Sunday, October 31, 2010

Telling short stories within novels

In the bestseller Intensity by Dean Koontz, Koontz uses a flashback to tell a short, horrifying, story in Chapter 1.

Female protagonist Chyna experiences a flashback while speeding down a two-lane highway with her friend Laura. Over the next two pages, as Chyna tells Laura of her memory, the reader experiences, almost literally, a short horror story embedded within the novel.
Chyna closed her eyes.
“Chyna, you’re as white as a ghost. What is it?”
“A long time ago, when I was just a little girl, seven years old …”
Chyna had been with her mother and Jim Woltz, a Key West drug dealer and gunrunner…
To Laura, Chyna recalled, “There was a canal, parallel to the road…”
We then read a 2-3 page story, partly dialog, partly past perfect tense.
Chyna finally opened her eyes and came back from the memory of Florida …
Why did Koontz tell us this story? I believe he did it for two reasons:

1. It set the mood for the bigger story. Koontz is establishing suspense, and step one seems to be to tell the reader what to expect in the rest of the story. Suspense and, probably, more death.

2. Perhaps more importantly it helps define Chyna’s character. We now know she has an ugly past, part of which was witnessing at least one murder. After living through such gruesome experiences, we can expect that Chyna is jaded, perhaps even prepared for what is to come.

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