1. A rock fragment foreign to the igneous mass in which it occurs. Xenoliths usually become incorporated into a cooling magma body when pieces of the rock into which the magma was injected break off and fall into it.
2. A fragment of rock embedded in another kind of rock.
You may be wondering at my choice of subject for X, specifically, what do rocks have to do with writing? Well, the answer is nothing really. But look at the definition for the xenolith – it’s a fragment of rock embedded in another kind of rock. This can occur in writing as well. And can be used quite effectively.
When I serialized book 2 and book 3 of my Elemental series (on a different blog) I started each installment with a journal entry that was very different from the main story. In effect, I had a different style of writing embedded in another kind of writing.
In the Woodwife, by Terri Windling, we not only have excerpts from the title poem at the beginning of each chapter, we have letters to and from a dead man that not only convey information, but add to the air of mystery.
Anne McCaffrey starts each chapter of her novel Dragonsong, with a verse or two of poetry that represents the songs used in the story. Again, one style of writing embedded in another style. I’m sure you’ve seen other examples. Journal entries, excerpts from historical texts (both imaginary and real), poetry, musical scores, I’ve even known an author to start each chapter with a riddle.
These styles within a style are not just random occurrences. They have purpose. They convey information. They add to the tension when they give us clues about what may happen next. They convey a sense of time and place that carries the story forward. They add to the atmosphere the author is trying to create.
In my own case, I chose to open each chapter with a journal entry to include details important to the story. The actual beginning of the story takes place before my main characters are even born. Despite the fact that there’s a lot of important stuff that takes place during this time, it would have made for a bad beginning. So instead I chose to include the information pertinent to the plot in the form of a journal entry at the beginning of each chapter. This not only lets my readers know what happened in the past, but gets them wondering about what may happen in the future. At least I hope it does.
Then, of course you have novels such as Sheri S. Tepper’s the Family Tree or Charles de Lint’s the Little Country where the story within the story is so well done you don’t know which is the rock and which is the fragment. Now that’s a xenolith of the finest kind.