Normally when we read a story, the narrator is simply telling us the story, whether it is a narrator outside the story (3rd person) or a character in the story (1st person). This is a one-level story.
However, sometimes, just like a frame around a picture, one story can be wrapped around another. This is what we call a framing device.
An example of this is the movie Forrest Gump. There are really two stories going on. One is Forrest sitting on a bench and talking to people. The second, inner story is the story of his life. The framing device takes place all in one day, but the main story takes place over decades.
Types of Framing Devices
A framing device is usually a story outside of the main one. Some examples of this could be:
1. Someone telling a story to someone else.
An example of this is the movie The Princess Bride, where the grandfather is telling the story to his sick grandson. Another is the Kingkiller Trilogy, by Patrick Rothfuss, where the main character tells his life story in a bar and each book is one day of storytelling.
2. Someone finding a book with the main story in it.
An extreme example of this is House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski. In that, the narrator finds an analysis of a fictional documentary. There are several levels of framing devices here: the person reading the analysis, the analysis itself and the fictional documentary it was based on
Another type of framing device is to have the story told through letters, journal entries and other written accounts. This is what Bram Stoker does with Dracula. The feeling is that the story has been pieced together later from all these written accounts.
3. Other methods
Written accounts are most common but it’s also possible to frame a story as someone watching a movie, TV show, online video, listening to the radio, etc.
Reasons to Use a Framing Device
Not every story should have a framing device but it works for some. Framing devices are good for a couple reasons:
1. To give a lens to see the story through.
We read, or listen to, the main story with the narrator and get their thoughts on it. In House of Leaves, we are reading the old man’s writings along with Johnny and getting his reaction to them, which ends of being half the story.
2. To increase tension
I don’t have a specific example for this one, but let’s say the framing device is two people stuck in an elevator and the one tells a story about a murderer. Having the other person (and the reader) gradually realize that the person telling the story is actually the murderer would increase the tension hugely since they are now stuck in an elevator with a murderer. This has much higher stakes than just a story about a murder since there are immediate implications and the possibility the person listening to the story will be killed too.
3. To provide a surprise ending
This is where we don’t know there is a bigger story until the very end. It’s not a traditional framing device since it’s only at the end of the story. The worst example of this is when someone wakes up and the whole story was a dream. Please don’t do this.
A more effective example of this is in The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. At the end of the story, we learn that the whole story has been the transcript of a tape recording that they found from far in the past. It takes away some of the mystery of the last scene in the main story, but it gives some surprise context and gives a good twist ending.
Things to Keep in Mind When Using a Framing Device
1. Make sure the framing device is relevant.
In the book The Worm Ouroboros, by E. R. Eddison, the story starts with a man being brought to Mercury to see a conflict there between the various inhabitants. The story is framed that these visitors are unseen, watching the main story happen. However, the writer forgets about them halfway through the book and these people are never mentioned again. If you can take away the framing device and it doesn’t affect the story, it’s probably best to leave it out.
2. Tie the framing device and the main story together.
Because framing devices are unusual, there should be a good reason to use them and they should be tied to the main story. For example, in Forrest Gump, the framing story (Forrest sitting on a bench and telling people his story) eventually merges with the story he’s telling, so they’re really just one story.
In The Princess Bride, the main story has an effect on the framing story since it convinces the grandson that love stories can be good and aren’t all yucky.
3. Framing devices remove some of the tension in your story.
This is the opposite of a point I made above, but that is because not all framing devices are the same. They can raise the tension but they can also take away from it.
This is because the main story has already happened in the framing story: another character is either reading or telling it. This can have the effect of making the story lose some of its tension. For example, let’s say the framing device is someone reading a journal about a private investigator’s adventures. It might seem like the private investigator is going to be killed at any moment, but we know they’re not since they survived to write the journal. That’s why framing devices might not work for action stories, at least where you want to have high stakes about life and death.
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