the Wind’s first chapter in fact. This makes it all but impossible for readers to understand why Taborlin is important, but that could have been fine if some connection with the outer story had been forthcoming. Instead, The Name of the Wind transitions into an unrelated side story and then into an even more unrelated main story. All Taborlin’s tale ends up doing is serving as foreshadowing for the Chandrian and true name magic, but the story has plenty of other foreshadowing for those elements.

What’s more, the people telling the inner story aren’t even major characters. They’re side roles at most, and they only appear in the framing device. So Taborlin’s tale isn’t even useful for what it tells us about them. At most, it’s a bit of world flavor, and there’s no reason it had to take up three pages.

The Magicians

Since The Magicians doesn’t actually make us read the Fillory books, it has more leeway in establishing why they’re important. At first, the Fillory books are introduced as part of the main character’s general obsession with fantasy, just a minor character detail.* At this point, the reader isn’t being asked to remember a lot.

Fillory gets much more important once the protagonist starts to learn sorcery and finds clues that the magic land he read about is real. At this point, learning about the Fillory books are obviously important because they give clues about how to find the real Fillory and what to do when the characters get there.

Middlegame

This one stumbles early by introducing Over the Woodward Wall via quotes at the start of each chapter. That makes it seem like the inner story should be important, but it’s not clear how. Later, we learn from the villain’s point of view that Woodward Wall is actually a work of magical propaganda to influence children’s beliefs and therefore change how magic works.*

That’s certainly important, but it’s still not clear how. What were these books supposed to make children believe, specifically? How does it change what the heroes have to do? We aren’t told, and we don’t have enough information to guess. Neither of the two main characters ever use the book as part of their plot, so it remains a mystery.

It’s only at the very end that Middlegame finally explains why Woodward Wall matters, and it does so in the form of a massive info dump. Even then, it’s as vague as possible, talking about how the book divides magic into a four-element framework that hadn’t ever been mentioned before, as far as I could tell. I’m still not entirely sure what I was supposed to get from it.

Use the Inner Story to Support Themes

Three characters looking at a book from The Magicians.

Once you’ve taken care of the basics, it’s time to consider the main value of an inner story: thematic resonance. There are far less intrusive tools at your disposal if all you want is to set up some foreshadowing or lay down some exposition, but few options work as well for creating atmosphere, setting mood, and supporting your main story’s themes.

Deathly Hallows

We’re off to a strong start here, as The Tale of the Three Brothers fits like a glove around Deathly Hallows’ main themes. The first brother’s story is all about how brute strength can’t be counted on to solve problems. This pays off in the novel’s climax, when Harry defeats Voldemort not by overpowering him but by exploiting a quirk of the Elder Wand’s ownership rules.

The second brother’s story is about how you can’t cheat death, which is most immediately important as a setup for all the characters who die later at the Battle of Hogwarts. It also contrasts with Voldemort’s main motivation: making himself immortal. By the end of Deathly Hallows, readers are supposed to understand that it was old Voldy’s own ambition that damned him, and the inner story supports that nicely.

Finally, the third brother’s story shows that while you can’t cheat death, you can at least put it off for a while if you’re clever and don’t take too much. This is meant to resonate with the way Harry survives Voldemort’s latest attempt to kill him near the end. While that particular plot point has its problems, we can’t fault the inner story’s work to support it.

The Name of the Wind

At first, it looks like Taborlin’s tale doesn’t really support much of anything. It’s a story of an extremely overpowered hero solving his problems with little or no effort. What does that communicate, exactly? But as you read further into The Name of the Wind, you discover that it’s also about an overpowered hero solving his problems with little or no effort. So I guess that is actually in theme?

Being more serious, I don’t think that’s the theme The Name of the Wind is going for. The book often tells us that the protagonist is in over his head in a gritty world, regardless of what it actually shows us. With that avenue quashed, it’s really not clear what themes Taborlin’s tale is supposed to serve. Maybe it’s meant to symbolize a world where mundane peasants tell fantastic stories about magical heroes, but later on we’ll see that this world also has plenty of magical heroes. That doesn’t leave us with much.

The Magicians

The overriding theme of The Magicians is that everything you thought was cool and fun is actually horrible and awful. Magic school isn’t a wondrous place where you learn fantastic spells; it’s a boring purgatory where the only magic you learn is too dangerous to ever use, and also you’ll probably lose a limb. Discovering the secret magical underground isn’t a thrilling adventure; it’s basically a spiral into addiction and poverty. The list goes on.

Whether you think that’s a worthwhile theme or not,* the Fillory story certainly supports it. The characters tell us how much they love these books for being fun and light-hearted, giving them a world where children can have adventures without risk of being harmed. Yay!

But when our heroes actually go to Fillory, they discover a twisted nightmare realm where one wrong move can be fatal. All of the children who went into Fillory were either horribly scarred or never came back. Fillory itself is falling apart, and several of the heroes are emotionally traumatized or physically maimed trying to escape. This contrast between what the characters expect and what they actually get is critical to The Magicians’ theme of everything you love being secretly terrible.

Middlegame

It’s difficult to tell what themes Middlegame is going for with the Woodward Wall books because we don’t actually know that much about them. Again, this inner story is mostly portrayed through quoted text, so it’s difficult to understand what it’s really about. The most I can gather is that it’s about two kids trying to find their way home, which doesn’t seem to relate with what the outer heroes are doing. They spend most of the book dealing with the difficulties of school and figuring out their ability to telepathically communicate.

We also find out that the Woodward Wall books divide magic into the four classical elements, which is supposed to be important for influencing the consensus reality, but that only matters at the very end. We’re occasionally told that some of the outer characters are analogous to some of the inner characters, but it’s hard to understand what that means without more context.

While Middlegame’s inner story feels like a children’s fairy tale in the style of Oz, the outer story feels more like a campaign of Mage: The Ascension. It’s not impossible to bridge that gap, but the novel makes little effort to do so. All we’re left with is a pair of stories each does its own thing, with little interaction between them.


Adding an inner story to your work is a major choice with serious implications. You’re asking a lot of the reader, as they now have to get invested in an entirely new story along with the story they were already reading. This means your inner story really needs to be firing on all cylinders, otherwise it’ll pull your main story down with it. If you can’t make the inner story entertaining in its own right, relevant to the main plot, and thematically resonant, it might be best to choose a different literary device.

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Comments

  1. Tony

    Another good example, similar to the Tale of the Three Brothers, might be the tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise in Revenge of the Sith. One of the better scenes in the Star Wars prequels, I’d say.

  2. Rose Red

    Another good example would be Watership Down. There are several points in the book where the heroes stop and listen to someone tell stories.

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