Today I want to talk more about story structure: a vital component to all literature and one aspect where writers can be genuinely creative. Structure allows you to play with time…. It can make a narrative suspenseful where it otherwise wouldn’t be. It can do all kinds of things.
WHAT IS THE FRAME NARRATIVE?
If you’ve read a decent number of books or watched movies you’ve seen it, even if you’ve never called it a “frame.”
STRICTLY, a frame narrative is a story that has connected opening and closing scenes that are set apart from the major story. Generally they are in a different time and perhaps a different place than the bulk of the story.
The frame scenes generally have some aspect that ties in with the major plotline: a character, setting, theme, or all of these.
Think of reading “Heart of Darkness” in high school. The narrator on his boat on the Thames, telling the story of meeting Kurtz in Africa to his shipmates… That’s the frame.
MORE LOOSELY, a frame narrative could mean any story which is embedded in the context of a different story. And there are some fun ways to play around wotj the classic frame structure if you’d like. For instance:
CUT OFF ONE END
You could, if you wanted, make an artistic statement by cutting off either end of the classic frame. You could open with a lead-in scene that is somehow connected with the story to follow, but fail to return back to it after the major plot wraps up.
My favorite way to do this is when authors give some “hint” or indication at the end of the story that that the frame scene lies in the future. That strategy, without returning in a literal sense, returns the reader mentally to the opening and creates a frame.
Maybe the frame is a man on the run at a medieval monastery. Maybe he starts to tell a monk or group of monks the story of what brought him there. Maybe the novel ends with the man seeing the monastery lights in the distance just when he feels beset by some danger or other.
That’s just one example I made up…. But I hope it illustrates HINTING at the opening frame scene rather than fully going back to it at novel’s end.
You could also write an epilogue of sorts, to “frame” the ending and give further information through a glimpse into a character’s future. That doesn’t mean you have to start the novel in that same moment to frame the opening as well: though you could.
STRICT FRAME VERSUS BACK AND FORTH
There’s no rule that says you have to limit your frame narrative just to the start and end of the novel.
As bloated and made fun of as James Cameron’s “Titanic” is, it’s a great example of a frame that inserts itself periodically throughout the length of the work (in this case a film).
90-year-old Rose is on a ship that is searching the wreckage of the Titanic, telling the crew her adventure on the ill-fated vessel before and while it sank.
The movie begins and ends with Rose as an old woman. The bulk of the film is her as a teenager on the Titanic. But there are periodic cuts back to the moment of elderly Rose recounting her experiences.
Personally, I wasn’t a fan of the back-and-forth framing device as it worked in that particular movie, with that particular story.
That doesn’t mean it can’t ever work.
So, what are your thoughts about frame narratives? Have you read or written a book that twists the frame structure? Do you enjoy a classic frame structure or feel it is overused and boring?