Tapestry of many threads: writing a story within a story – Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar

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By Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar

Writing a novel that contains a story within a story looks a lot like writing a dual timeline, but with a few extra twists thrown in that make it more complex (and fun).♥

When I started writing The Map of Salt and Stars, I wanted to write a book about the power of stories and about stories as vehicles for what we can take with us when we think we’ve lost everything. I knew from the beginning that I wanted one of the two timelines to be a story that the protagonist, Nour, tells herself for comfort on her journey as a refugee. This approach was particularly appealing to me, because weaving together two or more stories is an Arab storytelling technique that comes from the rich oral storytelling tradition of the Islamic world.

I wanted to draw on the wisdom of my ancestors to talk about the trauma of displacement and violence happening in the country where my father was born, and to use that wisdom to give other people of Syrian descent hope, comfort, memory — in short, something to carry with them.

But weaving the second story into the first got complicated fast. Here are five things I learned along the way.

  1. Give each story a unique voice.

    Originally, stories were passed down orally. There’s a reason we love a good storyteller: it’s often more about the way they tell a story than about what they’re telling. Your stories should be the same way. The voices and styles must be different enough to keep the reader entertained and to help them keep the story threads separate in their head. Otherwise there will be confusion: What happened to which character? Which timeline am I in? Just as with telling a story with multiple narrators, the reader should be able to tell which story they’re in from the voice in the first sentence, even without a chapter or section header.

  2. Make sure each story has enough meat to stand alone.

    This means that even a secondary storyline will need its own complete structure, character arcs, appropriate plot points and turns, and a story world that feels complete and lush. In writing The Map of Salt and Stars, I extensively researched the Levant and North Africa of the 12th century, including reading 12th century Arabic-language texts to see which mapmaking terms would have been used by Arabic-speaking cartographers at that time, looking into historical fashions and textiles in Cairo, and checking out archaeological maps of where Syrian caravanserais were located and how far apart they were. If you skimp on your worldbuilding in either story thread, readers will feel cheated and bored; but if put passion into it, readers will pick up on that excitement and follow your lead.

  3. Have the plot points and moments of character growth mirror each other without being on-the-nose about it.

    It often helps to stagger these complementary moments, or to have them occur in different contexts. It can also work to subvert a reader’s expectations by having the opposite thing happen to the characters in one story vs the other, or to have one character’s fortunes be up while the other’s are down. A good storyteller always knows what their readers are thinking, and then decides whether to give it to them or whether to pull the rug out from under their feet. Sometimes you want that “of course!” moment and sometimes you want that gasp of surprise. Go ahead, storyteller — keep your readers guessing.

  4. Decide if and where you want the two stories to converge.

    Do you want one story to end, helping the protagonist(s) of the main story thread to learn what they need to learn or become who they need to become? Or do you want to carry the secondary story thread all the way through to the end, adding emotional weight to the ending? Either approach can work, but it helps to know this in advance as you are writing, particularly because the two stories must come to a climax at about the same time in order not to steal each other’s thunder. Which leads me to…

  5. For your own sanity, make yourself a map.

    In my experience, you need a detailed plot map for dual timeline or story-within-a-story novels. Why? The structure just gets too complex. You have to hit the right plot points at the right time to play off each other without making it too obvious, and you have to craft the character arcs for each protagonist so that they complement each other while remaining different enough to keep the reader guessing. In short, you are creating a tapestry while trying to hide the evidence of your stitching. It’s a thing of beauty when two stories come together, when a reader has that moment of “Oh! So that’s why this (hopefully entertaining) second story was included.” You want your reader to see, by at least the third act if you’re using three-act structure, that neither story could be told without the other.

That was what I was aiming for in The Map of Salt and Stars: to honor the storytelling traditions of my ancestors, and to use that wisdom to give my community the gift of knowing that as long as we come together and tell our stories, we are not lost, we are not broken, and we most certainly are not alone.

Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar is the Syrian American author of The Map of Salt and Stars (US: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, UK: Weidenfeld & Nicolson/Orion; May 2018). She is a member of the Radius of Arab American Writers (RAWI) and of American Mensa and received her Ph.D. from Brown University. Her work has appeared in The Paris Review Daily, The Kenyon Review, The Saturday Evening Post, PANK Magazine, and elsewhere. She is a 2017-2020 Montalvo Arts Center Lucas Artists Program Literary Arts Fellow.


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