It’s a Dirty Story of a Dirty Man*

Stories within StoriesOne interesting plot strategy that authors sometimes use is to fold one story within another. The ‘story within a story’ plot thread needs to be handled very carefully; otherwise the result can be confusing, plodding or meandering. But when it’s handled well, a story within a story can richness to a novel. It can also add suspense and tension.

The main plot of Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, for instance, concerns detective novelist Ariadne Oliver’s trip to Nasse House in Nassecomb. She’s there on commission to create a Murder Hunt as an attraction for an upcoming fête. She soon suspects, though, that more is going on than preparations for the event. So she asks Hercule Poirot to join her and investigate; this he agrees to do. On the day of the fête, fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker, who’s been playing the part of the victim in the Murder Hunt, is actually killed. Poirot works with Mrs. Oliver and Inspector Bland to find out who would have wanted to kill her. Wrapped within this story is the plot of Mrs. Oliver’s Murder Hunt. We learn the plot through the synopsis and character profiles she provides, and that folded-in story plays its role in the larger plot.

In Colin Dexter’s The Wench is Dead, Inspector Morse has developed a bleeding ulcer (not particularly surprising given his lifestyle and – er – diet). During his hospital recovery, he is given a copy of Murder on the Oxford Canal, which tells the story of the 1859 murder of Joanna Franks on a canal boat. At the time, two men were arrested and convicted of the crime, and duly executed. But as he reads the book, Morse becomes convinced that they were innocent. As soon as possible, he sets out to discover who the real killer was. So at the same time as we follow the main plot of Morse’s recovery and search for the truth in this case, we also follow Joanna Franks’ story. Fans of Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time will know that that novels is structured in a similar way. Inspector Alan Grant is recovering from a broken leg when he becomes interested in the history of Richard III and the story of the Princes in the Tower.

James Yaffe’s Mom Doth Murder Sleep is the story of what happens when the Mesa Grande, Colorado amateur theatrical troupe puts on a production of The Scottish Play. The cast includes Roger Meyers, who also works for the local Public Defender’s office. On opening night, Martin Osborn, who has the lead role, is murdered. His leading lady Sally Michaels is arrested for the crime; she had motive, too, as he’d recently ended a relationship with her. But there are other suspects, too, and Meyer’s boss Dave works with him to find out who was really guilty. Simon Brett’s What Bloody Man is This? also folds in the plot of the The Scottish Play with the main plot of the murder of the lead actor.

Sometimes, a ‘story within a story’ plot line can be very effective at building tension. Fans of Stephen King’s Misery, for instance, will know that this story’s main plot concerns novelist Paul Sheldon, and what happens to him when he is rescued after a car accident that happens during a bad snowstorm. His savior, Annie Wilkes, is a fanatic devotee of his work. And that’s the problem. She gets deeply involved with the plot of his latest novel, which is still in manuscript form. And when certain plot events don’t go the way she wants them to, she takes her own kind of action about it. In this novel, the story told in the manuscript plays a role in the larger plot. Admittedly, this isn’t, strictly speaking, a crime fiction novel; it’s more psychological horror. But it really was too good an example not to include…

P.D. Martin’s Fan Mail also shows what can happen when the plot of a novel is folded into a larger plot. FBI profiler Sophie Anderson meets best-selling crime novelist Loretta Black when Black pays a visit to Anderson’s department as a part of researching a new novel. Not very long afterwards, Anderson transfers to the FBI’s Los Angeles field office. She’s settling in there when she learns that Black has been murdered in an eerie re-enactment of the murder in her latest novel. That case is under investigation when there’s another murder, again of a novelist who is killed in the same way as the fictional character is killed. Then another novelist disappears. Now Anderson works with the local FBI team and the LAPD to find out who has targeted crime writers.

More recently, Renée Knight’s Disclaimer tells the story of what happens when documentary filmmaker Catherine Ravenscroft decides to read a new book called The Perfect Stranger. She soon discovers that the book is about her, and tells a terrifying secret that she’s kept for twenty years. But how did anyone know that secret? And why would anyone want to ruin her life? Now she’ll have to go back to the past to find out who is threatening her now.

I’ve only mentioned a few examples here; I know you can think of a lot more. Folding one story into another is an interesting way to add depth and keep readers engaged. When it works well it can also add a great deal of suspense. Which stories like this have you enjoyed? If you’re a writer, have you used this plot point?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ Paperback Writer. Happy Birthday, Sir Paul!

Paperback Writer_6126


Filed under Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, James Yaffe, Josephine Tey, P.D. Martin, Renée Knight, Simon Brett, Stephen King

26 responses to “It’s a Dirty Story of a Dirty Man*

  1. The book I’ve just started reading today ‘Pretty Is’ also seems to be a story within a story – or rather, about a fictional account of a real-life event and the consequences both fiction and reality have on the young girls (now grown).

  2. My latest read A Game For All The Family had a story within a story too – a device I enjoy and definitely part of the reason I enjoyed Disclaimer so much.

  3. Several of John Dickson Carr’s fine impossible crime/locked room mysteries use this device, Margot – often there’s a sort of mini-horror story woven into the fabric of the plot that provides a possible supernatural solution to a seemingly “impossible” crime. Eventually, of course, it’s proven that that crime involved a very human plot, but it’s a fine technique for creating atmosphere and suspense. Books such as Hag’s Nook and The Plague Court Murders use this device very effectively.

    • They do indeed, Les. And I’m glad you mentioned Carr, because he used those old stories quite effectively. What I like about the way he did this is that it adds to the suspense and interest. The parallel old story and main murder mystery plot threads works quite well in his stories.

  4. I agree, the structure often doesn’t work, which is certainly my feeling even in one of my favourites, Irving’s WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP. On the other hand the extended ‘Flitcraft’ sequence in Hammett’s THE MALTESE FALCON is one of my favourite elements int eh book.

    • Interesting, isn’t it, Sergio, how sometimes it works so well (Hammett did it quite effectively, as you say), and sometimes it doesn’t. It really has to be managed carefully. And you know, I hadn’t thought about …Garp for a very long time. Thanks for the reminder.

  5. I like your collection of titles Margot, some very familiar to me and some sending me to look them up. Like you, I’ve often wondered about the plot of Mrs Oliver’s Murder game in Dead Man’s Folly. Perhaps one day someone will write the story in a book – I’m sure the Christie estate would give permission, they seem to stop at nothing!

  6. Col

    Loved both the film and book – Misery.

  7. Loved Misery. That was too good not to include. In the book I’m reading now, Sidetracked by Brandilyn Collins, there’s a mystery subplot that the author is hinting it, but I’m not far enough along to know what it is. And that, I think, is what has me glued to the pages. She allows enough to get me interested, and then others mention this whole other half of the story, but don’t reveal it…yet. Which is probably why Brandilyn Collins calls her genre “seatbelt suspense”.

    • Oh, Sidetracked sounds interesting, Sue. And that sort of story-within-a-story really can keep the reader swiping/turning pages. I’ll be interested in what you think of it when you’ve finished. And yeah, Misery really did need to be included…

  8. I like plots within plots and subplots and anything that offers twists and turns to the story. At the moment I’m reading Stuart Neville’s “Stolen Souls” and love the way he’s weaving more than one story line into the novel.

    • Oh, I’ve heard that’s a good one, Pat. One of these times, I really must spotlight one of his books. You’ve got a well-taken point too about the way stories-within-stories can add to the depth of a plot and give the reader more of a feast, so to speak.

  9. I love it when there is a story within a story, so much more to digest and think about.

  10. Margot, many of John Irving’s novels have stories within stories though at the time I didn’t realise it. Sergio mentioned GARP which is a good example. The concept does not demolish the original story. As you have noted, it would take a clever writer to accomplish a story within a story without losing out on the main plot.

    • It’s definitely possible, Prashant, to have a story-within-a-story concept that doesn’t detract from the main plot. As you say, it’s not easy to do well. But it can certainly be accomplished. And you and Sergio have reminded me that I must read more Irving.

  11. My husband loves Colin Dexter’s The Wench is Dead, even though he has read no other books by him. Keeps pushing me to read it.

  12. Disclaimer is on my list Margot – and I love the Beatles image – I don’t think I have seen that one before. It is a great shot.

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