Lately I have used a the idea of interrupting the dramatic action of a story with an explanation to give shape to my writing. I know, this sounds like a good way to ruin the flow and pacing of a story, but bear with me. This is a structure that I have found useful in everything from bits of dialogue to full scenes to entire story arcs across the length of a novel. It’s scalable and you can build nested story structures with it and It Works Really Well.
Here’s the basic idea, as applied to the act of writing a very short story. Imagine you've started writing something new, and you've got the initial action and image down on the page. Maybe it goes something like this:
The blood on my hands made the wheel slippery and the car slewed into the left-hand lane before I regained control. I’d put off replacing the old wiper blades and they were almost useless in the heavy rain; I was driving nearly blind through the night, driving much too fast. Christ, there was a lot of blood on me. It was serious now, and I had to get out there to the house as soon as I could. I wasn’t going to let anything get in my way this time. I was going to finish this, all of it, tonight.
You, as the writer, already know how the story will turn out, what’s going to happen at the house on the edge of town, and why. The main dramatic action of the story is What Happens This Night At The House Outside Of Town. But you have to explain it; you have to give meaning and context to that action. So you cut the story of the drive and confrontation in half, right in the middle, and you go backwards in time to give the events leading up to your protagonist getting behind the wheel of his car. So maybe we’ll take an intermediary step backwards, somewhere between the story-present and the backstory. Maybe it goes something like this:
Juliette had tried to stop this before I was even born. All of that crap with the Moon and all of that time in the asylum hadn’t changed anything. Juliette had been a good mother, but she couldn’t prevent this.
So I think that’s a fine transitional passage. The story-present has mentioned some mysterious “it” and this passage refers to that same “it” but gives more (though vague) information about whatever “it” is, invoking the Moon and an asylum. Maybe something to do with werewolves? I don’t know. I’m making this up as I go along, but if this was your story, you’d already know. We've given a lot of information in nine sentences, and to me it doesn’t feel like an info-dump, even though almost all of it’s been exposition so far.
We have also pointed the narrative in a new direction at this point, at a new character: the protagonist’s mother. From this intermediary passage, which already steps us outside of the story-present’s timeline, we can go to the important bits of the protagonist’s backstory, if we want. Maybe something like this:
The first sign that something was wrong came when I was five years old. We were living in Chicago at the time, in a crappy one-bedroom apartment in one of those ugly tombstone-like tenements on the South Side. One morning I was sitting at the wobbly linoleum table in the kitchenette, eating my cereal. Juliette was in the bathroom, getting ready for work. I saw something out of the corner of my eye and turned to look up at the kitchen counter. Right beside the sink was a greasy black rat, reared up on his back legs, his shining red eyes looking straight at me. I felt like I'd been hit in the chest, right in my heart, with a hammer.
I don’t know what happened next. Something scary, I’m sure. But at this point, we have established a nested structure of storylines:
1. The external dramatic story, of the House Outside Of Town.
2. The story of Juliette, which is also the larger historical story of whatever “it” is.
3. The personal history of the protagonist, who I have just named Dick Raley because I can.
Having established this overall nested structure, we can move between the three timelines at will. The thing to remember is that, if you want to do this right, you have to keep the action moving forward. Everything that happens in whatever level of narrative has to foreshadow and set up whatever happens next in whatever timeline. The story keeps moving forward, always. You do not stop the story. Ever.
My favorite place to insert these interruptions is right when the dramatic action has reached a fever pitch. That is to say, right before the climax and resolution of the action. For example, if a story of mine had this passage during the Final Confrontation between Protagonist and Antagonist: I pointed the gun at his head. He asked me not to, he begged me, told me there was no other woman. I didn't believe him. He started to run, and I pulled the trigger. I would be tempted to stop right there after the word "trigger" and loop backwards through time for a paragraph or two to give an image (always dramatized, not just internal monologue or whatever form of telling) that either shows how the woman with the gun is mistaken but doesn't realize it (Irony!) or how she and the cheating bastard were once happy (Pathos!) or something else depending on what's going on in the story.
It’s also possible to use these nested levels to discuss different things about the story. For example, you can use level 3, Dick Raley’s personal history, to tell the inner story, which is going to be Dick’s coming to terms with some truth about himself or the world that he doesn’t want to admit. Or whatever. You can use level 2, about Dick’s mother Juliette, to explore the theme(s) of the story, where this truth of Dick’s causes some kind of conflict between Dick’s personal reality and the rest of the world. Or whatever. And you can use level 1, the “gosh, but I’m covered with blood and driving too fast” story, to tell an action-packed suspense story. So you can have three stories all at the same time, linked together and nested like Matryoshka dolls. There is no limit to how many nested stories-within-stories or moments-within-moments you can have. There may be a limit to how much of this your reader can take, depending on how sudden the shifts are.
I actually wanted to talk about the subtle things you can do with this nesting of timelines, but I realized I should talk about this in a more general sense first. Maybe next time.
Also! Contest! Yes, a quick contest, if anyone wants to enter. Take my three paragraphs above and finish the "bloody hands" story I’ve begun! Keep it to about 1000 words or fewer! Winner gets a valuable prize! Likely a stinking Amazon gift card, because that seems to be what people give as prizes in the age of blogs. You have until, I don’t know, Tuesday, November 2nd to enter. I am sole and final judge, and I reserve the right not to award the prize. If you have an entry, email it to me at scott (at) scottgfbailey (dot) com. If you don’t have an entry, I still like you.