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The Frame Story

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Our final narrative technique is a structural one: the Frame Story. This is a story structure where one or more smaller tales nest within a broader story arc. The outer framework can have its own plot, but that’s not required. Often it acts as a delivery mechanism for the more interesting inner story materials.

Title graphic: The Frame Story, Point of View & Perspective, katestradling.com

Going Old School

This is an ancient method of storytelling. It’s used in the Biblical book of JOB, Ovid’s METAMORPHOSES, and the Arabic classic, ONE THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS. The technique creates a layered narrative—sometimes multi-layered, with stories within stories within stories—which allows natural opportunities for multiple narrators.

The outer framework often establishes the reliability of the narrator for the inner story, characterizing them so that the Reader knows whether to trust their account or not.

This structure has its downsides: namely, the framework can become meaningless, tedious, or skippable if it’s not an active contributor to the overall messages of the book. 

The inner stories also frequently overshadow the work as a whole.

Frame of Theme

For example, practically no one reads THE CANTERBURY TALES from beginning to end. Geoffrey Chaucer didn’t even bother to finish writing it. In his framework, several medieval British characters, himself included, make a religious pilgrimage to the town of Canterbury. They engage in a storytelling competition along the way. 

Each pilgrim tells a tale, with a prologue to segue between the outer frame and the layered story. This framework establishes a unifying purpose for the collection of stories, which are themselves eclectic in nature. Is the best story a romance? An adventure? A pious drama?

(Silly question. We all know it’s “The Tale of Sir Thopas.”)

Frame Story Quote from “The Tale of Sir Thopas” from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer:
Hymself drank water of the well,
As dide the knyght sire Percyvell
So worly under wede.
Til on a day—
Here the Hoost stynteth Chaucer of his Tale of Thopas.
‘Namoore of this, for Goddes dignitee,’
Quod oure Hooste, ‘for thou makest me
So wery of thy verray lewednesse
That, also wisly God my soule blesse,
Myne eres aken of thy drasty speche.
Now swich a rym the devel I biteche!
This may well be rym dogerel,’ quod he.

Frame of Time

We find another well-known Frame Story in WUTHERING HEIGHTS by Emily Brontë. A goodnatured English gentleman, Mr Lockwood, moves into a rural area only to discover that his new neighbors are a gothic collection of angsty, brooding wretches. The inner story, told by Lockwood’s housekeeper, Nelly Dean, jumps backward in time to explain how the awful circumstances developed.

Frame Story Quote from Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë:
“Well, Mrs. Dean, it will be a charitable deed to tell me something of my neighbours: I feel I shall not rest if I go to bed; so be good enough to sit and chat an hour.”
“Oh, certainly, sir! I’ll just fetch a little sewing, and then I’ll sit as long as you please. But you’ve caught cold: I saw you shivering, and you must have some gruel to drive it out.”

This framework bridges the gap between two different time periods that are pertinent to the story as a whole. The Reader gets to witness both the effects and the origin of Heathcliff and Catherine’s toxic obsession with one another.

Frame of Tone

For a more modern example of a Frame Story, we have THE PRINCESS BRIDE by William Goldman. The movie adaptation gives an excellent visual frame of a grandfather reading his grandson a storybook. In the novel, Goldman himself acts as narrator of the outer frame, which he uses to establish his setting, the fictional country of Florin, where he claims his father was born. He reminisces about encountering the unabridged Princess Bride by S. Morgenstern in his youth.

Opening Quote from The Princess Bride by William Goldman: This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it.
How is such a thing possible? I’ll do my best to explain. As a child, I had simply no interest in books. I hated reading, I was very bad at it, and besides, how could you take the time to read when there were games that shrieked for playing? Basketball, baseball, marbles—I could never get enough. I wasn’t even good at them, but give me a football and an empty playground and I could invent last-second triumphs that would bring tears to your eyes. School was torture.

Of course, this unabridged version doesn’t actually exist. Goldman playing it off as a real book from a real country introduces the tongue-in-cheek tone that pervades the novel.

Conclusion

Frames come in a multitude of types and shapes, a versatile Point of View structure. If you’re looking for how to layer flashbacks or interweave seemingly unconnected tales, the Frame Story is the go-to narrative mechanism.

  • What are your favorite Frame Stories?
  • How does this story structure influence a book’s Point of View?

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