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So we got hit by Hurricane Sandy yesterday. This time, no trees came down on our property (thankfully), but we’ve been without power since last night. We’ve got hot water, and gas to cook on, but with no electricity and no Internet, I’m afraid there won’t be a typical blog post from me today (typing one out on my cell phone would be hard, and the battery would probably die before I was done).

Sorry about this, but hopefully I’ll be back with a post in the next several days (or whenever they restore power).

Escaping into Fantasy: Thoughts on Transportive Fiction

I’ve got a confession to make: I read for escape.

I don’t just read to learn, or to shape my moral compass, or to consider the deeper truths of life. If any of that happens, I’m ecstatic. I love to think, and I’m thrilled to have to have my horizons broadened. But literature can only achieve such effects when it has engaged the reader on an intellectual, emotional, and physiological level.

There is a difference between being engaged with a story, and being transported by it. Engagement need not be visceral: it can be distanced, nuanced, and cerebral in nature. Escape is transformative, in the sense that for a time I am taken out of my day-to-day concerns and focused entirely on the story and its characters. A story that engages me might hold and maintain my interest. A story that allows me to escape will not let me put it down.

That type of engagement – when we temporarily check out of our day-to-day existence and inhabit a fictional world (whether it is fantastic or not) – opens us up to whatever deeper truths we may find in the written work. And (on a superficial but no less important level) it makes the experience enjoyable. But what makes that kind of escape possible? What makes some stories a means of escape?

The Difference Between Escape and Engagement

When I read, I find that there is a fundamental difference between engagement with the story, and escape. It is not, however, a difference in kind, but rather in degree. I can be engaged with a story, interested in seeing the characters’ fates, curious as to how the plot resolves, etc. without divorcing myself from my everyday reality.

Plenty of good books generate engagement. Many of the Russian classics (Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, etc.) and more modern SF writers like Greg Egan, Gregory Benford, or Kim Stanley Robinson engage me. But I find that they do so on a very cerebral level, and that as I read their stories I remain fully aware of my surroundings, my reactions to their text, and what I have cooking on the stove.

To be clear, this is in no way a criticism of the quality of their stories.

However, I find that their focus on intellectual exploration of “high concepts” keeps me intellectually focused on the topics they explore. It grounds me, in a way that stories which allow me to escape do not. Other SF writers – like John Scalzi, Peter Watts, Samuel Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, and early David Brin – do manage to provide me with an imaginative escape that goes beyond “mere” engagement.

But your mileage may vary. It is entirely possible that a different reader might have an inverse of my experience, and there is nothing wrong in that. It merely suggests that different readers have different tastes, and respond differently to different stimuli.

I believe that stories have certain building blocks, certain broad conceptual components, that are all inter-related and which together affect the reader. The balance between these components will vary from story to story, and certain configurations will produce escape, while other configurations will produce engagement. The configurations that work for a particular reader will be different from those that work for anyone else. And the configuration that works for me today may well be different from one that will work two years from now.

And while the configuration of components that drives escape may vary, I think the list of components is pretty solid.

Character: The Root of All Tension

I like to believe that everything flows from character. The character drives the plot, not the other way around. And yet, character is also one of the trickiest components because it percolates through all of the others: voice, world-building, concept, etc.

As a human being, I have a certain degree of empathy for other members of my species, and so I am naturally interested in understanding a new character whenever I meet one. I respect depth even more than affability, and the degree to which I can understand or engage with a character is a high indicator of the story’s ability to grant me escape.

China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station opens with a prologue, written in first person, from an (initially unidentified) narrator. This prologue fails to develop much in the way of character, although it does establish a tone and begin the process of world-building (see below). But the character who dragged me into the story, who made my escape to New Crobozun possible, makes his appearance in the first chapter: Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin.

Mi&eacue;ville’s descriptions are rich and varied, and they imbue Isaac with a depth of character that is instantly engaging. They make me curious about where Isaac will go and what he will do. They make me care. However, this in and of itself would not have been enough to actually transport me. It might earn my engagement, but it would have done little besides.

Miéville manages to transport me by having his words do double (or triple) duty: while his sentences and paragraphs tell me about the character of Isaac, they are simultaneously contributing to the other components of the story, particularly its world-building.

World-building: What Most Folks Think of as Escape

Because so much speculative fiction deals with secondary worlds or imagined realities, and because the portal fantasy structure has played a major role in genre history, world-building is often associated with the concept of escape. After all, we escape to some place, right? And in speculative fiction, we are specifically escaping to a fictional reality that someone else (the author) has made up.

Effective world-building, however, is not a rattling off of hard-to-spell place names, or of cramming eons worth of mythology down the reader’s gullet. Transportive world-building is all about evoking a reality that is compelling and plausible and real for the reader on a sensory and emotional level.

Miéville’s Perdido Street Station does a great job with this, too. His exposition simultaneously informs us as to character, while giving us extensive detail about the world of New Crobuzon. The details provided, however, are slipped in sideways: we are introduced to a Dickensian environment, with over-crowded tenement streets, with grime-encrusted slipways, and with all of the economics such an environment might suggest.

Miéville doesn’t tell us that much of New Crobuzon is reminiscent of a Whitechapel slum. He instead demonstrates this fact by opening his first chapter with the prosaic act of buying groceries. In the space of several paragraphs, he evokes a mood and feel for the environment which will carry through the rest of the novel. In one sentence – where he off-handedly mentions hissing constructs stomping up and down the street – he shifts us into a fantastical mode, where such “constructs” might walk unimpeded.

Taken on its own, this opening would have engaged me pretty quickly. Miéville uses all of the senses to evoke the feel for New Crobuzon. Two passages in particular stand out for me, one olfactory and the other aural:

Below the basket the salls and barrows lay like untidy spillage. The city reeked. But today was market day down in Aspic Hole, and the pungent slick of dung-smell and rot that rolled over New Crobuzon was, in these streets, for these hours, improved with paprika and fresh tomato, hot oil and fish and cinnamon, cured meat, banana and onion.

Between the stalls stomped hissing constructs. Beggars argued in the bowels of deserted buildings. Members of strange races bought peculiar things.

The sensory detail is fine-grained and carefully selected. It creates a mélange of sensation specifically tailored to convey the chaos and layering of scents and sounds that such a bazaar would have. It is verisimilitude, but of the most fantastic variety.

From these “establishing” passages, Miéville introduces us to the character of Isaac, and here his world-building ratchets into high-gear. While simultaneously introducing us to the character’s values, priorities, and personality, he introduces us to some of the fantastic races that live in New Crobuzon, and paints lines of cultural tension into the city.

This is the point where, for me, Perdido Street Station became transportive. The combination of depth of character and simultaneous, evocative world-building transported me into the story’s fictional world.

Pacing & Tension: A Consequence of Character

To establish a fast pace and build tension, the characters need to be well-drawn. However, I find that well-constructed tension can often over-ride weaknesses in world-building. This is a phenomenon I have observed most often in television, particularly in spy shows like Covert Affairs or police procedurals like Castle.

By giving us characters who we invest in, and then by ratcheting up the tension and the pace, the writers can distract us from the implausible or slapdash world-building that permeates the story. This is, I think, a risky technique because it places escalating tension and world-building in opposition. At some point, the implausibility of the world-building might overpower the tension, and throw the reader out of the story. This, I think, is a weakness often found in much of the thriller genre.

But when the world-building and the tension both contribute to and derive from characterization, when all narrative horses are pulling in the same direction, the effect is to heighten the story’s transportive capabilities.

Intellectual and Moral Exploration: High Concept Escape

Intellectual and moral exploration can be highly stimulating, and I do not doubt that for some readers it provides the imaginative escape that I find in character, world-building, and pacing. But for me, I find that the intellectual dimension on its own cannot transport me. But when the intellectual/moral dimension supports and is supported by the characters, tension, and world-building of the story, then the transportive effect is greatly multiplied.

I am reminded of two very different reading experiences: Peter Watts Blindsight and Greg Egan’s The Clockwork Rocket. Both books feature high-concept intellectual conjecture, and both are interesting and engaging on that front alone. However, Blindsight also builds compelling characters who are engaging and stimulating, and whose actions and choices directly reflect on and feed back into the novel’s intellectual considerations.

The Clockwork Rocket, by contrast, fails to develop plausible characters or to develop plausible world-building outside of the novel’s central conceit (see my earlier review here). It remains an engaging and interesting read, but for me, the weakness of its characterization and the shallowness of its world-building prevented it from being transportive.

Point-of-View: The Lens which Mediates the World

The more I think about it, the more I begin to subscribe to the thesis put forth by the Scribblies that “POV Fixes Everything.” In terms of enabling escapist reading, point-of-view is the foundation: it informs and shapes the way in which all other tools are applied in a given work.

If a story’s capacity to transport is determined by its characterization, its world-building, its pacing/tension, and its intellectual conceits, these components all must be communicated through the writing. The words we choose, the sentences we assemble, and the paragraphs we construct are all determined by the point-of-view the story is told through.

On a superficial level, the point-of-view determines which details get noticed (read: communicated to the reader), which values get explicitly communicated and which get implied, and which sensory details are presented. At first blush, this might seem to be the same as characterization, but point-of-view and character are not necessarily identical. They may be congruent in a work with limited POVs, but they need not be: the narrator always exists, even if a story is told in close or distant third person.

A story’s point-of-view – which may be distinct from its characters – informs the voice through which it is told. This affects the prose, in terms of its style and lyricism. It affects the way sentences are constructed, and while prose alone cannot transport me, it does constitute the grease that lubricates the story’s engine.

The more I think about it, the more convinced I become that the stories which allow me to escape, those that transport me into a fantastic environment divorced from my quotidien concerns, have one over-arching characteristic in common: every component – their characterization, their world-building, their management of pacing, and their underlying intellectual concepts – are all unified according to the point-of-view(s) through which the story gets told.

What do you think? Which factors – or which configuration of factors – drives your escape into the stories you love?

Balancing Beauty, Language, and Story

Recently, a friend and I were talking about writing (like you do), and he drew my attention to some comments from Jonathan Carroll about the relationship between beautiful language and storytelling. In a 2002 interview with Rain Taxi, Carroll says:

Too often, writers either write well or they story-tell well. Very rarely are they working toward the middle, and a lot of the time the guys who write well are considered hands-off, literary writers. I think that they are forgiven a lot. They may have beautiful language or metaphors, but when I read, I want both. I want to read a good book, and that’s one of the reasons why I don’t read genre fiction, because most of these guys can’t write well. They can story-tell well, but they can’t write well, and I just get bored. To sit on a page with furiously beautiful language: that entertains you for a while, but after a while, it’s like, come on! And if the guy tells a good story only and the characters are like film sets that have a stick behind them, and if you take it away they’ll collapse-no, I want both. I want both in what I read. And I’m trying to do it in what I write.

This is a nice quote because it is succinct and it communicates Carroll’s point clearly. However, I think that taken at face-value it oversimplifies the relationship between language and story-telling (bear in mind that an interview like this doesn’t really provide much room for nuance, and I suspect a writer as good as Carroll well understands the underlying nuance that informs such statements).

I agree with Carroll that beautiful prose and solid story-telling should not be mutually exclusive. However, I object to the use of the term “beauty” as a way of describing prose in any critical sense because it tells us more about the speaker’s literary tastes than about the text itself. It is an over-broad term, useful in colloquial, casual discussion (or in interviews), but useless in exploring how fiction actually works.

What Makes Prose Beautiful?

First, let me start by saying that I do not think that all books are created equal. Some stories are better than others, and some are just plain bad. But the beauty of prose alone, or the degree to which the story takes primacy over style, does not determine “quality” in my estimation. And that is because the style of a given story and the balance struck between story, character, philosophy, and style are consequences of authorial choice.

Consider for a moment three sentences, taken from three different “mystery” novels. While all three sentences serve a similar – technical – function, their constructions differ greatly:

Sentence A As our little mules strove up the last curve of the mountain, where the main path divided into three, producing two side paths, my master stopped for a while, to look around: at the sides of the road, at the road itself, and above the road, where, for a brief stretch, a series of evergeren pines formed a natural roof, white with snow.
Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
Sentence B It’s a long drag back from Tijuana and one of the dullest drives in the state.
Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye
Sentence C I opened the front door with my latch-key and purposely delayed a few moments in the hall, hanging up my hat and the light overcoat that I had deemed a wise precaution against the chill of an early autumn morning.
Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

All three of these sentences serve a straightforward narrative goal: they set the scene, they establish the setting in which the rest of the action is to take place. It is a simple goal, but they are each written in a completely different style. Eco relies on a multifaceted sentence, with plenty of subordinate clauses and descriptive imagery. Chandler rejects all of that, and instead offers a flat description of a character’s perception of the environment. And Christie, whose prose Carroll calls wooden elsewhere in his interview, presents an unemotional portrayal of the narrator’s actions, with some characterization implied through the narrator’s value judgments.

Which is the more “beautiful”? Which the more effective?

I posit that they are each “beautiful” in their own way: Eco’s sentence is more complicated, with more components and more images than either Chandler’s or Christie’s. It relies to a greater extent on visual imagery, and its punctuation and rhythm imbues a serene ambiance to the text. Chandler’s sentence, though simpler in its construction, tells us more about the speaker/narrator, and uses an the elongated soft vowel (the “a” in “drag”) punctuated by the short “u” and hard “dr” (in “dullest drives”) to both suggest the experience described and offset it with a hard stop. Chandler’s sentence accomplishes just as much as Eco’s, but in far fewer words. By contrast, Christie’s sentence straddles a position between these two extremes: hers is a sentence verging on the “merely functional,” wherein she includes more sensory detail and more mental context than Chandler offers, but less visual imagery than Eco. One might suggest, as Carroll does in his interview, that Christie’s prose is “wooden” as a result. But I don’t think that is the case: Christie’s prose is functional; it gets the job done, but in her stories she focused her attention on aspects other than the prose.

For me, there is beauty in all three approaches (and I suspect that Carroll too would recognize the beauty in Eco and Chandler at least, particularly in light of his other comments regarding Chandler). But what makes all three sentences “beautiful” is not their elegance, their fluidity, their economy, or their rhythm. Their “beauty” stems from the fact that they are effective: they produce a response in the reader, and put the reader in a certain frame of mind. And they are particularly effective, and so particularly beautiful, because their construction and the response it elicits align with the themes, characters, and plot of their respective stories.

The Right Tool for the Job

When we write, words are the chisels we use to carve our marks on the readers’ minds. In general, we would be unlikely to use a shovel to turn a screw. The craftsman and the artist must both select the tools best suited to the task at hand. If words and the style in which they get assembled into sentences and paragraphs are the tools of a writer, then they should be used as needed for a particular story. This is probably easiest to see when considering the relationship between prose style and pacing.

A complicated style, stuffed to the gills with literary allusions and luminous metaphors, might work very well in a mainstream literary novel. But by its very nature it slows the reader down: to be appreciated, it forces the reader to consider the ways in which a sentence is constructed, to savor each syllable and the way the sentence rolls off of the tongue, to luxuriate in velvety imagery like a lounging cat. There is a place for that.

But sometimes, like when a character is literally hanging over a precipice by their fingernails, the reader doesn’t want any of that artistry. They want to know: will they fall or not? They want to know what happens next, and are on the edge of their seat waiting to get it. Allusions and flowery metaphor, in such a situation, risk just getting in the way of what drives the reader’s engagement with the story (see my earlier thoughts on that score).

And this is why when we write, we need to carefully select and modulate the way in which we write to suit our needs. Because the right style for a particular passage will depend on our goals for that passage, and it will vary from story to story, or even within the same story. I am reminded here of the movie Blade Runner, which Caroll himself references elsewhere in that interview. He and I share a favorite line from that movie, apparently, namely the scene where Rutger Hauer’s character is dying and he says to Harrison Ford:

Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.

For me, this is an excellent example of code-switching, of getting the audience to the right emotional point where they can experience a cathartic moment, and then to amplify that catharsis by a switching into a different style.

Prior to that scene, Blade Runner toes a fine line between a straight noir science fiction detective story, and a more poignant exploration of life and humanity. The philosophical dimensions are alluded to, suggested more by their absence from the story (and highlighted by the excellent score) than by its explicit dialog. But those allusions and tantalizing hints crystallize in that one scene, where the action of the detective story gives way to sublime beauty as voiced by the film’s ostensible villain.

That trick worked in the film because of the way the movie teetered on a point between straight detective story and philosophical conjecture. And therein, I think, lies the secret to unifying prose, theme, and character: balance.

When we write, our job is to balance the myriad devices of our fiction to achieve our artistic goals. The “right” balance will vary from story to story: one story might skew more to heart-pounding action, another might teeter in the direction of poetry, etc. But for a story’s prose to unify with its themes and narrative, we must determine where the right balance for that story can be found. Once that has been done, we must “merely” (Ha! Easier said than done!) write the text that adheres to that balance, and hope that the balance that tickled our fancy as writers will likewise resonate with our readers.

SF Signal Mind Meld on Heroes

NOTE: I’m still at Viable Paradise this week, so again, sorry if I’m slow to respond to comments! I will get to them, though, I promise.

In case you missed it, there’s a really interesting new discussion of heroes and protagonists up at the SF Signal Mind Meld. Definitely worth checking out!

Sorry! Traveling!

Alas, alack, alarum! I’m traveling this week (actually, working as staff at this year’s Viable Paradise workshop) so I’m afraid I won’t be posting much this week. However, when I get back next week I’ll have some thoughts to share!

Thoughts on Narrative Framing Devices

The other night, the conversation around our dinner table turned to narrative (as it often seems to) and a lively (read: heated) discussion on the relative merits of narrative framing devices ensued.

Personally, I’m a fan of framing devices. When used judiciously, they can produce effects which sequential narrative alone cannot. But they do have an inherent danger: because framing devices – by definition – play with the flow of the narrative, their use risks disrupting the reader’s engagement and momentum through the story.

Since I’m considering using a framing device in my next novel, I naturally started to wonder what types of framing devices work effectively? And what makes some effective, while others fall flat?

What is a Framing Device?

I’ve often seen framing devices conflated with meta-fictional devices, and while there is significant overlap, I don’t believe the two are either equivalent or necessarily conjoined in any meaningful fashion. While some framing devices are good tools for meta-fictional exploration, most are not. Here are the types of framing devices that I was able to come up with (note: this is not a complete list – it’s merely what I was able to recall over coffee this weekend. If there are other examples, or other types, please let me know in the comments!)

Nested Stories
One or more characters within the frame story acts as a storyteller, and through telling the other characters one or more stories, the narrative is simultaneously communicated to the fictional listener(s) and the reader.

The Story as Object
One or more characters within the frame story reads a book, watches a movie, etc. and either the reality of the frame intrudes upon the fictional world of the story, or the fictional world of the story extrudes into the reality of the frame.

Found Narrative
The story opens with an explanation, justification, and introduction for the narrative. The frame narrator provides context for the story (e.g. describes the means by which the text was found), may or may not interject further perspectives as the story progresses, and may or may not offer concluding remarks once the story is complete.

Epistolary Frame
The story is either communicated through or interspersed with fictional media (e.g. journal entries, letters, etc.). Traditionally told through letters and journal entries from the perspective of one or more fictional characters, in its more modern form often features newspaper fragments, blog entries, video transcripts, etc. in place of more traditional media.

Epigraphic Frame
This is a fascinating framing device because it is – in essence – optional from the reader’s perspective. The frame is separated from the core of the story, both within the design of the text and in its content. The framing device will often appear either as chapter/section epigraphs or as footnotes throughout the text. The epigraphic frame may be explicit (e.g. Dune) or it may be implied as in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels.

Interrogative Frame
More commonly seen in film than in fiction, the story itself is told in flashback by one of its principle actors. Typically, the flashback is incited by an interrogation, whether friendly or hostile in nature.

The Purposes and Methods of Framing Devices

I believe that there are certain effects which cannot be achieved in narrative without the use of a framing device. Some of those effects may be meta-fictional in nature, but many are much more basic, and relate to the strengthening and communicating of the story’s intended themes. Yet despite the fact that framing devices can – at times – be essential to achieving the story’s goals, they do make it harder for the reader to engage and stay engaged with the story. Like so much in writing, if we decide to use framing devices in our narrative, their effective execution will ultimately be a balancing act.

When framing devices work well, they mediate the story for the reader. They establish a filter, a lens through which the reader experiences the story. When used purposefully and executed well, this filter can enhance the emotional or thematic impact of the story. I believe this happens through four mechanisms:

Refutation, Reinforcement, or Redirection The frame story unifies – at either an emotional or thematic level – the encapsulated stories. It either refutes, reinforces, or redirects conclusions or impressions that the reader may have taken from the encapsulated stories.
Meta-fictional Exploration By blurring the boundaries between the reality of the frame story and that of the encapsulated story, the framing device focuses the reader’s attention on the structures and purposes of the entire work and on its operation as a work of fiction.
World-building By placing the encapsulated story within a broader context independent of that story, the verisimilitude of the fictional world is increased, that world gains in depth and becomes more immersive.
Explication The frame story makes it possible to answer a fundamental question (of thematic and emotional import) implied but unaddressed by the encapsulated story.

Refutation, Reinforcement, and Refinement through Framing Devices

This effect is most often found when the framing device is presented as independent and wholly separate from the encapsulated story. It is the mechanism on which nested stories and found narratives in particular rely.

In nested stories, the frame story typically embeds multiple independent tales within its pages (e.g. The Decameron features ten stories, The Canterbury Tales has – by most counts – twenty-four, etc.). Taken on its own, each of the stories told features its own emotional arc and its own themes. But these can be further contextualized by the frame story, which has the opportunity to refute, reinforce, or redirect the reader’s conclusions.

Nested stories are, I believe, the hardest framing device to employ effectively. The borders between the framing device and the stories it frames are at their most rigid and stark. By design, this structure draws the story’s momentum to a halt repeatedly throughout the text. Since each of the nested stories is – by definition – a self-contained whole, momentum can only be derived from either the style of the prose itself, or from the plot, tension, and style of the frame story (whose own momentum is weakened by the fact that it is broken up by its component stories).

Found narratives rely on the same mechanism, but the effect is achieved with a lighter touch. Unlike nested stories, they typically encapsulate only one story. The framing device is used to contextualize it, to apply a very loose-fitting filter through which it can be experienced. For example, the text of Nabokov’s Lolita can be read entirely without its contextualizing forward, but that forward is centrally concerned with the book’s primary themes (and with the character through which those themes are expressed). As a result, the framing device adds context and deepens the intellectual and emotional take-away from the core story. By contrast, James Clemens’ Wit’ch Fire, which is purportedly structured as a found narrative, wastes the context provided by its framing device since the themes established in the framing device are ignored by the encapsulated story.

Epistolary stories can also employ this mechanism, but they can only do so when their epistolary framing devices are independent from the story itself. For example, the blog posts in Mira Grant’s Feed reinforce the themes of the primary story’s narrative, while the anthropological reports in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness similarly deepen the exploration of the core story’s themes.

Where the epistolary novel’s medium is dependent upon the story’s characters (e.g. when it uses letters or journal entries from those characters), then it becomes harder for the framing device itself to make use of this mechanism. At that point, it is only possible where the form of the framing device directly lends itself to the representation of the story’s themes. For example, the epistolary structure of Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters makes it possible to concretely portray the novel’s concerns with language while the journal entries in Flowers for Algernon are able to eloquently demonstrate the novel’s exploration of intelligence.

Meta-fictional Exploration through Framing Devices

Meta-fiction has always been trendy. It’s a cool special-effect which plenty of great stories use to explore fiction itself as theme. And framing devices – in particular the story-as-object, the epigraphic frame, and the interrogative frame – can use this mechanism to explore their effect.

Where refutation, reinforcement, and refinement rely on the separation between frame and story, meta-fictional exploration purposefully blurs the boundaries between them. For example, in Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story and Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler the borders between reader, fiction, and meta-fiction are practically erased as fictional readers move in and out of a fictional world within their (fictional) story.

Epigraphic and interrogative frames can similarly explore the relationship between fiction, storytelling, and reality, though they do so less overtly and with a lighter touch than in stories-as-objects. In particular, they introduce a degree of unreliability into the narration which enables an exploration of truth (see The Usual Suspects), or the relationship between story and narrative conventions (Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels).

Framing Devices as World-building Tools

Every framing device provides an opportunity for economic introduction of world-building details. Because the frame story establishes context for what it encapsulates, it can quickly introduce many world-building details. For example, the environment of Dan Simmons’ Hyperion gets established within the first several pages of the frame story and sets the context for the encapsulated tales.

In epigraphic and found narrative frames in particular, the framing device offers the illusion of greater depth to world-building. It explicitly communicates to the reader the existence of a world beyond the confines of the story, with its own histories and its own events that the reader knows nothing about. This deepens the realism of the fictional world and creates a more immersive experience for the reader, should they avail themselves of it.

However, this is the type of mechanism where less is more. Tolkien didn’t include the full text of The Silmarillion in the The Lord of the Rings for good reason: too much detail risks overwhelming the reader and grinding the story’s momentum to a halt.

The Framing Device’s Use in Explication

The final mechanism I’ve been able to identify for framing devices is also my favorite. It is – I think – the least common, and produces one of the coolest audience experiences. Certain stories rely on an underlying question for their primary momentum. We want to know the killer, we want to know why Dean Keaton died, we want to know Paul Edgecombe’s story, we want to know what happened to Kvothe, etc. These stories use the framing device to pose an implicit question, while they rely on powerful characterization to earn the reader’s emotional investment.

The framing device represents the promise of an answer, and – if executed well – can enhance the reader’s engagement with the story. It offers some measure of stakes, a promise of consequences and an underlying tension. It creates a palpable sense of discovery as the story progresses, as the reader fills in the blanks they have anticipated (see my earlier thoughts on narrative tension here).

Once the promise gets fulfilled – when the implied question gets answered within the core story – it transmutes the mechanism into one of refutation, refinement, or reinforcement. It offers us an opportunity to underline the story’s core themes, enhance their emotional resonance, and all while avoiding polemic.

Of the various mechanisms, I think this is one of the hardest to achieve because it is so centrally concerned with narrative tension. Too heavy a hand on the frame, and the question’s answer is given away and narrative tension destroyed. Treating the frame too lightly, however, leads to the frame being too disconnected from the core narrative arc, and thus dropping the reader out of the story.

Are Framing Devices Useful?

I think framing devices are useful for specific purposes. However, the Professor does have a point: they have been so popular throughout history and used well and badly across so many media, that their shapes are often predictable. The balance between keeping them fresh, and maintaining reader engagement with the story is a hard one to strike, and their failure mode is dreadful. They’re not easy, but done right I think they can accomplish some pretty neat narrative tricks.

What do you think?

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