Using Story Within a Story to Tell a Character’s Back Story

The essential duty of a novelist is to determine how to reveal information in a way that develops characters and propels a narrative.

As the author of many epics, I’ve made countless decisions about how to put a story into words.

Today, I’m reflecting on the story within a story technique. The literary move is most accurately called a frame story.

Either term conveys that one part of the narrative will surround the inner narrative, which will be told by outer or framing character’s point of view.

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales present a very old example. The traveling pilgrims each function as narrators framing separate tales.

Do want to hear the story or not?

In the realm of cinema, The Princess Bride is a frame story because a grandfather reading the story to his sick grandson frames the narrative.

Although I haven’t constructed a complete novel based on a frame story (I should put that on my to-do list.), I have framed certain elements of narrative from time to time.

In the dark fantasy novel Rys Rising: Book I, I let the character of Urlen serve as the narrator of his own back story. I found this choice an efficient method for filling readers in quickly about Urlen’s turbulent and very relevant past without risking a boring information dump.

The following excerpt begins after Urlen has been saved from execution and his saviors want to know why he had been sentenced to death.

“We will not judge you,” Amar said sincerely.

Urlen looked doubtfully at his savior. He supposed that heinous crimes would not shock this young but hardened outlaw, yet he feared that his crime might not be excused.

But with Onja’s magical eyes bearing down on him, Urlen knew that he would speak only the truth. He coughed and then began his tale.

“I was respected and encouraged most of my life. As a boy I showed an aptitude with letters and I never grew bored among the scrolls. I would travel to every town and seek all the scholars and scribes so that I could learn more of reading and writing.

“So much knowledge I found rolled up in fabric and skin, lovingly stowed in wooden tubes. The wonder of it always made me want more. By my thirteenth year, I was making my own living copying scrolls for the aging word masters. My family was proud of me. I improved the home of my aging parents. Even my older brothers, so much taller and stronger than me, were proud of me.

“I studied hard and trained myself to letter with skill, art, and clarity. To read my script was to be a pleasure, I thought, but I also took seriously how important it was to preserve the knowledge. It seemed like a magic to me.”

Urlen paused and glanced at Onja, expecting her to comment but she remained patiently silent.

In a tentative tone, Urlen said, “I read once that your kind is magic.”

“What you have read is correct,” Onja said. “Continue.”

Urlen wished he had skin and ink now so he could interview her and record her responses. That would be a scroll of incredible value.

He licked his cracked lips and Amar kindly fetched him the water skin. Even a few words had already dried Urlen’s mouth.

After a drink, Urlen said, “In time, my talent earned me a place in the court of the Nurati King. In my twenty-fifth year, I became chief scribe to my King. Such an honor for such a young man. Life at court was grand, and I was often allowed to travel to other domains in pursuit of my scholarship. In time my fame grew, and scholars came to visit me and view the library of which I was the master. Many candles burned low through many nights discussing history, nature, law, language, geography.”

Urlen sighed, remembering his heyday. Such prestige would never be his again. But to cheat Preem his due was also a great achievement. Urlen would be glad to write down that event.

“I had everything,” Urlen said. “But alas, no matter how I stimulated my mind, I remained a man of flesh. I came to know one of the daughters of my King. Isamahlia was her name and she was both fair and smart. But her intellect was a wicked joke of the Gods, trapped as she was in her woman’s body, banned from any scholarship. Yet, her woman’s body became my master.”

Fascinated by his story, Onja sat down and reclined onto an elbow. Urlen shifted off his knees and got more comfortable too. Since it seemed that it was going to be a longer story, Amar sat down as well. He could well imagine at this point what at least one of Urlen’s crimes had been.

From the nearby brush a crow squawked. Urlen flinched. Onja waved to the bird swaying on a flimsy perch. She told Urlen not to worry. He relaxed slightly, telling himself that he was free of the chains and the crows could bedevil him no more. With the crow now quietly among his listeners, he continued.

“It was an accident that I met Isamahlia. I suppose it is always an accident that starts such love stories. I was to be weeks away in the Domain of the Temulanka. I had been invited to lecture at a summer gathering of scholars, but my wagon broke down not long after my departure, and I came back to Telop, the Nurati capital, with my servants. My trip would be delayed only a day while I obtained another wagon.”

By now the other men had settled into an attentive circle around Urlen and Onja. A tranquil dusk descended upon the land. The sunlight softened toward the horizon and cool shadows spread beneath the trees. Several small flocks of birds, which earlier in the day had been so menacing to Urlen, crossed the turquoise sky seeking their roosts. Now the birds were beautiful and serene; their flight seeming to say that all was right in the world, at least at this moment.

The wonder of surviving the ghastly torture of the sky temple briefly overwhelmed Urlen. To have lived to see the gentle loveliness of even one more sunset was the most blessed mercy he could have imagined.

“Go on,” Onja prompted, impatient with his silence.

Urlen gathered his memories and said, “My breakdown was actually fortuitous for I had forgotten a scroll by Binn Bon on architecture. I wanted to take it to the gathering in order to argue that he had actually designed the amphitheater at Hespon and not Zebroh, who normally is credited as its designer. There has been some rather heated debate on this subject….” Urlen trailed off when he noted that the men looked annoyed with his tangent that was surely meaningless to them.

“Anyway, I returned unexpected to my library and found her there. Only one window was unshuttered and sunlight steamed through it. She sat in the light on the mosaic floor and held a scroll into the sunshine so that she could see it in the gloomy library that I had carefully buttoned up before leaving.

“Her tepa lay on the floor and her head was uncovered. Her black hair flowed around her shoulders with an amethyst twinkle in the golden light. I startled her and she looked up at me with guilty eyes.

“In her mad moment of being caught, she snapped the scroll behind her back, but knowing that her action was ridiculous, she brought it forth again and carefully rolled it up. Moving onto her knees, she held up the scroll to me and begged for my mercy. She pleaded for forgiveness and said that she had meant no harm. She begged me not to tell anyone, and then she could not hide her anguish, when she desperately promised me that she would not come back.

“But I was not angry. No, I kneeled before her as she begged. I took her hands along with the scroll and asked her what she was doing.

“When she saw that I was not angry, indeed that I seemed only curious, she smiled and her trap closed around me. Isamahlia told me that she only wanted to look at the scrolls. They were so beautiful and she admitted that she had been trying to figure out the symbols. It broke my heart that she could not read them. Of course a woman would have never been taught letters, but still to see someone who wanted to read, and was unable to, it hurt me in a fierce way.

“I led Isamahlia into a private room of the library where we could talk and not be noticed. I discovered that she had been sneaking into my library for over a year. Suddenly any misplaced scroll that I had puzzled over came to mind and then made sense. Enchanted by this fair daughter of my King, whose face I was never meant to see, I told her right then that she could come to the library whenever she was able and then I told her that I would teach her how to read.

“Isamahlia was more than grateful. She told me that I was the kindest best man in all of Gyhwen and that she would love no other. She kissed me. Isamahlia knew no shame or fear. She cared nothing for her maidenhead, so strictly protected for years. We loved each other among the scrolls and I learned of things that can never quite be written down correctly. At that time, I thought that our inevitable doom would be worth our joy. Today you saw how mistaken I was.”

Amar asked, “How long did your affair go on?”

“Two years and three months,” Urlen replied heavily. “We were so careful at first. Our fear of being caught was fresh, but as our bond grew and Isamahlia learned to read, we spent longer and longer together. Now, it was not a strange thing for me to be shut away in my library. I was not missed, but Isamahlia was. It was difficult for her to hide her absences from the women’s palace. Of course, she had servants lying for her, and even some of her sisters. All making excuses and stories to explain where Isamahlia had been. I never figured out who betrayed us initially, but they all testified against her at the trial. Curse them. I don’t know if it was jealousy for her happiness and intelligence that motivated them or just fear.

“We were caught together in my library that had blossomed with joy and learning. In her body I found great satisfaction for that part of me that is flesh, but there is also tremendous satisfaction in teaching an able student and to see her grateful, truly grateful, for the knowledge that I could share. And her perspective on so many things was so fresh to me. Her mind had not been infested with the crushing dogma of men that narrows so much interpretation.”

Amar asked Urlen if he had been caught in the act of loving the King’s daughter.

Urlen shook his head. “No. We were reading, which was perhaps worse. If I had been caught in her naked embrace, my punishment and death would have been quicker. You see, I was given over to the torture of Preem for teaching Isamahlia the letters of men, which is forbidden to women,” he said.

The other men murmured in agreement, but Onja was confused. “Why is this forbidden?” she asked.

Urlen knew the official reasons well enough. They had very recently been pounded anew into his head, but he only replied miserably, “I don’t know, fair and gentle rys maid.”

Amar offered an explanation. “Women are the keepers of love and family. They are for children. The teachings of men are beyond them,” he said.

“Is this what you think of me?” Onja demanded indignantly.

“You are not a woman,” Amar answered.

No, indeed, Onja thought. “Urlen,” she said. “What was done to Isamahlia? Was she put in another sky temple to die?”
Urlen stifled a sob. He wished he could answer yes and then they could go save her. “She was publicly drowned for her crime,” Urlen said. His face then collapsed in his hands. They had made him watch her die. Many in the ignorant crowd had cheered. Her parents had seemed pleased that she had met a just end.

“I would rest,” Urlen murmured.

“Your story was interesting. Go to your rest,” Onja said. She got up and returned to her perch on the boulder and resumed her meditation.

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