The simple literary technique that’s changed my writing life—and will change yours, too.
Decades ago, when I started out as a magazine writer, I wanted to understand why I liked certain stories. I wanted to understand not only why they worked but how they worked. I spent hours reading and re-reading my favorite pieces and saw some of them used a literary technique common to the best novelists and authors. The technique was super powerful. I liked it so much I began to implement it myself.
It’s called The Nested Doll.
The Nested Doll is basically how a writer takes an anecdote from the past and embeds it within a present-day and forward-moving narrative. It’s easier to show this than tell it so let’s find an example.
Take this New Yorker profile. It’s about Ole Anthony, a pastor in Dallas who has a large following based on his earthy and ascetic interpretation of Jesus’ life. The present-day forward-moving narrative is very much about how Anthony, through his vows of poverty and minimalist lifestyle, attracts new people to his church and doctrine. At one point the writer of the piece, Burkhard Bilger, goes dumpster diving with Ole, who sifts through trash to help make ends meet. It’s riveting stuff, to see a man of God willingly act this way, and it is on one of these dumpster dives that Bilger gives the reader the Nested Doll.
Bilger explains how Ole, in the 1980s, snuck onto the properties of televangelists’ megachurches and dug through their trash too. Ole did it because he was looking for clues of the televangelists’ immoral behavior. He found a lot of it. That’s how he came to prominence, how he exposed the televangelists in ways the FBI and investigative reporters couldn’t: He sorted through the refuse for the records the televangelists were too ashamed to keep in their churches. The televangelists came to hate Ole, and the more they said his name, the more he dug through their trash, and the more he dug through their trash, the more uncouth and un-Christian behavior he found. (Ole helped bring down the once-ubiquitous Jimmy Swaggart.) Soon Ole Anthony became as big a deal in Christian circles as the televangelists he loathed and called hypocrites. (They said he was the anti-Christ.)
It’s an amazing extended anecdote, told from beginning to end, and Bilger relays it brilliantly. But then Bilger puts the cap back on the Nested Doll. He returns the reader to the present-day dumpster dive, unrelated to Ole’s famous searches of old, and tells the rest of the story of why Ole is still dumpster diving.
That’s the Nested Doll: The old anecdote, surrounded by the present-day story, within the forward-churning narrative.
The Nested Doll is simple but really effective. It gives stories rocket fuel. If you want other examples of this, pretty much the whole of Ann Patchett’s novel Commonwealth is a Nested Doll. It’s one of the best books I’ve read. In film, the sequence that reveals the tragedy at the heart of Manchester by the Sea is a Nested Doll: Starting in a lawyer’s office, moving into a searing flashback, and then returning to the lawyer’s office where the viewer has a new understanding of what’s happening in the scene.
The point of the Nested Doll is to nestle the best anecdote of the past within a fast-moving and forward-looking longform story or book or film. When it’s done well the story never slows down. It only speeds up.
Try it for yourself and let me know in the comments or by email what you think.
New to my writing? I’m a best-selling author and award-winning journalist who’s written for The New Yorker, GQ, ESPN, and New York, among other titles. My first book, The Saboteur, was optioned by DreamWorks to be turned into a film. I’m now at work on a second book for Celadon about a pivotal 10-week period in the Civil Rights Movement that still defines our lives.