Lately I keep thinking about an odd metric for thinking about prose fiction: the amount of stories per story.
I really like stories that have a lot of other, smaller stories embedded within them, like a glittery mosaic. A rich, layered world is often one where there are stories everywhere you look — and the same goes for a complex, interesting character. A really interesting story, often as not, is one that atomizes down into a bunch of smaller stories that feed into the main narrative.
This happens at different levels.
Like, most novels and novellas will have subplots, which can intersect with the main plot but also have some "story-stuff" of their own. And the supporting cast in a story could have their own personal story arcs. Sometimes you get a novel that started out as a bunch of short stories set in the world but were then edited together into one book, and you can still kind of see the individual tales pulling in different directions.
I'm also super fond of novels that include short fables, tales or snippets of some narrative the main character is reading: a recent example that I adore is The Story of the Hundred Promises by Neil Cochrane, where Darragh the sailor reads two sets of folk tales in which the same enchanter is either a hero or a monster. I'm a total simp for "found documents" and in-world narratives that the characters are consuming while they also move through whatever situations the book is throwing at them.
But when I think about "stories per story," I also think of something a bit more... atomized. How many of the details in the story, how many of the touchstones, contain stories of their own? Characters can have backstories, but so can places and things.
Here's a description of a smallish New England town that I think is pretty well written:
My neck itches from the summer heat by the time I roll into Big Time City. A single smokestack belches out tiny puffs of smoke every few seconds, and the one nightclub on the outskirts of town, the Hell Yeah Club, is shut down for renovation. Actual crabgrass sprouts through the pavement in the parking lot, and a starchy, sweaty tang soaks into the air. The one cafe/wine bar, the Occasional, has a weird sculpture garden outside: statues of dogs and sharks made out of scrap metal and driftwood. The Occasional's jukebox is stuck playing the same mournful Joni Mitchell CD all the time, but there's a cheerful rainbow flag hung askew in one corner. I've been to a dozen towns like this, and Big Time is more cheerful than most: everyone smiles at me when I cruise past the Chinese restaurant and the half-abandoned office park.
That was pretty good, right? I mean, considering I wrote it in like fifteen minutes. But here's a description of the same town where everything is a story:
Big Time City's name has gotten more ironic since the last time I visited: the one remaining textile mill is all but shut down permanently after that wildcat strike went wrong, and the brick towers no longer paint the sky gray. They still haven't reopened the Hell Yeah Club since Mercy Petersen set fire to it last year in a drunken rage, and Main Street has a lot more boarded-up empty storefronts. The Occasional still hasn't fixed their jukebox since Jeffy Finch tried to annoy everybody by playing a Phish CD five times in a row, and now it only plays Joni Mitchell's Blue. The Occasional is pulling triple duty now: coffee shop during the day, wine bar at night, and low-key queer venue all the time since Daisy and Jenny bought it. Walking around town, I can see how the waves of capitalism have crashed against its walls: along Springhill, a row of houses abandoned after the wave of mortgage defaults in '08; on Ferris Way, the tech-friendly office park that never found enough tenants and now just houses herbal supplements.
I like both versions a lot, but the second version feels more lived in. Adding in all of the weird backstories about Marcy the arsonist, the lesbian couple who bought the coffee shop, and Jeffy the jukebox saboteur makes it feel more like a real place to me. It feels... more specific. Less like a lee press-on town, maybe. And the mentions of how this town is just a random artifact but rather a victim of capitalism's depredations give it a bit more context, and maybe more dignity? I dunno. The first version is timeless in a bad way, like it's suspended in a void where time doesn't exist, but the second version has a sense of change.
It's like I talk about in my book Never Say You Can't Survive -- shameless plug alert! --- when your worldbuilding includes how things have changed in the past, you can have an easier time imagining how they'll change in the future.
The other thing about these two versions is that the second feels more intimate than the first: the narrator knows the town and the people, and there's a familiarity. In the first version, the narrator is looking in from outside, and the town feels smaller and sadder. Packing in all those details about why things are the way they are gives more realism and adds more, I dunno, texture.
Nothing ever springs up out of nowhere fully formed, unless we're talking about pre-fab houses and sports stadiums. Everything comes from somewhere and is shaped by countless happenstances.
This is something I had to think about when I was revising The City in the Middle of the Night, a book which has a buttload of worldbuilding because of the whole "exoplanet colonized by humans generations ago" thing. (FYI "buttload of worldbuilding" is the official writer term of art for "a massive amount of worldbuilding." I had a nearly-finished draft of City that was pretty similar to the published version, including all of the details about daily life on the planet January and so on.
But when I showed City to my friend Claire Light, she said the worldbuilding still felt too surface -- like it was complex but lacking in depth and weight and all that stuff. That's when I went back and added more of a sense of history to all the places and things, including the different types of stone that were available to builders at different points in the history of Xiosphant. And all the games that had changed over time. And all the different wars that still left their marks in the form of monuments but also damage and cultural memory. And I made it clearer that the relationship between the two main cities on January had shifted over time. And a ton of other stuff. As soon as I added more backstory and sidestory and aroundstory for all the places and things, January started to feel more like a living place.
So this is just another way of thinking about writing: I often find a really good story is made up of a ton of smaller stories, like building blocks or facets, which enrich the whole by adding more random choices and disasters and discoveries that people made a long time ago. How do you go about doing this? Just look at any object or building or artifact in your world and ask yourself, "How did it get to be the way it is now?" And then pick the answer that seems the most interesting and fertile.
Tower of Power is one of the all-time greatest funk bands --- honestly, the way some people feel about Lennon and McCartney as songwriters is the way I feel about Kupka and Castillo, who wrote such snarky jams as "What Is Hip?". And several years ago, "Doc" Kupka started his own tiny record label, Strokeland Records, to put out his own side projects, which range from blues to big-band jazz to straight-up funk. Seriously, google "Strokeland Records" and you'll find an incredible bounty, including a ton of stuff that sounds like Tower of Power at its best. Click on "Doc Kupka Presents" in the main menu for most of the goodies, but also check out DoctorFunk. I bought everything in the "Doc Kupka Presents" category a while back, and it's all gold.
ICYMI, I helped to create a transgender superhero for Marvel named Escapade. You can look at the archives of this newsletter for way more info about her, but she made her debut in Marvel Voices Pride 2022, and now she's appearing in New Mutants:
Above is the covers of Marvel Voices Pride as well as New Mutants #31-33, which I'm writing. Anyway, issue #32 of New Mutants comes out on December 7 (not 11/30 as some sites are claiming!) and I highly recommend you pick it up. I packed so much stuff into 20-ish pages of comics, including a lot about trauma, survival, ethics, and what we do to protect the people we love. This might be the first Marvel Comic with a discussion of deontology vs consequentialism! Honestly, this one issue of a comic book is super close to my heart and one of my favorite things I've written. It's out next week!
Also, in case you somehow missed it, I wrote a young adult trilogy! I just responded to final queries on the third book, Promises Stronger Than Darkness, which means it should be fully in production (and available on NetGalley etc.) very soon. I just had to re-read all of Promises in a hurry last week, and amazingly I still like it a lot -- which is almost never the case by the time you're dealing with page proofs on a novel. It feels like the right ending to this trilogy and it answers all of the thematic and character stuff I've been building up. I cannot wait for y'all to read it, and you can pre-order it right now! (And if you pre-order from Folio Books in San Francisco, I'll sign/personalize your copy and 10 percent of sales go to the TGI Justice Project, an organization for unhoused and formerly incarcerated trans people.)