I'm planning a novel where the protagonist is an author and regularly writes short stories and shares them with other characters.

I see this as a great opportunity to break out of the narrative and explore his character a little (the stories could be a metaphor different characters or could foreshadow events of the main plot). However I'm unsure about how to structure it...

Typically my chapters are around 5-7 thousand words and I anticipate the "short stories" being around 2-4 thousand. So perhaps I could do a short introduction, the short story then continue with the main plot in the second half of the chapter or would a chapter per short story be better?

What steps can I take to make this story within a story approach work? Is the idea of frequently introducing new fictional fictional characters too much to ask of a reader? What steps can I take to make sure the plot isn't too jarring?

  • 2
    Currently reading The Name of The Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. It's a story about a man telling another man his life story so it's split into short chapters of the man talking and interacting with the other man, and his story told to us first person. He keeps it pretty loose, splitting the main story and the wrapper of his conversation in chapters as fits, rather than by strict terms. It feels very comfortable and I'm really enjoying it.
    – CLockeWork
    Commented Feb 23, 2015 at 11:26
  • You may also want to read The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury. While the book is a classic (and deservedly so), it's also a good example of how to not structure a novel: The stories have little to do with the main narrative, which is a bit too obviously a framing device. Commented Feb 23, 2015 at 14:07
  • You might look into the ancient classic, One thousand and One nights, where Scheherazade is the brilliant storyteller narrating the thousand stories to her husband.
    – SF.
    Commented Feb 25, 2015 at 16:17

2 Answers 2


I feel content outside of the regular narrative flow that is longer than about a page should generally be placed in a separate chapter (or section for shorter fiction), especially when such content is included multiple times within a novel.

Frame stories would generally be exceptions to this guideline since the outer story fragments are typically very short. Including a short portion of the outer story at the beginning of an inner story chapter

The transition to the inner story (at the end of the outer story) may include a small part of the beginning of the included story. This gives the chapter transition more of a dream-blur effect and reduces the separation between the narrative components. If the inner stories are meant to reveal aspects of the protagonist of the outer story, this might be preferred, particularly if the protagonist is specifically sharing his heart. This form of transition would work best if the author of the inner story is reciting the inner story or at least present waiting for the story to be read.

If the inner story is being read independently, a stronger transition would generally be desired to separate the reader in the outer story from the story itself. (Exceptions would include when the story is meant to be more personal to that reader and when the impression of an immersive narrative is intended.) Giving such strong transition story within a story chapters the titles of the short stories would help clarify that they are not part of the outer story.

If the inner story is being read by more than one reader, such a strong transition may be especially appropriate, though it could also be effective to use a fragment at the end of multiple chapters to show how different readers are coming to the story from their individual perspectives.

This introduces the issue of where to place the body of the story. Placing it immediately after the first reader's chapter allows the inner story's content to interact with the context of second reader (e.g., an upbeat inner story might be just what the second reader needs after the stressful experiences preceding the reading). Placing it after the last reader's chapter increases anticipation (which can lead to disappointment if the inner story is weak, though that disappointment might be intentional). Placing the inner story in the middle would bind it more closely to the readers in the adjacent outer story chapters and could be used to reinforce differences in how the inner story affects the different readers; the readers before the story are in some sense coming to the story afresh while the real-world reader's knowledge of the inner story will influence how the later chapters are viewed.

Obviously an inner story within a shorter work that does not have chapters could use section breaks. Because section breaks are weaker than chapter breaks, a greater sense of relation is implied, potentially requiring more explicit separation in the text itself if the inner story is meant to be more distinct from the reader. On the other hand, using section breaks would facilitate the use of subtle links between the outer and inner stories. In a novel, using section breaks could be effective for infrequent inner stories when the adjacent reader is meant to be particularly close to the story.


The question is are you writing a novel or a collection of stories? It is possible to use stories as part of a larger work, consider Hyperion or Eight Million Gods or Canterbury Tales. The question is what role do the stories play in the larger work? Do they add something? Are they critical to the plot? Are they just a fun aside?

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    I think these are excellent clarifying questions for the OP, but does this post really provide an answer to the question? Commented Feb 23, 2015 at 15:31
  • When you answer these questions, the others have been answered, So yes.
    – hildred
    Commented Feb 23, 2015 at 17:35

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