Nested Stories told by the Protagonist
The protagonist in a novel often imagines or recalls events that are not part of the main story. Nesting small stories within a story is a common literary device sometimes referred to as mise en abyme. An article in Wikipedia discusses the many types of nested stories. Here I am referring to stories narrated by a protagonist and nested well with a main story.
Nesting self-contained stories within a larger narrative is probably as old a technique as story telling itself. The storyteller often draws the story from a remembered experience, but sometimes tells a fictional story heard or invented. A nested story may make up the bulk of a chapter; it can even stand alone, seemingly unrelated to the main story. Steinbeck uses the latter in his depiction of the two boys in Chapter 26 in Cannery Row.
Some books are composed entirely of stand-alone stories framed by a unifying plot. Canterbury Tales and One Thousand and One Nights are examples. Collections of children’s stories such as Winnie the Pooh are similar, but repeating characters, not the plot unite them. One of my projects is a collection of children’s stories united by a single character whose excesses of ego and poor judgment, creates circumstances that form the plot for each story.
Nested stories serve many purposes. Steinbeck used them to give insights to his theme. The stories can also show character motivations and they can reveal details of history and background for the main story. Thus, they can support the reality of the main story.
Here is an example of a nested story told by the protagonist in the novel Corr Syl the Warrior. It is contained within a chapter, and it is obvious fiction. It serves to elaborate on the background of the protagonist’s culture and his occupation, and it foreshadows a tragic scene involving the protagonist and a childhood friend.
Nested Stories Example
Corr lifted his weapons harness from its peg on the wall and began appraising his current story stream. With friends, Corr listened for the right moment to tell a story. One stream of thought usually worked on a new story or revised an old one. He filed stories away and waited for a chance to try them on friends. His considered how he would segue into his latest story the next time he saw Rhya.
The story idea came from a picture. Once, Corr’s mother took a framed picture down from the wall and stood it before the two-year old rabbit. The frame held a rubbing made from an etching of a long-eared rabbit with a great bushy tail. As Corr looked, he raised his hands and felt his much smaller ears.
“This warrior rabbit lived long ago,” said Corr’s mother. “The large ears probably helped him hear and keep cool. No one knows for sure why he had such a large tail.”
A geologist had found the etching sandwiched between layers of sedimentary rock. Corr’s parents gave him the picture when he completed warrior training.
In Corr’s new story, a warrior struggled to kill Ankalagon, a deadly predator whose fossils occurred in the same layers of sedimentary rocks as the etching.
Paleontologists often found a sharp gouge on the dens, a small bony projection in Ankalagon’s neck. The dens extended from the rim of the second cervical vertebra up into the ring of the atlas, the first vertebra at the base of Ankalagon’s skull. The dens served as an anchor for ligaments that held the skull in place and kept it from twisting too far. A heavy bony extension of the atlas protected the dens and the precious spinal cord beneath.
The picture had given Corr the idea for the story’s theme: Behavior could outlive shape. Corr decided to make the main character female like Rhya; the District’s only other rabbit warrior.
By Corr Syl
beautiful [too obvious] young battle rabbit, long ears clamped against her slender neck, gorgeous magnificent warrior’s tail tight against her body, lay hidden among the small branches and leaves of a tree limb over a trail. The rabbit intended to drop onto the back of the predator Ankalagon and kill it with her sword. Ankalagon had recently invaded the region and had begun preying on the rabbit’s friends and family. More of the predators kept coming. Powerful and smart, the beast had avoided every trap, and had beaten every attack. Rabbits and other species began to consider emigration.
brilliant rabbit had studied Ankalagon for months. She knew when and where the beast slept, drank, and hunted. She knew how it ran, walked, and rested. She knew how it killed and how it defended itself. She had even found and studied a skeleton. But nothing suggested a new offensive tactic. One morning while thinking about going to help plan the emigration, the rabbit watched Ankalagon stretch its head down to drink from the river; the beast’s posture gave her an idea. The rabbit ran to the thicket where the skeleton lay and began arranging the bones.
The next morning the rabbit waited beside the path that one of the predators often used to go down to a spring at the edge of the dry river. She checked her weapons and took deep breaths of the cool air filled with sweet scents of budding flowers. At last the beast came trotting down the trail. The rabbit stepped out, yelped, and ran. Ankalagon snorted and pursued. Racing ahead, the rabbit sprang into an old willow beside the river, threw herself out on a branch over the trail, and held her breath.
Lying there, the tiny warrior had a bloody vision of the huge beast biting her in half. Her mind filled with uncertainty. Ankalagon passed beneath. She couldn’t move. Almost too late, the rabbit pushed herself up and leapt onto the creature’s back. Ankalagon stopped. The rabbit scrambled forward, grabbed an oily fold of skin at the base of the neck, and let her free arm and her tail whip about to absorb the momentum of the beast’s violent shake.
The shaking stopped abruptly and the rabbit snapped her tail back, leapt forward, and clamped her legs around Ankalagon’s neck. The irritated beast shook again, arched its head down, and reached up to claw the rabbit off. As the beast’s neck reached its greatest downward arch, the rabbit drove her short sword through the narrow gap that opened between the first and second cervical vertebrae. The plunging sword’s point snapped off the dens, and sliced downward into Ankalagon’s spinal cord.
The rabbit jumped clear as Ankalagon roared and staggered to its knees. Gaining her feet, the rabbit lunged in and drove her long sword between two upper ribs, piercing the beast’s heart.
The warrior taught others the technique and led a campaign to eradicate Ankalagon. She became famous, inspiring art and legend. Her technique entered warrior lore and persisted long after ears became small and tails disappeared.
Corr smiled, thinking: Maybe Rhya likes historical fiction. She probably knows about Ankalagon, the dens mystery, and the technique. Corr’s teacher said no one knew who invented the technique, so why couldn’t it have been the long-eared rabbit with the great bushy tail?
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