Suzanne Brockmann is famous for telling a story within a story in her books. It’s a technique that romance writers, in particular, can use to a powerful effect.
Telling a story within the story is a technique I’ve used in just about every romance novel I’ve ever written.
I remember first making note of this device decades ago, when I re-read Jack Schaefer’s SHANE. This book is told from the first-person point of view of a boy who recounts the impact a gunslinger has on both his town and his family. We see everything through the boy’s wide-eyed and youth-distorted lens.
About midway through the book, an altercation happens with Shane, in town, outside of boy’s presence, but he learns of it through a breathless story told to his parents by a man who was a witness.
This was incredibly effective—and far more believable—than if the author had somehow forced a way to have the boy actually see the altercation. It was also a great change of pace—it brought a new, temporary, interesting voice into a first-person book.
This type of storytelling—when one character tells a complete story (beginning, middle, end) to another—is a particularly effect device in a romance novel, as our two lovers take risks and open their hearts to one another. The story told can be many things. It can be emotional—a carefully guarded secret or confession—or funny—a recounting of an embarrassing moment.
And, as Schaefer did, it can be used to provide a burst of action during a long lull—when characters are hiding or waiting for the next bit of external conflict to crash down upon their heads.
Telling a story within a story:
- reveals something about the character telling the story
- how is the story told?
- matter of factly/cold, with great distance
- with emotion/shaking voice/tears/haltingly
- with ease/difficulty
- quickly or with great stretches of silence
- is the story told mostly to the reader via truthful introspection vs. the not-quite-accurate/complete/honest words actually spoken aloud?
- reveals something about the character(s) listening
- reaction or lack of reaction
- what’s revealed to the reader through listener’s introspection, if we’re in his or her POV
- what the listening character learns (about the storyteller or about him/herself)
- what the storyteller learns (about the listener or about him/herself)
- what the reader learns about both
I’ve written many books with SEAL heroes, but I rarely set them in war zones. So, in order to show my SEALs in true action, I like to let them tell a story. It can be anything from rowdy barroom hyperbole to a deeply personal, emotion-filled account of a failed mission.
In fact, I use this device in my book Over the Edge (Troubleshooters # 3), when one of my SEALs, Mike Muldoon, tells a story to the book’s heroine, a helicopter pilot named Teri. Teri’s pretty sure that she’s got a Thing for Stan, the SEAL team’s senior chief, but Stan has been keeping her at arm’s length—to the tune of attempting to set her up with the much younger Mike.
Teri finally agrees to have dinner with Mike, and it’s in the middle of this very awkward first date that he tells her a wild story about a failed HALO insertion, a soon-to-erupt volcano, an injured officer, and a harrowing escape—in which their mutual friend Stan saves the day.
Mike’s definitely got a crush on Teri, but as we-the-reader watch him tell this story—about STAN!!?—we learn a few things about Mike. First, he’s keeping an emotional distance from Teri by not telling her a personal story—it’s clear that his interest in her is pretty shallow. We also learn from this story that Teri has a damn good reason to be so into Stan. (He’s incredibly intelligent and creative and a total kickass hero!) Plus we get a fast-paced, action-packed, funny story as a refreshing change of pace in a very dark book.
In my most recent book, Some Kind of Hero, I wanted to take this story-within-a-story technique and spin it on its side.
I wanted to write a book in which the heroine was a romance writer—a professional storyteller—able to apply her expert-level skill-set to help solve one of the SEAL hero’s biggest problems.
In this book, the hero, Pete, has recently gained custody of his fifteen-year-old daughter, Maddie. He and Maddie’s mom, Lisa, were never married, and they split shortly after Maddie’s birth. He’s always paid child support, but all of his efforts to connect with Maddie were sabotaged by Lisa. But after Lisa is killed in a car accident, Maddie—grieving—comes to live with a father she doesn’t know. And it’s not long before she runs away.
Shayla, our romance author heroine, lives across the street. As a neighbor (and the empathetic single mom of two teen boys), she helps Pete search for his missing daughter. And as she gets to know him—as he (haltingly) tells her about his high school romance with Maddie’s mother—she recognizes something important: Maddie surely doesn’t know that young Pete loved her mother with every ounce of his soul.
And Shay signs on to help Pete write the story of his and Lisa’s early years—before things went south—with the idea that they can email it to Maddie, in hopes that she’ll read it and ultimately come back home. (External conflict gets in the way of that, of course, as Maddie gets in over her head with a local drug lord. Before the book ends, she needs a very real, Navy-SEAL-skill-set rescue!)
But, with Shay’s help, the story of Pete’s tumultuous relationship with Lisa is told to Maddie (and to the readers) in several character-revealing segments throughout Some Kind of Hero.
So what does telling this story reveal to us about Pete?
- That he wants to connect with his daughter so badly, he’s desperate to do two things that are way outside of his comfort zone: 1) reveal deeply personal information (Lisa badly broke his heart); 2) ask Shayla for help
How is the story told?
- At first, Pete’s awkward and rusty and even shy, but in the course of the book, he becomes more open to talking to Shay about this, as well as to talking about Other Things That Matter (Such important growth for a romance novel hero!)
- Via a thorough mix of both Pete’s and Shay’s POVs, combined with the actual story in Pete’s first person voice, written with Shay’s skill and guidance
What does it reveal about the characters listening/what the listening characters learn:
- Shayla recognizes—as she helps Pete shape his story into something that Maddie will relate to—that this is a man who loves completely and forever. She also realizes that his relationship with Lisa didn’t fail from his lack of trying.
- Maddie tries to feel scornful about the story, but secretly she’s impressed that her father would write this for her. She eventually allows herself to open to the idea of re-connection.
What the storyteller learns:
- Pete learns soooo much by taking the risk to tell this deeply personal story, and by opening his heart both to Shayla and Maddie. He also (finally!) allows himself to truly see just how very hard he worked on his relationship with Lisa. He allows himself a glimmer of self-forgiveness—he’s long believed that he should have tried harder to stay in touch with the daughter that he loved—and still loves—deeply. Finally, he gives himself permission to try again. After Lisa, he’d assumed he was toxic, and he stayed away from romantic relationships. Now, (like a good romance hero!) he recognizes not only that he wants to try again—with Shayla—but that he deserves the happiness and joy that she brings to his life.
What the reader learns about both (or all) of the characters, in this case: Pete, Shayla, Maddie, Maddie’s friend Dingo, and even Lisa:
- We see/understand why Shayla would fall in love with Pete
- We see/understand why Pete would fall in love with Shayla (Both of these two points are so important in a romance novel! It can’t just be “He has nice abs/pretty blue/brown eyes!”)
- We recognize that there’s hope for Pete’s relationship with his angry, grieving, angst-filled daughter. It’s not going to be easy, but we’ve also learned that Pete doesn’t flinch from difficult.
- We learn that Maddie’s inappropriately older friend Dingo, too, is ultimately worthy (as a person, as a boyfriend he’s still too old!)—he sees the love behind the story before Maddie does, and he urges her to reconsider her belief that her father is heartless and cold.
- Lisa… Oh, Lisa. She wasn’t malicious—just selfish, childish, brilliant, and permanently unsatisfied.
Last but not least a quick excerpt from Some Kind of Hero, of a scene from Shayla’s point of view, as she helps Pete write what she thinks of as “the meet-cute.”
(FYI, Harry is the fictional gay FBI agent character who lives inside of Shayla’s head, and often speaks to her as the voice of the “devil on her shoulder.”)
We start in the middle of Pete’s first-person account of how he met Maddie’s mother Lisa’s Great-Aunt Hiroko shortly after moving to San Diego…
Her name was Hiroko Nakamura, and maybe it’s weird that a sixteen-year-old boy was best friends with a sixty-year-old Nisei woman. (Nisei means that Hiroko was born in America. Her parents were Issei—they were born in Japan and immigrated here.)
And maybe it’s not weird. I was safe in the quiet of her garden. And I quickly established a routine of stopping in for an early morning—
“Wait,” Peter said.
Shayla looked up from the computer screen and into the man’s disconcertingly blue eyes. They were still sitting at the breakfast counter in the SEAL’s kitchen, and she was reading aloud what they’d already written—the story of how Peter had come to meet Maddie’s mother Lisa, back when they both were in high school.
Those eyes narrowed slightly. “Did I really say that?” he asked.
She knew exactly the that to which he was referring.
Harry was hovering and he repeated it: “I was safe in the quiet of her garden.”
“I paraphrased,” Shayla explained. “You talked in circles around it for about ten paragraphs, so rather than make this an epic tome, I boiled it down to the essence. Isn’t it true? You felt safe there.”
“Yeah,” he admitted. “But…”
“Too touchy-feely,” she guessed. “For you, maybe, but your audience is a fifteen-year-old girl. She’s dealing with some of the very same things that you were back then—new city, new school, a loss—”
“My loss wasn’t even close to hers,” he quickly pointed out.
“But acknowledging it still makes you—sixteen-year-old you—more relatable to Maddie,” Shayla countered.
“Okay, but that bit about the garden just feels like I’m, I don’t know…” He laughed. “Sharing an embarrassing secret.”
“What’s embarrassing?” Shayla asked. “About wanting to feel safe?”
Seriously? Harry said. You just seriously asked a Navy SEAL alpha male…?
It was, indeed, a serious question, and she held Peter’s gaze as he silently looked back into her eyes for a moment. A long moment. She tried to ignore that inappropriate feeling of warmth and connection as she stared back at him, determined not to look away.
Peter blinked first. And nodded. “You’re right,” he said. “Also, the point of this story is… to share. I have to get used to the fact that if I’m uncomfortable, that means we’re probably doing this right.” He met her eyes again. “Right?”
“Yes. Right,” Shayla said as Harry laughed and whispered Oh my God is this guy real? I need you to have sex with him, immediately. “Shhhh—sure! Absolutely!” She cleared her throat and focused on the computer. “Where were we…? Ah.”
I was safe in the quiet of her garden. And I quickly established a routine of stopping in for an early-morning swim, before heading off to the pain in my ass that was school.
Anyway, that long introduction—how I met Hiroko—brings us to a foggy San Diego morning, several weeks later.
I’m sure you can guess what’s coming, since you already know that Hiroko was Lisa’s great-aunt. She’s Lisa’s grandfather’s youngest sister, and was childhood friends with Kiyo, Lisa’s grandmother.
But back then, I didn’t know about that connection and I was caught off-guard.
I’d seen Lisa at school. It would’ve been hard to miss her. She was a senior and one of the popular kids. She had the lead in the school play, she was dating the school basketball star, she was the prom queen.… I stayed far away. I had no time for any of that. But Lisa had this charisma. When she walked down the hall, it was impossible to look away.
So. Foggy morning. I drove over, parked in the driveway, and went for my swim.
Hiroko had an outside shower—a small, wooden, open-aired stall attached to the side of her little cottage. I used it to rinse the salt from my skin before I changed and went to class.
Sometimes she was awake and in her kitchen. On those days she always shared her breakfast with me.
But sometimes, probably when she hadn’t slept much the night before—insomnia was her mortal enemy—her kitchen door was tightly closed, and the windows were dark.
This was one of those shuttered mornings.
I was quiet as I came, barefoot, up from the beach. I silently unlatched the gate to the garden, and went around to the back of the house.
I was running late, so I went for the efficiency of pulling off my trunks and hanging them over the clothesline on my way to the shower. I swung open the door, turned on the water, and was underneath the spray before I realized I was not alone in there.
Lisa was sitting on the bench where I’d left my clothes for school.
That was as far as they’d gotten. “So yeah, that was awkward” was how Peter had concluded the story when he’d first recounted it. “We talked, she made sure I wasn’t taking advantage of her aunt, and, well, that was that.”
Except for the part where he’d been naked in front of a girl he couldn’t keep himself from watching when she walked down the high school corridor.
“We’re gonna need a few more details,” Shayla said briskly now.
Telling a story-within-the-story—and letting third-person-POV characters use first person pronouns to do it—can bring us new insights about our characters. Have you ever allowed one of your characters to tell a story, only to discover a secret or a truth that you-the-writer didn’t yet know?
After childhood plans to become the captain of a starship didn’t pan out, Suzanne Brockmann took her fascination with military history, her respect for the men and women who serve, her reverence for diversity, and her love of storytelling, and explored brave new worlds as a New York Times bestselling romance author. Over the past twenty-three years she has written more than fifty-five novels, including her award-winning Troubleshooters series about Navy SEAL heroes and the women—and sometimes men—who win their hearts. In addition to writing books, Suz has co-produced two feature-length LGBTQ movies, the award-winning romantic comedy The Perfect Wedding, and the thriller Russian Doll. She is also the publisher and editor of an m/m line of category romances called Suzanne Brockmann Presents. Her latest Troubleshooters novel, Some Kind of Hero, is out now in hardcover and ebook from Ballantine, and in audio from Blackstone.
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Suzanne Brockmann’s signature mix of high-octane action and electrifying passion leaves readers breathless—and eager for more of her ultra-sexy operatives. Now, the author USA Today hails as “the reigning queen of military suspense” makes an explosive return to her bestselling Troubleshooters series.
Navy men don’t come tougher than Lieutenant Peter Greene. Every day he whips hotshot SEAL wannabes into elite fighters. So why can’t he handle one fifteen-year-old girl? His ex’s death left him a single dad overnight, and very unprepared. Though he can’t relate to an angsty teen, he can at least keep Maddie safe—until the day she disappears. Though Pete’s lacking in fatherly intuition, his instinct for detecting danger is razor sharp. Maddie’s in trouble. Now he needs the Troubleshooters team at his back, along with an unconventional ally.
Romance writer Shayla Whitman never expected to be drawn into a real-world thriller—or meet a hero who makes her pulse pound. Action on the page is one thing. Actually living it is another story. Shay’s not as bold as her heroines, but she’s a mother. She sees the panic in her new neighbor’s usually fearless blue eyes—and knows there’s no greater terror for a parent than having a child at risk. It’s an ordeal Shay won’t let Pete face alone. She’s no highly trained operative, but she’s smart, resourceful, and knows what makes teenagers tick.
Still, working alongside Pete has its own perils—like letting the heat between them rise out of control. Intimate emotions could mean dangerous, even deadly, consequences for their mission. No matter what, they must be on top of their game, and playing for keeps . . . or else Pete’s daughter may be gone for good.