Writing Tip: How to tell a micro-story inside your story

Published 2 months ago • 3 min read

Hi Bookfoxers,

Let's say you want to have a character tell another character something.

A kind of message, such as:

  • Don't ever trust the mafia
  • Switzerland is paradise
  • Spend more time with your children

You could just have them say it. "Billy, never trust the mafia!"

But it might be far more memorable for them to tell a story that illustrates the point.

After all, telling stories is what novels do.

Plus, a micro-story can be a way of convincing the character -- perhaps they're resistant to this idea, because they have relatives in the mafia and WANT to trust them.

And telling a story is a way to add some extra oomph to your argument without getting all rhetorical and listing evidence (which is boring!).

If you attempt this, watch out for these three pitfalls:

  1. Don't overuse this technique. I'd heard people say that some shows like "This is Us" use this technique so often that it's lost its luster. Once or twice in a book is probably more than enough.
  2. Don't make the story too long. This shouldn't be a half-a-chapter flashback. It's best to keep it short and simple, the length of an anecdote you'd tell a stranger at the bar.
  3. The point should be clear. Nobody should be confused by the end. Not the character hearing the story, and certainly not the reader.

A book that does this well is "The Alchemist" by Paulo Coelho.

In "The Alchemist" a boy meets an old man who teaches him many things. But right before he leaves the old man, the old man says: “But before I go, I want to tell you a little story."

The story is about a boy who travels a long way to find a sage and asks him the secret of happiness.

The sage tells him to walk through his house carrying a spoon with two drops of oil, and not to spill any.

When the boy finishes, the sage asks him what he thought of his Persian tapestries and beautiful parchments and huge garden.

The boy says that he was concentrating so much on not spilling the oil that he never noticed anything about the house.

So the sage tells him to walk around again with the spoon with the two drops of oil, and this time to notice everything.

This time the boy pays attention to all the beautiful works of art around the house.

But when he gets back, the sage says, "But where are the two drops of oil?" The boy realizes that he'd spilled them.

Then the sage says: “The Secret of Happiness lies in looking at all the wonders of the world and never forgetting the two drops of oil in the spoon.”

It's a wonderful little parable and illustrates the tension of finding happiness: you have to concentrate on your life while remaining open to all the glories and wonders of the world around you.

There's one more example from "Breaking Bad" that I'd like to share with you, but first, a message from our sponsor.

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Second example:

In Breaking Bad, Mike is trying to convince Walter White that he shouldn't take any "half measures."

But he doesn't say that. He says: let me tell you a story.

He tells a story about back when he was a beat cop, and he kept on getting weekly calls about a man beating his wife.

Beating her very badly, so that she had to go to the hospital. But then she wouldn't press charges, and just said something like: oh, I fell down the stairs.

Mike gets sick of this. One time, when he's arresting the man for the umpteenth time, he doesn't take him to the station.

He takes him out of the city to a remote place and sticks a gun in the man's mouth. He's not trying to intimidate the man, he thinks he should kill this man because of the horrific spousal abuse.

But instead, Mike has mercy.

He takes the gun out of the man's mouth and says, "If you ever beat your wife again, I'm going to kill you."

A week later, that man got drunk again and beat his wife to death.

And Mike tells Walter White: "I should have killed him."

Then we understand the meaning of the story. He tells Walter -- "No half measures."

Mike could have said "no half measures" and that would be it -- a simple line of dialogue -- but it wouldn't be half as convincing, and I wouldn't be remembering it a decade after I first watched the show.

So look for important messages in your novel, and have them tell a micro-story to illustrate their point.

It might end up being one of the most memorable points in your book!


John Matthew Fox

Bonus examples:

The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy -- two mini stories breaking up the framework of the novel.

The Alteration: Micro story within that book


John Matthew Fox helps authors write better fiction. He is the founder of Bookfox, where he creates online courses for writers, provides editing and offers publishing assistance. He is the author of "The Linchpin Writer: Crafting Your Novel's Key Moments" and “I Will Shout Your Name,” a collection of short stories.

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