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The following is an excerpt from Part III of the book Making Shapely Fiction, by Jerome Stern. The first two parts are very much worth reading as well. The book is available in paperback.

Stories Within Stories

Good fiction is full of good fiction. Interesting short stories often contain many embedded stories. The narrator tells little stories about the characters. Characters remember through stories. Characters talk to each other by telling stories. These embeddings are rich with possibility. The stories can characterize the teller, advance the plot, and introduce ideas. But most important, they enliven the texture of the entire narrative.

Stories within stories can be as short as a single sentence:
When I was about nine these two bigger kids stopped me and asked me did I have a wiggler, and when I said I didn't know, they just laughed.
They can be several sentences:
Alice remembered how her dad would order in Omega, the luncheonette they at in every Saturday. "Hot dog on a bun, hold the bun. Iced tea, hold the ice," and they'd both smile happily.
Longer stories within stories are risky. Writers like John Barth and John Irving take particular delight in overtly embedding stories within their novels. But these stories have to be gripping enough so that readers don't say, "Get on with the real story." Placement, pace, and length need careful planning. Readers have to be convinced that the story you are telling at the moment is the real story.

See Character, Fa├žade, Flashback, Interior Monologue, Juggling, Point of View.

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October 2013

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