Flashbacks, dreams sequences, tangents. For the most part, these are things that authors should avoid -- or so we are told -- because they stop the flow of the story. They pull readers out of the action, divert our attention elsewhere. And when they're over, we find ourselves lost, adrift, searching for a trail of breadcrumbs to lead us back home.
But what about when they work?
A couple of my favorite books feature stories within stories -- otherwise known as back story, or tangents. Maybe they weren't strictly necessary, but for me, these “extras” really enriched the larger narrative. And they illustrated that, like all rules, this one can be broken as long as it is broken well.
In Eclipse, Stephenie Meyer shares the story of a brave Quileute woman who sacrificed her own life in order to save those she cared about. Not only is this tale compelling in and of itself, but it also parallels a decision that Bella makes in the heat of the battle between Edward and Victoria.
In The Host, Meyer again digresses for several pages, when Wanda hosts a “storytime” of some of the most exciting and unique memories of her past lives. Each anecdote fascinated me with its originality, and I found myself not caring that the main story had been put on pause. In fact, like Wanda's audience, I wanted to hear more.
In Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Laini Taylor spends several chapters explaining what led up to the incredible heartbreak that Karou and Akiva now face. I think she gets away with this in part because it happens so late in the book -- over three quarters of the way through. But honestly, I could've spent a lifetime in Elsewhere with Madrigal and Brimstone. Reading their history was like finding a diamond inside a bar of gold.
So tell me: do you like stories within stories (or flashbacks or dream sequences)? Why or why not? Which ones stick out in your mind?
PS: Interestingly, in the world of capital L literary fiction, these sort of techniques are not as frowned upon. In fact, I think you would be hard-pressed to find a work in that genre that didn't include at least one of these elements. I wonder why the rule doesn't apply to them... Perhaps because commercial fiction (which includes most of YA) is “supposed” to be fast-paced and un-put-down-able?