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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?

16 Comments Post a comment
  1. What about something like Possession, where the frame and the framed are emphasized almost equally, and constantly inform each other? It’s closest to your last category, but I don’t think it quite fits.

    October 3, 2012
    • Oooh…Posession is a great point!

      And you’re absolutely right, I don’t think it quite fits with that last category, either. Bear in mind that my brain might not be functioning entirely well since it’s past midnight here, but at first blush I suspect Posession achieves its effects by combining multiple framing devices: early on in the book it uses epigraphic framing and found narrative to introduce Roland and Maud, and to establish their relationships to Ash and LaMotte. As the book goes on, from what I recall, it gradually shifts into using the story-as-object to highlight the parallels in their stories.

      It’s such an excellent book, I think, precisely because of the way Byatt uses multiple framing devices and interweaves them so skillfully.

      October 3, 2012
    • Just discovered this post while researching framing devices for a podcast. Great overview of the topic! You’ll find something similar to Possession in Tom Stoppard’s magnificent play Arcadia. In what you might call the framing story, a group of researchers investigate a set of events that occurred centuries ago on a British estate. The action of the play cuts back and forth between the present-day investigation and the older events as they unfolded (in a way that diverges considerably from the researchers’ theories), giving equal emphasis to both timelines. The tragedy of the ending is especially poignant because the audience only pieces together a full picture of what happened by merging information from the two narratives; the characters themselves remain in varying degrees of darkness.

      January 25, 2017
  2. I seem to have misclosed my italics, sorry…

    October 3, 2012
  3. dkent #

    I was thinking about POSSESSION, too, when I was reading this.

    The mix of the contemporary researcher and the historical narrative where the historical narrative changes the contemporary researcher as the historical story unfolds has become a popular narrative method, and Laura Willg’s series starting with THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE PINK CARNATION is a good example of this.

    Another type of frame is so subtle that most don’t think of it as a frame. That’s a character who has lived through the past events but who isn’t the major character is telling the story. The best use of this is Nick in THE GREAT GATSBY. Many scholars call him the true main character because he is the only one really changed by the tragedy of Gatsby. A less subtle version of this are the Sherlock Holmes stories as told by Watson.

    October 3, 2012
    • I’ll have to take a look at Laura Willg’s work – I’m not familiar with it, but if it uses a structure similar to Possession I’ll definitely want to check that out.

      As for The Great Gatsby, your point makes me wonder: where does the (probably porous) border lie between using a framing device, and simply using a particular narrator?

      October 4, 2012
  4. MikeBSG #

    What about Ray Bradbury’s “The Illustrated Man”? That is a framing device that holds stories in place. Also, what about “The Martian Chronicles”? What strikes me about those two short story collections is that they have proved far more popular/enduring (almost always available in print) than Bradbury’s other short story collections, perhaps because the framing device allows readers to think of these books as novels, which more people like than short story collections?

    October 4, 2012
    • Absolutely – I’d consider both The Illustrated Man and The Martian Chronicles examples of nested stories, since the encapsulated stories themselves have their own arcs independent of the overall frame.

      But your point about their enduring popularity is really fascinating: while I don’t have any evidence to support it, instinctively I think you might be right. Because Bradbury executes the frame (and the nested stories) well, I think the frame embues the books with a greater momentum than a series of unconnected short stories would have had. And with greater momentum and reader engagement comes greater popularity, greater sales, etc.

      October 4, 2012
  5. A very unusual use of framing devices can be found in John Barth’s Chimera – it consists of three novellas, each of which uses the nesting device but turns it inside out. I.e., it starts with what is actually the innermost layer and then works its way outwards to the frame, and not enough with that, events in each nested story also have an impact on events in the story nesting it, triggering some kind of resolution. It is an absolutely staggering feat of composition and a marvel that Barth manages to pull it off, not even to mention that it’s also a lot of fun to read.

    (And my apologies for commenting at such a late date, but I’m a bit behind catching up with my blog feed and only saw this post now.)

    October 15, 2012
    • No worries! Always happy to have someone chime in – whether the post is a couple of weeks old or not.

      I haven’t yet read Barth’s Chimera, but based on your description I’ll definitely have to check it out. It sounds like exactly the kind of fun use of framing device that I love to see executed well.

      October 16, 2012
  6. malcolmsinclair #

    Several years later ….. I have just discovered this blog through searching google for framed narrative articles. Thus far, this is way ahead of anything else I have found. I have been blocked for months in my development a dystopian tale which I want to avoid just turning into a fast-paced thriller. Somehow, writing about a Brexit/Trump world gone mad ten years from now, needed in my view a more considered narrative style. Then I remembered Chaucer, discovered Bocaccio, and went from there to framed narrative. Possession has haunted me for years, although I would not want to copy its approach. I was thinking that there must be so many other ways to frame a tale, and then I came upon this excellent summary. Thanks so much.
    PS have you given up this blog?

    October 11, 2016

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