Stories within Stories
Is a play the thing? Or maybe an anecdote?
Stories are often embedded in other stories, as alternate realities, perhaps from alternate points of view, as parallels or as parables, as microcosms of the main text or wild divergences from it. Some stories, like Heart of Darkness, open a frame narrative and circle back to it again at the end, others, like The Turn of Screw open the parenthesis but never close it. In this note, I'll consider two quite different examples a little more closely: “The Town-Ho's Story” from Moby-Dick and “The Love of a Good Woman” by Alice Munro.
Of all the stories within the larger story of Moby-Dick, I think “The Town-Ho's Story” is the central one. It contains a sort of fantasy homunculus of the Pequod's encounter with Moby-Dick, told third hand and with variations. If only the Pequod's encounter with the white whale could go like this this: The crew of the Town-Ho resists its despotic leadership (in this case stemming from the first mate but tolerated by the captain), and then justice is served when the odious First Mate Radney is eaten by Moby-Dick. Everyone else survives. Though it could more simply have been told as a story heard during the Pequod's gam with the Town-Ho, Melville takes the extra step of creating another setting, the Golden Inn, in Lima, and having Ishmael tell the story to several of its denizens. This adds information about Ishmael: his continued life as a whaleman after the voyage of the Pequod, his obsession with Moby-Dick. It adds emphasis, the Golden Inn functions as one of those gilded frames on an old master painting, telling us: This is a good one, an important one.
Alice Munro's novella has a four-part structure, starting with a description of an optometrist's case, an artifact in the local history museum in the town of Walley's local history museum. The life and death of the optometrist, Dr. Willens, is central in different ways to the three following sections, each of which could function as a short story unto itself, though none would have the impact of the triptych created by all of them together. In Munro's story, even after the fourth section closes, there are many ends left untied, suggesting the enormity of the universe of untold stories.
PROMPT: Choose a past event in your story, whether it's a scene you've written or a new one, but rather than making it a contained flashback to a moment in your central character's past, play around with rumor and retelling and point of view. What if the story plays out a variation of your main story, like the play within the play in Hamlet? Or cast it as a story retold. Could you continue the story beyond the first account, uncovering a new narrative center, as Munro does with each new section of TLGW? Ask yourself Who's telling the story? Who's hearing it? How does that shift things? Think about the shape, too: The Town-Ho's Story occurs close to the middle of Moby-Dick. The sections of TLGW follow one another like beads on a necklace, with dead optometrist as the thread that connects them. What's the impact of the location of your story within a story?