Stories Within Stories: A Consideration of Novel Structure (Cloud Atlas, Starless Sea, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler)

Stories are funny things. Character, setting, and plot get all twisted together to create something magical, capable of transporting the reader out of the present and into some fictional place of curious make-believe. It’s a fickle process, too. Books that shouldn’t work can sometimes turn out to be biggest craze of the season. Other times, an author can do everything right–taking due care with the plot, the characters, the setting–only for it to fall apart when brought together.

When the art of storytelling takes on a mystique of its own, the process just as magical and curious as the product itself, it is perhaps no wonder that some might wish to make a case study out of it. From those case studies, we get the likes of Cloud Atlas (David Mitchell), Starless Sea (Erin Morgenstern), and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler (Italo Calvino), the last of which was the spark for this idea.

In this post, we’ll discuss the structural format of the above books. We’ll consider what conclusions can be reached about storytelling as a result of the abnormal format, and what these conclusions might tell us about the art of storytelling even for books that are told in their more traditional, straightforward form. Warning: spoilers abound. If you’re not planning on reading these books, or if you have already, you should be fine, but I will be discussing overall themes, and that will include at least a few major spoilers.

Book Overviews

Starless Sea follows Zachary Rawlins, who stumbles across a book of short stories and is surprised to find that one of them is about a scene of his own life, on that no one else could possibly know about. This leads him on a quest to the Starless Sea, a fantastical place full of magic and mystery, pirates and star-crossed lovers… the place in which all stories come from. The book is divided into six parts, and in addition to the overall narrative, each part offers snippets of a fictional book of stories, many of which seem to be of a fantastical nature until later on in the story, where their relevance is revealed.

In a similar vein, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler involves a Reader who opens up a new book only to find that, halfway through, the story ends abruptly. From there, the Reader finds himself on a bizarre quest that keeps leading him to half-finished manuscripts rather than the finished ends to the books he started reading before. The book is divided into twelve chapters and ten short stories, the latter of which are the half-finished manuscripts that the Reader gets his hands on.

Then, finally, Cloud Atlas: considering the way that lives can be connected to one another, it is broken up into eleven parts, six stories that are sandwiched together. There is the journal of Adam Ewing from the 1800s (roughly), letters written by Robert Frobisher in 1931, a fictionalized murder mystery written by Luisa Rey from 1975, a comical recounting of Timothy Cavendish’s adventures in 2012, an interview with an errant “fabricant” by the name of Sonmi-451 in 2044, and, finally, an orated recounting by Zachry of his own adventures in what was dubbed “106 post fall.” After Zachry’s story is concluded, the first halves of the previous stories unfold in reverse order, connecting them all.

What is a Story? The Novel Experience As Told Through If On A Winter’s Night a Traveler

The plot of Calvino’s novel unfolds thusly: after returning to the bookstore to get the complete copy of his novel, the Reader meets the Other Reader, Ludmilla, and also learns that there’s been a printing error, a mixing up of authors. By chasing down the supposedly correct author, the Reader finds himself presented with yet another half-finished manuscript. Following these breadcrumbs, the Reader meets a professor who translates half of the wrong manuscript, then a study group who only has access to a small chunk of another wrong manuscript. Eventually, the Reader is introduced to the plot of the nefarious translator, Ermes Marana, who made it his personal goal to destroy any books Ludmilla might get her hands on after being spurned by her.

It’s a very bizarre story, one that at face value suggests that books are so powerful that readers will literally fly across the world to read a whole story. But, considering the logic quickly devolves into the nonsensical–the real reader undoubtedly understands quite quickly that no one in their right mind would go to half the lengths that the Reader went through to see to the books’ ends–it must go beyond that. In truth, the book uses these odd tangents to consider the end goal of a novel. From the author’s end, what stories are worth being shared? Is a novel separate and whole on its own, or should it be connected to the present, a social commentary of sorts? And from the reader’s end, what is the goal of reading? Solely for the pleasure of reading? Or for academic pursuits?

What Captivates the Reader?

An interesting thing to note about the samples of “stories” included in the novel is that they vary on subject matter, on genre, on intended audience. From several spy stories to narratives involving kidnappings to weird, uncomfortable “novels” about culture clashes. Even more important is the fact that most of them aren’t all that interesting. They don’t feel like books that someone would go halfway around the world to chase down, especially not when there is a “thick barricade of Books You Haven’t Read” and all those sub-categories that fall into it, like “the phalanxes of the Books You Mean to Read But There Are Others You Must Read First” or, past “the towers of the fortress, where other troops are holding out: the Books You’ve Been Planning to Read For Ages…the Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer…the Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified” (pg 5). (As a reader, I felt very called out by this whole passage.)

I always write down my thoughts in a notebook after finishing a story to make the book reviews a little easier and more coordinated. One of my biggest points for If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler was the fact that the inserted stories seemed to undermine Calvino’s intent more than support it. The truth is that a book must capture a reader’s attention as quickly as possible, but a reader is unlikely to get truly invested in the story until nearer the halfway point, where character arcs are half-complete, tough choices are presented to them, and the stakes are starting to rise. The farther a reader gets into a story, the harder it is, I think, to DNF it. But Calvino doesn’t even really offer the first half of these fictional novels. More likely, it’s a chapter’s worth, if that.

Information is the death of mystery, and for something as conceptual as what is the point of a story? the less information we’re given about these books that so enraptured the Reader, the more alluring and intriguing they might have seemed.

The Starless Sea and The Magical String Tying Together Real Life and Mystical Narratives

If Calvino’s take on stories was somewhat cynical, Morgenstern is anything but. Starless Sea doesn’t so much consider the power of a narrative as it does show it. The titular Starless Sea is a magical place, and alongside it is connected the equally magical Harbors. To get there, one must travel through a door painted by Fate, and once in the Harbor, one has access to absolutely stunning magical stories. Of course, considering the fantastical elements of the novel, it makes sense that Morgenstern would likewise wish to capture the magic of stories.

Protagonist Zachary Rawlins finds himself helping the Keeper and Mirabel, the present iterations of the star-crossed lovers, Fate and Time. The Harbor itself records all the stories of the people who live or visit there, and no one has lived there longer than these two entities. Conflating the concepts of these inescapable, ineffable entities with the core mysticism surrounding a good story posits the thesis that, if nothing else, we create magic in the real world by the stories that we tell.

What Keeps the Reader Invested?

It is widely accepted fact that breaking the reader away from the main plot to distract them with something not immediately relevant to the story is a very good way to frustrate and turn off the reader. Most commonly, this is used to discourage writers from writing numerous, lengthy flashback scenes, but it holds true for short story inserts as well. Both in Calvino’s work and in Morgenstern’s, the protagonist is reading the same “books” that the reader is. On their own, these short stories would have been interesting to consider had it just been part of short story collection. Inserting them into an overarching narrative–taking the time away from the story to provide the reader these snippets–suggests that they’re important, but for a reader invested in the main plot, the shifting protagonists of the side stories are nothing more than a distraction.

We return to the crux of reading: emotional investment. A novel’s job is to determine the protagonist of the story, the one that the reader will be following. With each choice the protagonist must make, each shift in their arc, and each rise of stakes, the reader gets more and more emotionally invested. Readers can grow emotionally attached to side characters as well, provided their own arc promises a payoff regarding their own arcs and personal stakes. Obviously, both Starless Sea and If On a Winter’s Night have their protagonists: Zachary for the former, the Reader for the latter. Characters that are part of Starless Sea‘s main narrative, like Mirabel, Dorian, and the Keeper, are side characters that promise emotional payoff of their own, and as a result, the reader is willing to get emotionally invested in their own arcs.

Although The Starless Sea later reveals the relevance of the short story snippets, for much of the story, the reader doesn’t really understand why they’re being given this extra information. Some of the short stories connect, such as one relatively early on about a pirate, but there is not enough substance to the connection to promise that same emotional investment that the reader can get from the protagonists. Furthermore, Morgenstern prefers a more whimsical narrative style, even more so for her story snippets. (Not all, but most, like “Sweet Sorrows,” “Fortunes and Fables,” and “Written in the Stars.”) The abstraction is supposed to add to that mystical air of storytelling in general, but it also adds a barrier between the reader and the characters of the short stories. They get to know a romanticized version of the characters rather than the characters themselves, and while it can be beautiful to read, it doesn’t do much for that ever-important emotional investment. And, with the stories’ relevance being questionable for much of the novel, many of the short stories simply feel like those unnecessary flashback sequences all writers are warned about.

Stories that Transcend Time and Space with Cloud Atlas

I do not add Mitchell’s novel because I think it is the superior format to the previously mentioned novels. With due consideration, the alternating narrative structures of both Starless Sea and If On a Winter’s Night could be replicated without harming or detracting from the overall story. Rather, I think Cloud Atlas is worth considering because it seeks to answer a similar question about the power of stories using a format separate from the two previously mentioned.

Rather than write a “main” narrative that is interrupted constantly by another, Cloud Atlas is comprised of six narratives that interrupt each other. Robert Frobisher finds the half-finished diary of Adam Ewing, Frobisher’s lover Sixsmith winds up helping Luisa Rey uncover a plot involving a nuclear power plant, an event which Rey writes about and Timothy Cavendish receives as a manuscript. Cavendish’s flight from gangsters and forced confinement from his brother is turned into a film that Sonmi-451 watches as her first act of rebellion, later resulting in her leading a revolution and being deified, her stories and wisdoms passed on to the last protagonist, Zachry.

What Makes a Story Stick With a Reader?

Never once does David Mitchell posit that one well-crafted story could change the course of a person’s life. Frobisher is not obsessed with finding the other half of Ewing’s journal like Calvino’s Reader is. He’s fascinated by it, but it is just one mystery amongst more pressing matters involving the opportunistic composer Ayrs. Rey stumbles across Frobisher’s letters, but they hold no bearing on her journalist mission. And so on.

If these stories are nothing more than a passing mention, does that imply that Mitchell believes they’re less powerful than Morgenstern or Calvino believes? I don’t think so. Instead, Cloud Atlas considers the power of a narrative in a more realistic, grounded sense. Most readers won’t go to great lengths to pursue a fragment of a story. They won’t get themselves invited into a really weird party or step through magic doors. They won’t cross borders or talk to weird professors. We’re the shy type, after all. (Broadly speaking.) But if a story is compelling enough, it will brighten the reader’s life. It will convince them that bravery and goodness still exists in the world, even amidst a whole basket of rottenness. And sometimes, this plants a seed of bravery, an alignment of morals that allows someone to be brave in the moment of truth. (E.g. Sonmi’s “I will not be subjected to criminal abuse,” at least from the movie.)

More than that, each of these parts details the life of an in-world person. By saying the fictionalization of their stories influences the next round of characters, Cloud Atlas insists that acts of bravery have a rippling effect. Despite the time and physical distance that separates these six protagonists, their lives are forever interlinked by the passing on of their stories. The novel, by extension, promises the rippling power of the reader’s own life, a beautiful, poignant message to leave the reader. Of course, the minimalist impact the previous half-story has on the current part can add to the frustration of constantly restarting with a new cast of characters, but with the integration of the previous story into the present one and with the obvious promise of actually getting to finish each half of the story–that, coupled with the rather interesting shifts in writing style, tone, and even dialect–makes Cloud Atlas a rather interesting read, less pretentious than Calvino’s and more grounded than Morgenstern’s.


However much a cliche it might be, these three books remind us that the magic of the story is not in the starting point or the destination, but rather the journey. On the other hand, the journey is not interesting on its own. The contrast between the starting point and the destination create friction: difficult choices that lead to tension, a disparity between who the protagonist is and who they need to be. The halting structure of their own narrative, the broken fragments of each part, considers the meaning, the effects, of a half-finished story.

What does this mean for a traditionally-written novel? Well, If on a Winter’s Night‘s Silas Flannery stresses as an author over the kind of stories he needs to be writing, and their overall relevance to the goings-on of the world. Does he crank out easy stories to make money, or does he write about things needing written? But, ironically, the Reader later finds a group of other readers in a library, and they all discuss the various reasons for reading. For enjoyment? For academic pursuits? No matter the author’s intent, the reader will choose what lens with which to read a book. Even a scholastically written book like Cloud Atlas could be read for enjoyment. Even a formulaic book, like murder mysteries, like Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie, can be studied.

As a writer, that simply means we must create a good story regardless of authorial intent. Even writing a socially relevant book or an experimental novel needs to be interesting enough to keep the reader invested, or else there’s no point to the story. Pretentious books along the lines of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler gets us nowhere because its convoluted narrative makes it easy for the point to get lost. It may seem like stating the obvious, but it’s true. Stories do have power. They do have their own spark of magic. Maybe not to the degree that The Starless Sea implies, but that’s okay. As long as authors remember that their stories have power, that they are careful of the morals they sow within their readers, the influence that a novel can have on a person can be quite inspiring.


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