Thursday, January 28, 2010

Fun with Droste

The Droste Effect is named for a Dutch cocoa maker that employed a recursive image (an image which contains an image of itself that contains an image of itself that contains an image of itself, etc.) on its tin.

Escher had a lot of fun with the Droste Effect, too, which can be explained mathematically. If you loop a droste effect image, you can create a little piece of infinity, ala Rooney Design's Christmas Zoom Movie.

In fiction, we have a similar term -- mise en abyme* which is the practice of telling a story within a story. Usually this takes form as a character within the story telling a story, as Stephen King is quite fond of over-doing to the point of where I want to slap some duct tape over the mouth of every old guy who walks into one of his scenes. But for the sake of this post (and because the Dragon is not fond of French) I'll refer to the story-within-a-story device as droste.

If you look at them sideways, prologues and epilogues can be viewed as droste, as they're usually about what happened before and after the central story. Flashbacks, or prologue that is scattered throughout the story, is a form of droste, and so are those revelatory dream sequences. But the most common use of droste is usually delivered through dialogue as a character delivers backstory, a revelation, or something else that until that point has not been explained or made obvious:

Heather collapsed into the chair in front of the mirror, laughing until tears rolled down her satiny cheeks. "M-M-Morning Cloud?"

One of Nathan’s now-winged ebony brows rose. "It’s the special name I gave you when we were children playing together in the secret flower-covered meadow on the reservation where your father owned the general store and cheated my relatives for every dime he could get and beat you regularly but I still loved you and swore one day we’d be married which is why I’m defending you against the murder charges you were framed for."

Heather covered her face with her slim hands as her shoulders shook. When she could speak again, she said, "Hand me a beer, Running Bear."

"Bird. Running Bird."

"Whatever." She caught the can he tossed to her and drained it in five swallows. "I can’t keep doing this, pal."

Nathan’s other brow rose. "Oh, like I’m having the time of my life?" He stared at the pizza. "We haven’t eaten since Gena made us stop at the diner back in Nevada, and you threw your food at me --"

"That was to get you back for kidnapping me from the school for the retarded children where I was a much-beloved teacher and forcing me into your pickup truck and driving me out of the state before I could be arrested for the murder of my ex-husband who was never able to consummate our marriage due to an unspecified health problem and consequently treated me like dirt," she reminded him.

Aside from my little romance parody here (the rest of which you can read in my freebie Sink or Swim), these standard deliveries are all perfectly acceptable, and there's no reason why you shouldn't use them. But I think it can be fun to play with other forms of droste storytelling, and find new ways to incorporate these stories within the story without resorting to the tried and true.

Hand-written Artifacts: letters, journals, memos, reports, and all the other paper ephemera of life contain a lot of information, often in a neat package. Jane Austen was quite fond of having her characters write plaintive letters to each other to explain things, and in our generation we're seeing novelists do the same with voice mails, e-mails and texts. How about graffiti, shopping lists, or half-finished crossword puzzles? Anything written is game as droste.

Lyrical Fragments: Foreshadowing quotes from songs and poetry can be found in every other book on the shelf, but there is more to music and verse than Bob Dylan and Robert Frost. Consider the droste possibilities in opera, rap, chants, prayer, folk songs, marching cadences and meditations. And speaking of poetry, I'd love to see backstory delivered in original limericks, or haiku, or villanelles.

Everything in Print: we've all seen the droste newspaper headline or short article, but why not draw on other sources of news? Severe weather warnings or other community alerts that run across the bottom of the TV like ticker tape can be very dramatic, so can lab test results, a performance report, a page from a police blotter or a middle school student's typed science project outline (I used that one in Dreamveil, btw.)

When you weave a story within your story, you are in essence interrupting the reader, so the main point is to make it worth it. One of the most original and effective forms of droste storytelling I've seen in recent years were in Stephenie Meyer's New Moon, specifically pages 85 - 92 (hardcover edition). The pages list a single word -- the current month -- but are otherwise blank. They're not even numbered. This is because the protagonist, who narrates the book, is in such a terrible depression that she falls silent, and these pages are the only thing to tell us of her misery and that these months are passing -- without her or the author having to utter a single word.

Look around you and see if you can spot some unusual form of droste in your corner of the world. For a couple of weeks last fall I drove past one property whose owner kept in the front yard a hand-painted plywood sign with brief heartfelt messages for a woman we'll call Sandra, always punctuated with a blue heart, and positioned so they could be read from the road (obviously so she would read them whenever she drove past.) The messages were loving and G-rated, and could have just been a romantic gesture from a really cool guy, but it was the little blue heart that told me things were not so rosy.

I looked for and read the signs every time I drove past, and I still wonder if they disappeared because he gave up or they got back together. Maybe this fall he'll finish the story for me with a blue stork-shaped sign that reads It's a Boy!

*The French phrase was derived from a practice in heraldry of putting the image of a small shield on a larger one.


  1. Oh sheesh - curiosity would have gotten to me by now and I'd have stopped and asked! (Well, maybe not. But I'd have seriously considered it.)

    That sounds like a real-life version of that country song, where the guy has a message on his machine for the girl who left. I think it's called Austin?

    My kidlets did Nano last fall. One of them surprised me with random news or advertisement interruptions every so often in the story. Since they were sometimes related and sometimes totally irrelevant, it was amusing and occasionally enlightening.

    I turned it into a learning experience and explained the idea of the 4th wall... but I was rather promptly informed that he'd done it not out of any higher purpose, but because he'd run out of things to say!

  2. So that's what it is called! ( I'm often illiterate.)
    Thank you very much!
    Am in the process of outlining a novelella/novel where I plan to do it's lovely to know the mechanics have a name.
    I remember another chocolate maker who used the same technique (Ganongs?)- the chocolate box had a picture of a girl holding a chocolate box with a picture of a girl holding a chocolate box... From that I understood (in a dim, 8-year old way) infinity.

  3. Shawna, that's awesome. :)

    you always get my thinking, PBW! I love the love sign story, of course.

    this is kinda like hamlet, right? (was it hamlet?) the play within the play?

  4. Excellent post, once again. I wonder what happened with the sign fella and the lady. That's a really neat thing that he did.

  5. Jess, it's Midsummer Night's Dream and the play within is Pyramus and Thisbe. I directed that as a one act in high school which is why I remember it so well.

    Lynn, I LOVE this post! In one of my stories, I have a found diary. In another, I have a short dream, but I felt a bit guilty about using it because I see the proverbial "don't do this" so often, don't use dreams, don't have a prologue, don't have an epilogue, don't have an epilogue with babies, don't, don't, don't, until I almost don't want to work on my story because it contains something, that's supposed to be a no-no.

    And I too want to know about the blue hearts if you ever find out!

  6. Jess & nightsmusic - there is a play within a play in Hamlet too, where Hamlet stages a play that mimics the murder of his father.

    The blue heart sign story reminds me of something that happened in my area:

    This guy lived on a hillside that was right next to a freeway (101 near San Jose, CA). He cut out several sheep from plywood, painted them, and wrote messages for his girl on them. After a while, he proposed! (The sheep announced, after this, "she said yes!")

    Well, after she agreed to marry him, the sheep were retired. I guess there was no further purpose for them... until one day they reappeared. These messages were somewhat cryptic, things like "do a little dance." After several weeks of obscure messages, the sheep told us that the couple was going to have a baby!

    I miss the sheep, though. They haven't been around in quite some time.

  7. Ahh, interesting. Now I'm thinking of new ways to tell backstory. My current WIP has a lot of it, after all, and so far I've got character recitation, news sources, scientific reports, and a few other things. I've been wanting to include some hand-written artifacts but haven't found a good way to incorporate them.

    And I agree with your New Moon example. People like to rag on that series a lot, and while I do agree with most of the criticisms, occasionally Stephenie Meyer had a flash of brilliance or luck, and the use of months was one of them. The lack of words on those pages said much more than pages and pages of reflection on her depression could have. It's a strategy I don't think a lot of authors have realized yet.

  8. I'm not sure, but I think I've see this in book excellently done, hence I didn't really notice it, until I read your post and it reminded me of the book...Tana French's Likeness.

    Her use of language is pretty awesome.

  9. Thanks for a really interesting post. I hadn't realised that effect had a name.

    I love the sheep and signs ideas! They're so lovely. What nice young men (we hope).

    I must agree with Kristin, the series get a lot of stick but I do think Stephenie Meyer did brilliantly with that because, as Kristin says, not only do the names imply much more than *could* be written. It also means we don't have to read through four months of "Woe is me" which I think is *brilliant*.

    The ever-repeating image thing reminded me of something from a Terry Pratchett novel about how, with two mirrors facing each other you also have an infinite loop. Apparently, according to Discworld lore, if you stand between two mirrors you start to lose your soul...

  10. the recursive also occurs in films and paintings.

    stories within stories are very Borges

  11. I used this technique in a paranormal novella (Whiskey Tango Foxtrot) recently. The story opens with a single journal entry written by the original owner of a haunted house. Later in the story, the protagonists find the journal, which tells the tale of how the house became haunted. One entry is missing -- the one that serves as the prologue to the book. This means the readers know something the protags don't know for a few chapters.

    Eventually the protags find the missing entry, and it gives them the clue they need to thwart the Big Bad and save the day.

    I got the idea from Stephen King's story, "Jerusalem's Lot," which is a prequel to his more famous novel, 'Salem's Lot,, and is told entirely through letters and journal entries. Most readers of the short story already know the village of 'Salem's Lot is infected with vampires because they have read the novel, which is what gave me the idea of using a missing entry as a prologue.

    I love this device. I hope I get a chance to use it again.

  12. Since I spent much of my teens in the Netherlands, I am quite familiar with Droste's cocoa, though I didn't know that its distinctive tin lent its name to the recursive image effect.

    Actually, the image that most prominently comes to mind as an illustration of the Droste effect is a French Impressionist painting I saw in an art book my parents had. Unfortunately, I don't know the name of the artist without looking it up in the book, but it is a self portrait, showing the artist from behind. He is aboard a boat, hunched over his canvas painting a self-portrait, showing the artist from behind, hunched over his canvas... I always loved the cleverness of that painting.

    Regarding literary Drostes, I have used newspaper articles in the past as well as the more traditional one character revealing dark secret backstory to another in dialogue, which can easily be a bit clumsy. In my current WIP, I use newspapers again, a bunch of forty year old newspapers where hidden among the real headlines of the summer of 1967 (I had a lot of fun looking those up, particularly as a few real life news stories of the time fit the themes of the story astonishingly well) is the fictional crime that is an important part of one character's backstory. I later on use a letter to give a pretty good hint at what really happened. I was considering to leave it open, but both the character (the son of the main suspect) and the readers deserved some resolution.

    This post has also given me an idea how to resolve an inelegant backstory dump problem in a novel that I have been stalled on for quite some time now. The problem is largely due to the fact that it's first person, so I either need to have the narrator thinking about the backstory or retelling it to another character.

  13. Sounds like Diana Gabaldon's technique which she calls Elided POV would fall under this category. See this forum discussion. She uses it quite a bit, and successfully in my opinion.

  14. Anonymous9:52 AM

    Brilliant analogy! Like fractals :)


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