I'm writing a chapter with a lot of indirection, and I'm wondering if I'm doing too much of it.

To be specific, it is the main character remembering an event from his youth when a merchant who stayed over night in his home village told stories about what other people told him about their experiences with a far-away tribe that do terrible things to people.

The idea is to both give some information about the tribe (which, at the time of the story, is an imminent danger to the protagonist's people), and to give the understanding that back then it was a far-away tribe that was no threat at the place of the protagonists, something so far away that you hear stories about, but that doesn't really affect you or anyone you know.

But I'm not sure if that multiple indirection is not a bit too much indirection. So what would be the “smells” I should watch out for in order to identify if I've overdone it?

Here with “smells” I mean a writing analogue to “code smells” — something that by itself is not necessarily wrong, but whose presence is a strong hint that there's a deeper problem with what you wrote. If there's a more appropriate word for that, please tell me.

  • Indirection = misdirection?
    – robertcday
    Commented May 31, 2018 at 17:47
  • @robertcday: Sorry, I don't understand your comment.
    – celtschk
    Commented May 31, 2018 at 17:47
  • Indirection means indirectness or lack of straightforwardness in action, speech, or progression. Misdirection means the action or process of directing someone to the wrong place or in the wrong direction. I wonder if you mean mean misdirection when you say indirection.
    – robertcday
    Commented May 31, 2018 at 18:09
  • 2
    @robertcday: No. My intention is in no way to mislead. “Indirection” here refers to the thing told. Depending on whether you count the remembering part, there areeither two or three indirections here: (1) the indirection that it is a memory of the past, rather than something happening in the time of the story. (2) The fact that it is something told back then by a merchant. (3) The fact that the merchant tells things he heard from other people.
    – celtschk
    Commented May 31, 2018 at 18:13
  • 1
    Do your readers mind? Are they able to follow it?
    – corsiKa
    Commented May 31, 2018 at 20:37

6 Answers 6


I think the "smell" is when there are too many moving parts in an individual info-drop. For example, consider the following quotes:

(1) When John was young, a merchant told him stories of a tribe who did cruel things to people. He had heard the stories from a group of sailors returning to port from Antarctica.


(2) When John was young, a merchant told him stories he had heard from a group of sailors of a tribe in Antarctica who did cruel things to people.

Actual sentence structure aside, compare the two. The first quote contains almost the same words, just dropping one level of indirection per sentence. The second quote contains all of the information in one sentence, and is much more unwieldy to a reader trying to wrap their mind around the levels. Ultimately, I think it boils down to being able to contextualize the levels in a meaningful way (like Amadeus has suggested in their answer), but the pacing is as critical as the content in cases where the layers are many and/or complex.


It's not too much if you present it in more concrete terms.

A "merchant" is not concrete enough; make it his uncle Bobby, or his neighbor. Have it be a specific person. Have his correspondent be a specific person, and then tell the story as if the MC had been told directly by that guy.

The Jerk tribe. He had heard of them, as a child. His uncle Bobby stayed the night when passing through, he was always full of stories from far away. He told of a terrible tribe, the Jerks, from the Redass mountains. Fortunately uncle Bobby had not encountered them himself, but in his own adventures had met with a victim, Mr. Brockmeister that had his bicycle stolen by the Jerks. What monsters would steal bicycles? It was unthinkable, but Mr. Brockmeister swore it was true.

And that is not all they did! As Mr. Brockmeister continued, they stole mail, and used the most terrible language, they wore open-toed sandals and dyed their hair unnatural colors. He said they would even go to church that way!

  • Thank you for this, this is definitely helpful. However so is the answer by MidwestIsTheBest; indeed, in a sense the two answers complement each other. Basically they are most useful in combination. Unfortunately I can only accept one answer; ultimately I decided to accept the other answer because it more directly answers my question (and also because the associated reputation points will make more of an impact there).
    – celtschk
    Commented Jun 1, 2018 at 15:48
  • @celtschk Not a problem at all. I'll give him a point and make it official!
    – Amadeus
    Commented Jun 1, 2018 at 18:47

Yeah, I lost count of the number of levels of indirection.

It's possible that the reader wouldn't even notice. Somebody tells this 4th-hand story and everyone nods and that's it.

But do you need all the indirection? Why not just take it out? Why not just have the character tell how when he was young he saw these things? Or when he was young other people told him these things?

This reminds me of all the ridicule you hear when someone says that he knows that something is true because an anonymous source told him that he overheard someone at a bar say that his brother-in-law heard a rumor that ... It sounds like a joke.

  • 1
    “Why not just have the character tell how when he was young he saw these things?” —Because the whole point is that he did not see those things. That at that time they were still far away.
    – celtschk
    Commented May 31, 2018 at 18:01

Indirection is only a problem when reader can't tell which layer of the story they are on

Using a narrator that is retelling events from their life is a common literary technique. Many books do it well. In these books is it not uncommon for the narrator to then retell a story that was told to them. This is exactly what you have here. The trick to making it not confusing it to make the transitions clear.

You can use tense or formatting to separate the sections. For example: POV (Present tense) -> Narration (Past tense) -> Story (Past tense in Italics). If you are going to use formatting to separate it, use standard formatting for the part that will make up the majority of your word-count. You don't want to make your readers read more italics than necessary.

Alternatively if you are capable of writing in distinctly different narrative voices you could use that to separate it. The narrator for each of your sections is a different character, if the style is different enough the reader will be able to discern which indirection they are in.

A book that did this well is Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. The majority of the story is told through a recount of event by the main character. When the action cuts to the present day there is a clear distinction in the formatting of the novel. The character often retells stories within his recounting of events, these are sometimes in italics and sometimes in quotes. Depending on the exact context.

Overall the number of indirections that is acceptable is only limited by your ability to keep the layers distinct and understandable.


It's all about how you handle it.

You're describing a flashback to hearing a third-hand story about a distant tribe. It's far in time, far in relationship (i.e. degrees of separation), and far in geography. You have to make it relevant, intense, and short.

Are you using indirection in the coding sense?

I would say don't think of it that way, because you don't want to refer to a pointer. You want to refer to an experience your character had, even if it was the experience of hearing a terrifying story third-hand from an unreliable source.

  • Welcome to writing.se! Take the tour and visit the help center when you get a chance. This is a decent first answer. You could improve it further by adding detail on how to make their story more "relevant, intense, and short." Thanks for participating and happy writing!
    – linksassin
    Commented May 9, 2019 at 5:09

Try it as dialog... and then you'll also realize the situation could be seen as very prejudiced (code smell?) Let me show you:

Groff: I'm leaving before those Grobschookas get here.

Doff: Why? I mean, they seem a bit violent, but who isn't?

Groff: You don't get it, they are horrible.

Doff: In what way?

Groff: They eat babies.

Doff: Really? Come on?

Groff: I'm telling you! When I was young, a merchant told me stories about some settlers he met whose babies the Grobschookas ate!

Doff: You met a merchant who met some settlers who met the Grobschookas? Yeah, good luck with that... I'm going to check them out anyway...

The big loser might be Doff in the end, but still... This is the risk with the everlasting I-heard-someone-who-heard-someone-who-said-someone-was-this-or-that... You risk sounding very prejudiced... but then again, maybe that's what you want your character to be like?

If not. I would give your character some one-on-one experience with that tribe... or have the "settlers" come riding into the village shouting warnings to everyone.

Unless you want to do it more along the line of:

Groff: I'm thinking about leaving before the Gribschookas get here.

Doff: Why? I mean, they seem a bit violent, but who isn't?

Groff: I have a bad feeling about them. Something I heard as a youth.

Doff: Come on? What?

Groff: I don't know... a rumor.

Doff: So, we use caution. When don't we? And then again... they might turn out to have salt, and news, and ale!

  • The dialogue suggestion is I think a good one. About the direct experience, the protagonist got that, too — but not in his childhood. The whole point is to show that while the tribe is old, and always has been that bad, the fact that they are now an extreme danger is new, and therefore is very likely caused by their access to “magic” (ancient technology).
    – celtschk
    Commented Jun 8, 2019 at 10:40
  • Maybe this thing doesn't have to happen in the head of the character alone? You might risk telling instead of showing unless you show that other tribes use of magic. It doesn't have to be a bad thing that you're upfront with the fact that they are a threat either. See "don't hide" in my other answer writing.stackexchange.com/questions/45262/…
    – Erk
    Commented Jun 8, 2019 at 15:38

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