One thing I like about reading and editing nonfiction is that it most often features stories—stories from the Bible, stories from the author’s life, stories the author has heard, stories someone else allows the author to tell about their life. And to me, even in fiction, where stories are sometimes told within the story, a story must be told well to be effective.
Guess what. I’ve found when a story is told within a story, and especially when characters in a novel or even short story tell a story, that’s where some of the heaviest editing shows up.
Here’s my take on what can be challenging about telling a story within a story:
· Forgetting to open with just enough detail to set up the story. Doing so is to the detriment of a reader’s (and the other characters’) understanding of the story, let alone the connection it has to do with, well, anything. Unless you’re cleverly (and I do mean cleverly) hiding some detail in a story for later reveal, give readers the context they need. (By the way, this speaks to storytelling on let’s say a blog post on your website as well. Even your bio tells a story!)
· Cluttering the story with detail that has no bearing. If it doesn’t matter to the story that his aunt Emma was with your character on that trip he’s telling about, why mention it, especially if her presence adds no color? Of course, a quirky character you’ve created might be prone to excess detail or taking rabbit trails. That can be fun and entertaining—as long as a major character so inspired doesn’t do it in every conversation, bogging down all his or her dialogue.
· Creating a confusing flow. Creating a good flow is usually just making sure each thought or part of the story builds on the last, and that no gaps exist that beg for explanation. If a reader has to ask, How did Junior suddenly pop up in that story? something is missing.
· Not crafting good paragraphing. If the story shifts to the next part of the same story, take a deep breath on behalf of the reader and hit that return key. I know good paragraphing seems obvious, but I think a story or a story a character is telling can roll out of an author’s head faster than other parts of the book do, and they (we) forget the wisdom of a break for the reader’s benefit and sometimes comprehension.
· Failing to wrap up the story, allowing readers to embrace a conclusion or the point of the story. You know how in procedural detective TV shows whoever deciphered who “did it” explains what really happened? Remember the master at doing this, Agatha Christie? Yeah, that—the Hercule Poirot or Jane Marple thing, even if the conclusion of the story has nothing to do with murder or mayhem. Don’t make a reader wonder why a story has been included, again, unless your character has a habit of telling an odd story here and there to the delight of your readers.
Of course, any of these suggestions can be shaped by dialogue based on how people tell stories in real life—well, to a certain extent. We still don’t want readers to close a book out of any frustration inadvertently caused in our storytelling within storytelling.
What challenges have you faced when telling a story or having your character tell a story?
Jean Kavich Bloom is a freelance editor and writer for Christian publishers and ministries (Bloom in Words Editorial Services), with thirty years of experience in the book publishing world. Her personal blog is Bloom in Words too, where she sometimes posts articles about the writing life. She is also a regular contributor to The Glorious Table, a blog for women of all ages. Her published books are Bible Promises for God's Precious Princess and Bible Promises for God's Treasured Boy. She and her husband, Cal, have three children (plus two who married in) and five grandchildren, with foster grandchildren in their lives on a regular basis.
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