How do you add a third dimension to a story so it appears ‘real’?
One way is to set it in a real location and drop in a wealth of authentic minutia. That location is real so the story must be too!
A more subtle technique is to suggest that our characters exist in another world, independently of the story. In the tales of Sherlock Holmes we continually bump against allusions to Holmes’s previous exploits. Watson, the narrator, pretends that they’re a matter of public record. They actually happened, in the real world. Or so we’re given to believe.
Result: many readers feel that Holmes and Watson are still ‘alive’ today. And women still do apply to 221B Baker Street for employment as their housekeeper.
Both techniques create the illusion of a ‘story behind the story’. The events have depth and dimension, just like those in real life.
A device even more subtle is to weave in a ‘shadow story.’
This is a tale that exists beneath the surface, like the hidden thread in a tapestry. It may have nothing to do with the main story, directly. Its purpose is to give it a tantalizing illusion of depth.
Peter Ackroyd made good use of this ‘shadow’ technique in The House of Dr Dee. It’s two stories in one and, at first, neither seems related to the other.
In one chapter, we’re following the 16th century exploits of Dr Dee, Queen Elizabeth’s favorite astrologer. In the next, a 20th century narrator is gloomily inspecting Dr Dee’s ancient London house, which he has just inherited. The story flits disconcertingly between the two characters and timelines.
What was Ackroyd’s purpose? He wanted to endow the mundane story of his modern narrator with an eerie timeless dimension.
At the end, the two stories come together and the one deepens the other. We discover that the narrator is Dr Dee, a magician who lives outside of time and reincarnates himself in every generation.
But we don’t need to be writing an historical mystery or sci-fantasy to use that device. Here’s how we can create an effect of timeless depth in any genre of story:
How To Write A ‘Shadow Story’ Step-by-Step
First, devise two plots with different settings and characters. They might be located in separate places or even time periods. But endow each one with a comparable theme.
Play those stories against each other so that each acts as an ironic counterpoint to the other. Here’s an instance:
Main narrative: A modern teenager is digging her garden and finds a ring set with curious jewels. Is it valuable? She needs money to buy a dress for her prom yet can’t bring herself to pawn the ring.
Flashback to the 17th century: A countess is getting married. On her finger is a magnificent ring, the gift of her lordly husband, a man with dark eyebrows and a hooked nose. On their honeymoon they romp together in the garden. At the climax of their passion, she loses the ring. He curses her negligence — it’s a family heirloom! — and abandons her. She dies childless and embittered.
Return to modern times: The girl wears the ring to her prom ball. She meets a lad with dark eyebrows and a hooked nose. He expresses a strange interest in her ring…
Well, you can guess the rest. Do they marry? Does she give him the ring as a wedding gift? And he loses it? Perhaps she forgives him and they found a dynasty together. The ring is passed on from daughter to daughter across a dozen generations.
Or maybe she curses his negligence and stalks out of their marriage…
Either way, that ‘shadow’ plot has endowed the tale with an eerie, timeless resonance.
Both those stories are self-contained. Both work independently of the other. Yet both are linked by a common theme.
It’s not essential that the main and sub-plot come together at the close. Provided their theme is similar the reader will create that sense of unity in their own mind. They won’t be able to explain why, but our story will seem uncannily — perhaps even creepily — ‘real’.
What shadow themes have you noticed in both movies and novels?
About the Author: Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. A wealth of further ideas for writing fiction that sells can be found in his free 14-part story course.