Suitable for Framing: The Dangers (and Benefits) of Frame Stories

As promised yesterday, I want to talk a little bit about frame stories. Now, I’m not talking about the matter of how to frame a story, no, I’m talking about frame stories themselves. As defined on Wikipedia:

frame story (also frame taleframe narrative, etc.) employs a narrative technique whereby an introductory main story is composed, at least in part, for the purpose of setting the stage for a fictitious narrative or organizing a set of shorter stories, each of which is a story within a story. The frame story leads readers from the first story into the smaller one within it.

It has a long tradition, going way back to the Mahabharata, but the example that came to mind, for me anyway, was Christopher Priest‘s original novel of The Prestige, later made into the Hugh Jackman/Christian Bale piece. In the novel, there is a frame story about the descendants of the two main magicians discovering the journals that tell the history of the magicians’ rivalry. We’ll come back to that one a few times as I talk a little more about the technique.

Frame stories can be a lot of fun. I’ve seen people do some really playful and innovative things with their frame stories, but there is a very real pitfall: the frame story can serve to disconnect the reader from the action within either story. As illustrated in this thread on How to Think Sideways, that can be a huge problem for a writer, though I disagree with the tenet that’s put forward about frame stories being an objectively bad technique; any technique is bad when handled poorly. The biggest problem that I’ve observed is a frame story having barely any connection to the story contained within, or being presented as a pure work of fiction (and I’m skating this line, but I think my approach works and I’ll talk more about why that is in a minute), which drains the tension. Of course, by the definition on that site, my “Frame Story” is no such thing at all, but I’m not sure if I agree or not. Regardless, I’d like to examine the concept a bit more.

In some ways, The Prestige suffers from the distancing problem. For a long time you’re not quite clear on why the frame story is important to the overall story, and I think Priest probably could have clued us in earlier, but the reveal near the end of the novel makes the payoff worth it, tying everything together.

This is the example that I’m trying to both follow and improve upon as I write my own frame story.  I’m actually writing the two stories entirely separate from one another. Right now I am focusing on the frame story of Carla’s struggle, the protagonist who’s writing a pseudo-journal on her laptop while she’s captive while at the same time writing a novel starring the other protagonist, which I will write later, and blend the two together. That blend is very important; in fact, it forms the crux of the entire novel that I don’t want to spoil just yet, but while this novel that she’s writing is presented as fiction within Carla’s world, there’s a lot more going on than that.

I’ve been thinking more about when to use a frame story – when is the right time? How often would it be just as effective to cut out the frame story and tell the original story? Does it grant the story more immediacy, as mentioned in the link above?

I’m split on the subject. Yes and no. A poor framing story can, for example, give away the tension that needs to be built within the framed story itself. Say that the character telling the framed story is within the story itself, you can’t have them in too much danger of their life, because the reader already knows that they live. For example, Corridors of the Dead is not exactly an example of a frame/framed story, but Matty is the one telling the story from a point in the future. I knew I couldn’t put her life in too much jeopardy in the story because what would be the point, honestly? We know that she lives to tell the tale. That didn’t mean that the other characters were safe, and those characters were emotionally vital to her. So you see, in that way, I think you can still build an effective threat to the protagonist that just doesn’t involve direct bodily harm.

That’s something to consider when you think about writing a frame story. Know the connection between both stories. Going back to the Prestige, let’s say that both of the magicians were young enough in the story itself that they might not have had families, and their lives were put into jeopardy before they had a family. The very fact that they have descendants makes a statement, and any threat would be a contradiction to that statement. Star Wars prequels, anyone?  The book itself, of course, handles it well enough that there’s enough danger to the characters’ lives (especially because of a very clever plot device) that the frame doesn’t give away the tension.

Again, the key here is to make sure that the frame story doesn’t steal tension from the story itself. The good thing about Entanglements is that I want the story of Noah (not THAT Noah), the computer programmer, to be almost non-stop danger. One complication after another, like a roller-coaster. In between will be the frame story of Carla’s captivity, which starts out a little more low-key, but all the while the story that she’s writing is feeding back into her life, and the consequences are growing. The plot that I’ve designed around these two will allow for what I think will be good pacing, but we’ll have to see how the whole thing ends up fitting together.

I don’t know if this is a particularly good example of how to handle frame stories, and I’ve already had to rethink my approach a few times thanks to the limitations of the technique, but I know it’s something that I’ve been interested in reading for quite some time, and that’s why I’m writing the story the way that I am. Again, though, maybe this is not a frame story anymore, though it was initially intended to be one.

And that gets to tomorrow’s topic: how projects transform themselves. Have a whole lot to talk about on that front, as my novel is changing shape right before my eyes, and I only have a modicum of control over it.

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