Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Sometimes, the thing that makes a story pop isn’t the exact events of the plot or the details of the characterisation, but the context in which the story is presented. Sometimes, it’s setting up a question or expectation with an unusual title, like in A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters and John Dies at the End; sometimes, it’s adopting unusual chronology, recounting events out of sequential order, as in Time’s Arrow and A Visit from the Goon Squad; sometimes, it’s using a framing device.
So would a framing device help your story? Is it the missing feature that will bring your narrative together into its best form? Is it even possible for your project? Let’s find out.
What is a framing device?
A framing device, also known as a frame story, is a story told around another story, usually justifying the main narrative and lending it context. For example:
“Time for bed!” said Grandma.
“Oh, but please tell me a story!” I begged.
“Very well,” said Grandma, sitting on the end of my bed. “Once upon a time there was a brave knight. She loved a fair prince, but he was captured by a dragon with seven heads. The knight chased after the dragon, discovering on the way that each head had a talent; one was smart, one was cruel, one had impeccable aim. Anyway, on her journey, she learned all the skills she needed and she beat the heads one by one and she saved the prince and they married. Now, goodnight.”
“That wasn’t a very long story!” I protested.
“Yes, well,” said Grandma, turning out the light. “It’s not as if I had to beat any of them at storytelling.”
In the story above, the story about the knight is the main story, but the story about a grandma telling that story is the framing device. Like a literal frame, it surrounds and (hopefully) enhances the main story. In this case, it’s intended to give the happy ending some kick by grounding it in a more realistic, domestic setting.A framing device opens up your options as a storyteller.Click To Tweet
That’s not the only way a framing device can improve your story, of course, so let’s take a look at some more potential advantages.
Manipulating the reader’s experience
One of the most effective uses of a framing device is to influence the reader from outside the story proper. The Princess Bride uses the framing device of the author preparing the main story for his son. As the story progresses and the narrative occasionally revisits this fictional version of the author, he becomes less and less emotionally trustworthy, to the point that many readers will have a negative opinion of him by the story’s end.
This is effective because it means that, when he expresses an opinion, it can be used to directly and indirectly influence the reader’s experience of the story. When, for instance, he suggests a pessimistic reading of the ending, the reader is prompted to resist the opinion of someone they don’t like and consciously approach the story from a more optimistic viewpoint.
The framing device is so useful here because it allows the main story to remain above the fray; it doesn’t have to over-sell a positive ending or address how the reader could or should approach its conclusion. Doing so would have been difficult in the main story, especially given the established voice and the fantasy setting. A realistic frame with a slightly different voice opens up new possibilities for how the reader’s relationship with the story can be altered.
Grounding the narrative
Sometimes, a story’s raw state can be alienating to some readers – their suspension of disbelief might be challenged by immediate exposure to a lot of obviously fictional elements. In such cases, the right framing device provides a more acceptable entry point, breaking up the process of acclimatizing to the narrative.
The difference can be seen in literary and cinematic versions of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. In the book, Dorothy’s adventures are real: a cyclone carries her off to Oz where she has fantastical adventures. In the classic film, the adventure is a dream, with the more realistic, down-to-earth frame presented in a sepia tint to clearly differentiate it from the main story.
For a larger budget project targeting a wider audience, it’s the safe play, but that doesn’t make it a bad one, especially if your main story is particularly out there and you’re worried about how to get the reader invested.A framing device can help ground a fantastical story.Click To Tweet
Framing devices don’t just ground the story in a more mundane setting, they allow the author to tether the main story to a voice, theme, or concept that doesn’t otherwise fit its telling – they could even be more extreme, adding a tinge of something that wouldn’t suit the whole but still adds to it.
Justifying the narrative
Some stories need a reason to be told. Most commonly, this is the case with short story collections – some readers will happily pick them up, but some readers much prefer a frame to hold the stories together and make them a single entity.
Books like One Thousand and One Nights and The Canterbury Tales use a framing device to bind the stories together, turning them into one story. It’s not just a trick, either; the stories are related by theme and reading one informs the others (in some cases, they’re even necessary for understanding, as in the Black Mirror episode ‘White Christmas’, in which the first two stories do necessary world and theme building for the third).
There are even books where the framing device is so enmeshed in the main story that they’re impossible to separate; Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There is arguably more of a short story collection than a consistent narrative, but the framing device binds the stories together enough that the reader experiences it as a whole.
Finally, some readers need a reason for a story to be told at all. Books like Wuthering Heights present themselves as a real individual’s account of a story, bringing in multiple characters to justify how one person knows so much. The majority of the story might not even be told directly through that character, but they address a desire in some readers for even the telling of a story to have a reason behind it.
Freeing the narrator
Adding a framing device means that the author has access to a narrative stream outside the main story. This can give an author a lot of freedom – in The Princess Bride, for example, the fictional version of the author from the framing advice can jump in at key moments, advancing the story or consolidating details in ways that would be harder to do in the main narrative. This character even explicitly says he’s cutting out the boring bits and, thanks to the framing device, the reader is willing to accept the intrusion.
Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves uses its framing story in the opposite way. Here, the character of the framing story is reading the main story, allowing Danielewski to tease out the plot and inflate the tension without adding unnecessary passages to the central narrative.A framing device allows you to cut away from the main narrative at will.Click To Tweet
A framing device isn’t the only way to free yourself in this way – a B plot offers similar options – but it may be the technique that best suits your story.
Improving the ending
Finally, a framing device can be a great way to give your ending some oomph. The framing device for Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes, for instance, doesn’t fundamentally change the story or, arguably, even really offer a new view on it, but it does offer the space for a final revelation, allowing the story to go out on a bang without forcing an extra twist into the main plot.
In contrast, the framing device for Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale offers valuable reflection on the main story and even has the potential to change how the reader understands it. Since a lot of this rests on how the frame distances the reader from the story they just read, it’s arguably a unique effect, or at least an effect reached in a unique way.
Frame your art
It may be that your story doesn’t suit a framing device, but it’s something worth considering when you run up against certain types of problem. Framing devices come in all shapes and sizes, from kindly grandparents to news reports, and can be exactly what epistolary stories need to really land. Likewise, if you’re considering a series of short stories or even a poetry collection, the right frame might even make your work more marketable.
Or not! Like all literary devices, whether or not to use a framing device is a decision unique to a project – the important thing is that it’s yet another tool you can bring to bear in the right situation.
What are your favorite framing devices and why do they work? What framing devices have you considered in your own writing? Let me know in the comments or, for more great advice on this topic, check out Adding A ‘B Plot’ Is The Simple Way To Improve Your Story and Writing An Epilogue Can Be Useful (As Long As You Do It Right).