A Tale of Two Tales)
I have previously mentioned the idea of a story being bookended by another. This would be like the Grandfather reading a story to his sick grandson in the Princess Bride, or Roger Kint telling his story to police detective Dave Kujan in The Usual Suspects. The bulk of the story is through the inner narrative, but there are a few moments where we see it connect to the outer one.
Arguably there is just one story, though, the larger inner one, and the other stuff is an enhancement of it. But what if there truly were two stories that stood side-by-side in the same narrative?
This is a common phenomenon in the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Many times a case opens with a client coming to Holmes and recounting the events that led them to his doorstep. And these aren’t just quick summations, they are elaborated from a first-person perspective, telling an entire tale on their own. Then, only after this first story is completed does the second story pick up, that of Sherlock Holmes solving the case.
An excellent example of this is The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb. In this mystery Victor Hatherly comes to Holmes’ abode with a chilling tale and a bandaged hand. He recounts how he was hired for an engineering task at an old mansion, but was blindfolded so that he did not know where it was. While doing his work he discovered that the mansion was being used for some sort of criminal operation. The owner’s of the mansion got wise to his epiphany, though, and tried to kill him, resulting in a chase where Victor escaped but his thumb was chopped off along the way!
The story now returns to the present moment, where Holmes deciphers the true intentions of the criminals, figures out the location of the mansion, and leads the police in a raid on the facility, only to discover that the place was already destroyed by a fire that Victor Hatherly inadvertently caused while he was there.
There is a strange feeling when Holmes and the others go the mansion, because it the first time that he has been there, but it feels like it is both the first and the second time for us, the audience. Were we there with Hatherly during his eventful evening, or were we sitting in Holmes’ study only hearing about it secondhand?
Well…both. It is a very strange and interesting sensation, being able to exist in two different scenes at the same time, and it is a quality I enjoy a great deal from this mystery.
There is another famous detective who also has his stories split in two. The TV series Columbo was unique in that it always let the audience know beforehand who the murderer was, and exactly how they carried out their crime. The first half hour of each episode was always dedicated to following the murderer as the main character, showing the meticulous details of their crime and how they tried to cover up any clues that tied them to it.
Take, for example, the episode Fade in to Murder, which is incredibly meta by making the murderer an actor who plays a television detective. Ward Fowler is a star of the silver screen, but his entire career has been overshadowed by the blackmailing of his show’s producer. Finally he decides that he has had enough, and he stages an elaborate scheme to rid himself of her for good. First he sets up an alibi by inviting a friend over to watch a ball game, then drugs the man while he goes out to commit the crime. Fowler then stages a robbery at the deli where his producer, Claire Daley, is ordering her meal. After knocking the deli owner unconscious he shoots Claire, assuming that the police will see this as a simple case of a robbery gone too far. Finally Fowler returns to his home, rewinds the VCR on which he has been recording the ball game, setting it back to the moment where his friend went unconscious and rouses him, making the man think he had only been passed out for a few minutes.
And that ends the first story, and now begins a new one as Lieutenant Columbo arrives to investigate the case. Bit-by-bit the detective finds things that don’t add up in the case. For example the bullet hole in Claire Daley’s jacket is above the entry wound in her back, suggesting that she still had her arms raised when the robber shot her, suggesting that she wasn’t running away or making a scene, suggesting that the killing was deliberate.
As Columbo zeroes in on Ward Fowler we feel another strange split of perspective, just as we did with Sherlock Holmes. Because of the time we spent with Ward Fowler as our main character we feel sympathetic to him. Part of us wants to see his ingenious strategy come off. But at the same time Columbo is our main character now, and we are charmed by his ingenuity, too. Are we supposed to view this as Columbo’s triumph or Fowler’s tragedy? Well…both.
My Own Story)
In my latest chapter of The Salt Worms I had the main character start to recount his journey from the eastern United States to the west. When I first wrote this it was a very brief summation, something that I rushed through to get back to the main event. And it worked, and I think that version of the story could have been maintained, but as I thought about this idea of a story split in two, I realized that I had an opportunity to slow things down and show the protagonist’s journey as a story of its own.
So then I revised and expanded it, and will continue doing so as the overall narrative proceeds. One thing that I am going to be careful about that, though, is to make sure both stories matter to one another. Only together will they provide the two halves that I want for The Salt Worms. Two halves that come together and tell of a grim resolution to correct a terrible situation, but all of it tinged with an uncertainty of success at the end.