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Is it possible to interleave a story with some context and with the first persons thoughts and feelings without distracting, confusing or boring the reader?

Content wise, i think the essay-ish piece i’m trying to write improves when all three levels are present. The immediate story, is pretty fast paced and describes the birth of my son as it happened. Without the context, it is just one story. A discussion of health statistics and some incidents that received media attention provides a wider context to my story. Adding thoughts and feelings i had at the time serves to make the story more immersive.

Form wise, interleaving the three levels just feels clunky. Should context be clustered around the beginning and end of the story, so as not to derail the flow? What about the emotional part, introspection also ’halts’ the storyline? Should i do short cycles of events-introspection-context?

The story i have so far is a bit too raw (in more ways than one) and too long to share here, so as a proxy example take this short text about railway travel:

I ran down the platform dodging annoyed looking commuters, stumbling without falling at least four times. Why, why had i thought it would be a good idea to wear flip-flops? Sure it was hot, but now i was almost missing the train because i could not properly sprint and what if the whistle came before i reached the doors? Could i risk jumping in? I’d just as easily end up under the train, not on it.

Made it! Panting and sweating i found a window seat. I had to make it, really. The service i was on only runs every two hours. Iterations of optimalization to the train schedule meant that now urban areas have ultra frequent connections while the further one travels from the overpopulated cities, the scarcer the transport. A realistic and predictable policy that nevertheless further erodes the already crumbling public and other services in more remote areas.

I think it works here, but will several iterations of this also work?

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Is it possible? Of course it is; almost everyone does it, in a form or another.

How to do it well, now, is a whole other question.

Avoid Interleaving

Edit: Just to be sure, here I'm talking about interleaving whole paragraphs, pages or even chapters text.

I'd personally avoid interleaving unless it is strictly necessary. It may be just my opinion, but if I'm reading a story, and the author stops every five paragraphs to illustrate me some aspect of the world, there will be two possible outcomes:

  1. Either the writer is so good that is descriptions are actually interesting to read, or
  2. I will be bored the hell and back.

The main con of interleaving is that you stop your plot. If, by chance, you had the reader's attention, you risk losing it with something completely different and seemingly out of place. As you said, it's the exact definition of clunkiness. If that's not bad enough, you risk giving the impression of "feeding" the information to your audience - with a process sometime referred as "infodumping" - and that's usually fastidious.

So, mix it up

The best option here (again, imho) seems to try to embed whatever you need to explain about the context in the pace of the story. Of course, the pace will go down, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Of course it isn't so easy as it seems. You still have to become good at it to avoid breaking the action too much or infodumping. As all things in writing, it needs practice and perfection may as well be unattainable, but whatever.

The tricky part, indeed, is mixing contextual explanations in the story flow.

I'm not mentioning "introspective" parts, because those are almost natural in comparison. It's pretty normal to pair up descriptions of what happens with description of the feeling of a character, especially - as in your example - with a first person narrator. Good practice too, since it is a good way of making the reader acquainted with your character.

So, are cycles ok?

Well, probably. I'm a bit unsure of what you mean with cycle; I hope you don't literally mean that one "part" as to follow the other in order. My advice is this: write your story trying to give the pace that you prefer, mixing narration with introspection, and when the time feels right embed whatever little context is needed.

There are other strategies around and someone will sure explain them better than me. You could - for example - give a single paragraph of meaningful context at the start of every chapter. Or come up with whatever "structure" you can imagine. It depends on wheter it makes sense with your story.

As for your proxy example, the first paragraph works for me, but the second one is too context-heavy.

Made it! Panting and sweating i found a window seat. I had to make it, really. The service i was on only runs every two hours. Iterations of optimalization to the train schedule meant that now urban areas have ultra frequent connections while the further one travels from the overpopulated cities, the scarcer the transport. A realistic and predictable policy that nevertheless further erodes the already crumbling public and other services in more remote areas.

Do your reader really needs to know that - or rather, to read you explain that - to enjoy your story? I frankly doubt it. You overdid it in the last sentence; a simple comment on the character view about the train sistem policy would have been better. Remember, if you meld the pieces well enough, there will be no visibile separation lines.

Last useful tip: I remember reading somewhere that the audience is not stupid. Yea, that may come as a surprise (joking, ofc). If you have the urge to explain everything in detail, remember that. Most people can grasp the meaning of what your trying to convey without you writing an essay.

On the other hand, you can't expect the readers to be as well informed as you about your story. You will always be more knowledgeable of them on that front, period. Finding a good pace also means accepting that fact and let your audience join the dots to form their own view of the plot.

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In principle it works. Great magazine writers do it all the time. The thing is, at every turn of a story, you have to make the reader care. Detail for the sake of detail is just a distraction. If you include a detail it has to be what we call in the trade a "telling detail" it has to point to something larger than itself, it has to align with all the particles of story along the magnetic pole of the things you want the reader to care about, and which the reader can reasonably be made to care about if your expose them in the right way.

Almost missing your train because you are wearing flip flops is a detail, a very human detail, but it is not, in the context in which you have presented it, a telling detail. It does not point in any meaningful way to the your point about eroding services in rural areas. A telling detail for that kind of complaint is a senior who can't drive missing a medical appointment because there is not train that will get them there on time.

You can and should interleave context, anecdote, and reflection in an extended essay, especially one that has an emotional hook, but you have to do it in a way that maintains an arc of caring on the reader's part.

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  • Thank you, i take this to mean that i should decide on what i want to say to what audience. That is, if i want to make a point, i should gear the story towards making that point. And if i just want to write down my own experience for my future self, then i should not expect to captivate other readers. – Koinc Jul 29 '17 at 22:01
  • Yes, exactly that. – user16226 Jul 29 '17 at 22:05
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I'm sorry but I don't think your example works. You're in first-person but you're not in the moment. You're switching between an internal and external view of the scene which makes it disjointed

What do you really think about whilst running for a bus or a train? What are you 'aware' of? Where is your focus?

From the moment you start running your panicked thoughts are more likely the need to catch the train and the dire consequences of missing it.

On successfully catching the train you briefly feel joy. Once you've caught your breath you express your feelings of anger at the schedule.

Interleaving is a natural part of storytelling. I use the programming instruction (do,while).

Whilst running for the train I thought A

On catching the train and locating my seat I thought B

Whilst sitting in my seat catching my breath I reflected C

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    This is more of a critique of the example than an answer to the general question. – user16226 Jul 6 '17 at 11:42
  • The question was "How do I . . .?" I have answered the question. What's the problem? – Surtsey Jul 6 '17 at 11:57
  • @MarkBaker - I think you're both right. It's a hard question to answer without showing how - what the character would naturally be thinking about and how that could be used to introduce context. In particular, the biggest problem with the example is that it's not introspection. It switches jarringly from 1st person narration to exposition. Nobody thinks like that unless they're preparing a lecture. It has to stay "in character" to work. – Joe Jul 12 '17 at 7:54

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