A frame story (also called a frame narrative, framing device, or frame tale) is a literary technique where an overarching narrative is used to set up one or more stories. It is placed at the beginning and end of the narrative, creating the “frame” of which the second story is encapsulated.
Think of it as a literary sandwich: the introductory and concluding narratives are the bread, and the other stories are the fillings.
Types of Frame Stories
The frame story is a popular literary device used in novels and movies. The main character or a supporting character often acts as the storyteller, narrating the story to other characters or to the reader.
They can be classified into these two categories, depending on how they are used:
The cyclical frame story is when multiple stories are told by a consistent framing element. These stories are loosely related, whether in themes, setting, or characters.
The greatest example of this is The Thousand and One Nights. Here, Schehezarde avoids death by entertaining her husband-king with a story every night, always leaving them unfinished until the next night.
Single story framing involves only one inner story. The framing narrative is often only seen at the beginning and end of the entire work. This allows for the inner story to have more details compared to the cyclical story framing.
An example of this is The Princess Bride. A grandfather insists on reading his sick grandson a story— the story being that of Wesley and Buttercup’s adventures in the country of Florin.
In both cyclical and single story frames, the frame story can interrupt the inner story. This serves to remind you about the bigger picture within the entire narrative. Just like you, characters in the frame story are waiting for the inner story to unfold.
Sometimes a frame story can have an inner story that contains another story. Think of them like Russian nesting dolls: remove one and you’ll find another, then another, and so on.
What Is the Purpose of a Frame Story?
Frame stories can serve a number of purposes in storytelling, including the following:
Frame stories can provide momentum by establishing emotion and sparking interest before the main story even starts. This allows the frame story to connect seamlessly with its inner story, instead of the flow restarting with every new story that is introduced.
This is most noticeable in cyclical frame stories, where the emotions you invested in a previous story are quickly transferred to the following story. Each story compounds your interest, making you more reluctant to drop the book.
2. Varied Points of View
One thing that a frame story does best is to give you multiple points of view within a single narrative. Different characters offer different views, giving the story a more rounded feel.
Subtle or difficult details can be easier to discover and understand when characters view them in different ways. It also adds another layer of complexity to the story, mimicking the reality of how no two people think, act, or feel the same way.
3. External Voice
The main benefit of a frame story is to tell a story using a character that exists outside the story itself. Their perspective is independent and may provide additional context or different standpoints. This can lead you to an epiphany about the story, or to a specific emotional response.
In The Princess Bride, the grandson isn’t that interested in the lovey-dovey parts of the book. The grandfather, instead of glossing over these details, uses witty commentary to deliver a life lesson to his grandson. In extension, the life lesson can be applied to you, the reader.
Frame stories can provide greater context to the stories they contain. Relevant details can be introduced without dumping too much information within the inner narratives.
They can also be used to introduce frame story characters that will appear in the inner stories. For example, an aging adventure can introduce who he is and what he’s most known for before getting into the specifics of his exploits.
5. Layering of Meaning
Frame stories offer multiple levels of interpretation regardless of only having one main narrative or multiple related ones. Important themes or messages can be emphasized, implied, or removed, creating varying depths of meaning that influence your perspective of one story, or the overall narrative.
In Citizen Kane, Charles Foster Kane’s life story is framed inside a reporter’s search to find out who or what Rosebud is. He fails to solve the mystery but the audience is given an answer. In this way, Rosebud becomes the first layer to the movie’s themes of isolation, materialism, and aging.
Frame Story Examples
Frame stories have been in use since ancient times, with one of the oldest being the Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor. It is estimated to be from the Old Kingdom of Egypt, which existed from 2700 to 2200 BC. Here are some of the most popular examples in literature and pop culture:
The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio
Ten people retreat to the countryside to escape the Black Death. To pass the time, each member tells a story every evening, except for one day of chores and the Lord’s day. The 100 stories they tell form the majority of this book.
The Lone Ranger
In the movie, a young boy explores a San Fransisco funfair, arriving at a section dedicated to the Lone Ranger. He encounters the elderly Comanche, Tonto, who begins to recall his adventures with the legendary adventurer.
How I Met Your Mother
The entirety of the series is a framing device. Episodes always start with old Ted Mosby telling his kids about the events in his past that led to him meeting their mother.
The Magnus Archives
This podcast concerns an institute dedicated to investigating all the strange and mysterious happenings in the world. Each episode starts with the head archivist making a recording of himself reading an account about an apparent supernatural encounter.
If you want to read more examples of a frame story, check out this post!
Using Frame Stories
There’s a reason why the frame story survives as an effective storytelling technique. It is versatile and unique, capable of distinguishing your story from the hundred of others currently being written.
But perhaps the largest reason why it remains popular is because it easily opens up an avenue for experimentation. You can choose to let your characters from the frame story and inner story interact, create commentary, or introduce changes that would otherwise ruin a straight narrative.
What’s your favorite frame story? Share it in the comments below!
If you enjoyed this post, then you might also like:
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- How to Write Fiction from Multiple Viewpoints: Picking the Right Point of View
- How to Avoid Info Dumps: Tips for Conveying Essential Info the Right Way
- Rules for Formatting Dialogue: How to Punctuate and Capitalize Your Characters’ Speech
Cole is a blog writer and aspiring novelist. He has a degree in Communications and is an advocate of media and information literacy and responsible media practices. Aside from his interest in technology, crafts, and food, he’s also your typical science fiction and fantasy junkie, spending most of his free time reading through an ever-growing to-be-read list. It’s either that or procrastinating over actually writing his book. Wish him luck!