Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Stories are important!

Today is my birthday, and this afternoon we went to an amazing puppet performance at Millenium Park in Chicago called "A Rabbit's Tale."   Culturally it was an eclectic fusion:  Punch and Judy style hand puppets, gigantic person-inside figures that might have come from Carnaval in Trinidad and Tobago, and smaller puppets operated by puppeteers in black in the style of Japanese Bunraku theater.  The story was sweet and poignant, and it also featured a story-within-a-story, in fact a "puppet show within a puppet show." And it worked.

Seeing all these different puppet cultures come together made me think about how important stories are to people.  We tell stories about what happens to us, and use them to make sense of our experiences.  Or we write stories about people and the things that happen to them.  And we write stories inside of stories.

That little play within a play this afternoon took me by surprise, but when you really think about it, stories inside of stories happen all the time.  Shakespeare's Hamlet has its play-within-a-play.  Anne McCaffrey has an entire tradition of Harper songs written into her Pern books.  Frank Herbert wrote historical accounts into the Dune story.  The list goes on and on.

Of course, I mustn't forget my own planet Garini and the gecko people who believe stories are sacred - or the novel I'm writing now, which is essentially a story about a book (though of course it's much more than that)!

I'm not saying that every story world needs to have its own version of puppet shows, or theater.  But you can learn a lot about a people by hearing their stories, even if those people exist only within a story you wrote. 

Good night, and have fun writing your stories...



  1. Happy birthday!

    I'm not sure what I think about stories within stories. You have to be careful here, I think. However, the anthropologists in me loves them. However, the story reader in me often gets frustrated and annoyed by them because they tend to stop the bigger story story that is happening dead. I've seen this in work's like Don Quixote where someone may find a manuscript in a chest and spend the next 100 or so pages that seems unrelated to the overall plot. Even in perhaps my favorite SF series, Gene Wolfe's _Book of the New Sun_ Gene Wolfe tells an occasional story to give us cultural insight and because it's not immediately apparent to be related to the main story, my eyes tend to glaze over. Those same stories on their own, though, like within the pages of a SF short fiction magazine, would have entranced me.

    One of the more usefuls ways to get around this problem is to make the story have readily apparent consequences within the bigger story like Shakespeare does in Hamlet. The reaction of Claudius to the murder portrayed in the play within a play has profound impact upon the rest of the tragedy. The play within a play is essential in answering one of the key reader questions of _Hamlet_. Is Hamlet going to go through with it?

  2. Byron,

    Thanks! I agree you definitely have to be careful when you've got peripheral material (read: stories) in your stories. Somehow the additional content has to bear directly on what the main story is about, or why bother? Unless of course you're into worldbuilding for its own sake. Which can be fun, but reduces narrative drive.

    I'm going to try for an entry tomorrow morning if I can... life is crazy here in Chicago right now!