Synopsis: This Newbery-Honor winning tale introduces Whittington, a roughneck Tom who arrives one day at a barn full of rescued animals and asks for a place there. He spins for the animals—as well as for Ben and Abby, the kids whose grandfather does the rescuing—a yarn about his ancestor, the nameless cat who brought Dick Whittington to the heights of wealth and power in 16th-century England. This is an unforgettable tale about the healing, transcendent power of storytelling, and how learning to read saves one little boy.
For the Writer: Excepting an exaggeration of Dick Whittington’s cat to mythic proportions, the author does a great job revisiting the life and exploits of the true Dick Whittington as an embedded subordinate story. The story that grounds the novel concerns Ben, a boy who must overcome personal obstacles in order to read and pass to the next grade. In my mind the historical narrative or the sub-story, the dramatic yarn of Dick Whittington and his cat, overpowered the main narrative. Or perhaps the main story of Ben’s struggle with reading, which threatens to hold him back a grade, does not warrant the weight of the sub-story.
In A Wrinkle in Time, L’Engle strikes a better balance. As in Whittington, the Murray children are struggling in school, not only with academic performance, but in key relationships. Their father has gone missing. Their mother has become distracted and distant. This foundation of consequence balances the dramatic wild ride through time, which, though the other half of the same narrative, is another story. Regardless, L’Engle balances the dramatic weight of the parallel stories in Wrinkle, which I do not see in Whittington.
A writer has a number of options available when embedding a sub-story within a main story – think clause and subordinate clause – and there are a couple of illustrative examples.
In Watership Down, Richard Adams provides a mythic back story, which is a type of creation story that provides a context for the relationship between animals as it particularly relates to rabbits. It is an incredible tale, but does not, as a subordinate, override the story.
Yann Martel writes embeds a play within his novel Beatrice and Virgil. In this story the subordinate story in the form of an actual play comes to dominate the story like a dream, or a nightmare, that invades the conscious world. Martel handles the balance masterfully as he draws the reader into an unescapable catastrophe. The embedded play, which casts a donkey (Beatrice) and a monkey (Virgil), reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, is on its own merits heavy stuff and worthy of the ominous antagonist. The fumbling, anxious protagonist is pedestrian. He’s everyman, the perfect vehicle to carry us into an appalling revelation. (By the way, Beatrice and Virgil, survived a barrage of mean-spirited, unwarranted reviews. The novel lingers in the imagination as a stark reminder of how brutality mingles with the banal.)
But were talking about middle grade fiction.
I suppose the key to successfully embedding a subordinate story is knowing and managing its purpose. Is the tale a back story to add depth to a place, character or object – for object think of the back story for the ring of power in Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring, chapter 11: The Council of Elrond, or is the story a dramatic ploy to help along the plot as in the play-within-a-play in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Determining the subordinate story’s purpose will determine its length and weight.
A character’s backstory, for instance, depending on the length of the book, must not be so long that it derails the story so that the reader cannot find his way back, or worse, has lost interest in the central story.
A few questions needing answers:
Is the story a parallel story? For example, two characters grow up in separate circumstances. Later on they meet and continue the story together. There is room for a lot of variation in this model.
Is the parallel story an evolving story that is key to developing a central character or turn in the plot? This is the structure of a classic mystery or detective novel, feeding the reader with tantalizing morsels of a dramatic narrative, not fully realized until the end of the novel.
Is the story symbolic or prophetic? Is it a stand alone story, such as Nathan’s story to expose King David’s sin against Uriah or the fable within Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil, which reads like a parable?
Is the story an incidental story, told by one character to produce an effect on another. An older brother sharing a past incident to persuade his younger brother not to join a gang, for example.
Answering questions such as those above will help the writer determine the way and weight of the story within a story.