Every once in a while, I’ll be working on a story where one of my characters has to tell someone a story. This worries me. First, I am worried about whether this might just be my need for an information dump, for backstory that may not, in that moment, advance the plot. But, for the sake of this post, let’s say I’ve ruled out that concern. The story the character has to tell is necessary in that moment, and I’m looking for a creative way to have this happen, something more than skipping a line, changing the font, and starting italics. Say I want to keep this character’s storytelling in the scene? Yeah, I know. How to do that? So while I’m reading I’m always keeping an eye out for ways authors might handle this. Last week, I found two cool approaches in A. G. Howard’s fantasy, Splintered.
Artifacts, Play, and Animation
Alyssa has descended down the rabbit hole to solve the mystery of her mother’s connection to the Alice in Wonderland story, thus freeing her from her the asylum to which she is condemned. In order to solve this mystery, Alyssa’s guide, Morpheus, needs to remind her of some history she’s forgotten from her childhood. Instead of just retelling the story over tea, Morpheus, gets out the old chess set they use to play with when they were children. We learn, in fact, that Morpheus used to practice the ensuing story with Alyssa when she was a child. The chess set comes to life and reenacts a significantly chosen courtroom scene from a generation ago. The scene cuts off, and Alyssa urges Morpheus to follow the fleeing characters. “Follow them yourself,” Morpheus says, and she is armed with all the information she needs to start her Wonderland journey.
Howard uses several storytelling tools simultaneously which any writer could use individually or in combination. First, she uses the artifact of the chess set. An artifact strikes me as a great way to bring a story to life within a scene. It evokes memories. It grounds the scene in the physicality of the moment. It evens provides opportunity for stage business and action for the characters in the scene during the retelling. I’m even reminded of Holden’s use of a baseball mitt to a story in The Catcher in the Rye. Second, she uses the concept that this story was a game they played in the past, a concrete memory in itself with which the characters can interact and to which they can have visceral emotional reactions. Third, of course, the chess set is animated so that the story can be dramatized for us like a play within a play. “Mind explaining?” Alyssa asks pushing Morpheus to fill her in on the necessary history. “I would prefer to show you,” he says and the chess pieces come to life enabling Howard to show rather than tell.
Context of Conflict
Later in Splintered, Alyssa meets back up with Morpheus and he presses her to explain how she discovered his ulterior motives for her quest. Howard sets up an interesting conflict dynamic here between the two. Morpheus wants Alyssa to explain how she figured out his plan –not because her discovery incenses him, but because he delights in how well he manipulated her. So in retelling the story of her discovery she is recounting his genius. “Figured it out, did you?” he says. “Make yourself comfortable, and enlighten me on how you came to be a netherling princess.” His acid tone puts me on alert as a reader, and all of a sudden two things are happening at once, peeking my interest –the retelling which is helping me put the pieces together and this intense emotional conflict between two characters I care about. Alyssa, on the other hand, is reluctant to explain because she realizes she played right into Morpheus’ hands and he is gloating. She refuses to sit and “a bitter taste burns [her] tongue.” Throughout her story, we are tuned into Alyssa’s very physical negative reaction to Morpheus, as when she says, “I can’t bring myself to watch his enthralled features”. So as she retells her journey of discovery, the reader feels the tug and pull of this emotional conflict, heightening the experience of what could otherwise be a dull retelling, merely skimmed over. Howard goes on to have the characters use the retelling to draw judgments about each other and where they now stand which advance the storyline, and the reader, thank goodness, avoids a Scooby-Doo-ending!
I’m definitely going to be watching for other techniques authors use to help their characters tell stories in compelling ways, but for now I thought I’d share a few that we could all try, regardless of genre.