You can think of a framing device as a pair of bookends. It’s a separate viewpoint or narrative that appears briefly at the beginning and end of the story, and sometimes periodically throughout. The most common type of framing device is the story within a story, which depicts characters who tell the story in earnest.
Framing devices are at least as old as ancient Egyptian folktales, in which a character appears at court to recount something that happened to them. At the time, it would have provided an explanation for telling a story in first person rather than the standard third person. It may be hard to imagine now, but long ago, having a storyteller use “I” for another person would have been pretty confusing.
Today, we don’t need a framing device just to introduce a first-person narrative. So what are they for? In many cases, we use them just so we can feel original and innovative. They also allow us to comment on our stories by way of the characters in our framing devices. Unfortunately, it turns out we mostly want to comment on how awesome our stories are.
Fancy or not, the reality is that framing devices are usually an active detriment to the story. Can they be better?
Why Framing Devices Are the Worst
Bookends are called framing devices when there is a boundary between them and the rest of the story. And therein lies the problem. Because these portions of the story are disconnected from the rest, they fall into one of two traps.
The Framing Device as a Dull Waste of Time
Most framing devices have little, if any, tension. Instead, they usually focus on setup work, such as introducing the fictional storyteller and audience. They might also offer information about the world to set the stage for the main story.
Not only does this setup work generally have little entertainment value, but most of it won’t be relevant once the story begins in earnest. Audience characters in particular almost never feature in the main story. Sometimes they interrupt the story to add commentary, but this rarely contributes anything meaningful.
For example, Interview With the Vampire opens with a boy who meets a stranger he wants to interview. The stranger, Louis, declares himself a vampire and agrees to tell his tale. Even though the novel is called an “interview,” it’s just first-person narration with only a few interruptions by the boy. What’s more, the boy doesn’t prompt Louis to reveal anything important. He’s clearly there to embody how Anne Rice wants her readers to react. He’s overly impressed with Louis and the story, which comes off as storyteller self-indulgence.
In the movie version of The Princess Bride, we see a boy who’s sick in bed. His grandfather visits to read him a story, and the boy argues with him about it before finally agreeing to listen. The boy is played by an adorable Fred Savage, and he’s much more charming than the boy in Interview With the Vampire. Even so, it’s not his lines that everyone quotes or his scenes that everyone remembers. Since the grandfather isn’t in the story either, he mostly exists to provide some voice-over. Again, the acting is great, but it’s not what matters. The uninterrupted moments in the main story are what made this movie a classic.
Even when a framing-device character is the main character of the whole work, the framing device rarely imparts anything about them that enhances the story. The main story generally takes place in their past, so nothing about their current state is needed to understand the events they’ll recount.
For instance, readers of Interview With the Vampire gain nothing from meeting the present-day version of Louis in a scene rather than just hearing him narrate the story without ado. All the characterization we need is part of his narration. Plus, Louis’s tale starts with how he became a vampire, which has more novelty and tension than the scene where he meets the interviewer.
The beginning of a story is crucial for engaging audiences. In a narrated work especially, the audience is likely to drop a story rather than put in effort to read it or listen to it. This means framing devices are especially damaging. They make our openings boring, and they can almost always be dropped without having any negative impact on the story in earnest. At best, they’re a waste of space.
The Framing Device as a Bait and Switch
In some cases, the framing device has a hook capable of generating interest. In my experience, this usually means the framing device is significantly longer, so most of these hooks still aren’t compelling enough to make up for the puttering pace of the opening. Even so, these openings theoretically could be engaging, and they allow us to examine what happens when a decent hook is added to the opening frame.
Instead of a dull waste of space, the story becomes a bait and switch. Let’s look at a couple examples.
In the opening of The Name of the Wind, readers meet the small-town innkeeper Kvothe. Visitors to his tavern bring in the body of a spider demon, and Kvothe knows these monsters never appear alone. What’s more, the small backwater town has little means to defend against them. Kvothe fights the spiders once during the opening frame, but he mostly spends his time cleaning and doing other mundane tasks. After about 50 pages, a chronicler comes to town to record Kvothe’s life story. Kvothe starts by talking at length about his family and childhood, which has nothing to do with the spider demons.
While the 50-page opening frame isn’t that tense, it still leaves readers wondering about the fate of the town and the looming spider-demon attack. But that’s not what the actual story is about. There are currently two books out, and the spider-demon plot remains only in the framing device. Since it hasn’t made significant progress, readers who are drawn in by that hook will end the book feeling unsatisfied.
Similarly, Hyperion opens with its main character, the Consul, getting a strange mission with stakes that are high but hard to understand. Following that is a great deal of world exposition plus the extended introduction of six other characters who will join him on his mission. They have a long discussion in which they reluctantly agree to share their backstories. Those backstories are what the book is actually about.
In the opening frame, author Dan Simmons promises readers that the novel will be about the Consul’s mission, and then he reveals it’s actually six novelettes in a trench coat. The book ends before the characters get to the meaningful part of the mission, leaving many readers feeling cheated.
Simmons couldn’t have sold Hyperion as a single novel without the framing device. But that simply means it’s being used to prop up a fragmented story. Each novelette could stand alone, so they don’t belong together.
How We Can Make Them Work
Since the problem with framing devices is their disconnection from the rest of the story, and that’s what defines them, a “good framing device” will always be something of an oxymoron. However, that disconnection can come in shades of gray, and sometimes extra setup is actually needed. This means it’s not impossible to create a framing device that adds to the story.
Blurring the Line With Flash-Forwards
A flash-forward is a moment that takes place later in the story. A story that opens with a flash-forward should:
- Feature a brief opening that shows the protagonist in a fix.
- Tell the story of how the protagonist got in that fix.
- Resolve the fix.
This is important because it allows the opening frame to act as an effective hook for the main story. It also means the main story feeds back into the frame. To meet reader expectations, the fix must be resolved before the book ends. However, that shouldn’t be difficult, because the main story can set up everything that’s needed to resolve the initial problem.
H. P. Lovecraft is known for doing this. In stories such as Dagon, he starts with a narrator in extreme emotional distress. The narrator attributes this to horrific events he witnessed, and then he tells those events in full. Afterward, the story jumps back to the present, and the narrator emphasizes how he’s never been the same since the main story took place. Then Lovecraft generally suggests a terrible fate for the narrator, such as the narrator’s death. In these stories, the framing device is brief and focused on creating the horror atmosphere that Lovecraft wants.
Setting Up the Premise
While we don’t need framing devices just to explain first person anymore, that doesn’t mean we never need it to set up a premise. However, that premise has to add enough value to be worth the extra time and effort.
A famous example is the 1950 film Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa, based on the short story In a Grove. Rashomon is famous for retelling the same set of events from the viewpoint of different characters that were present. Each adds their own bias, making the truth ultimately uncertain. To set this up, the movie opens with characters who go to court to testify about a crime. This tells viewers what to expect and establishes the greater stakes.
Unlike Hyperion, each story in Rashomon means much less if told alone. The framing device and the multiple-story format add significant value for viewers. Since Rashomon came out, this format has been used in many mysteries. It’s often similar to the flash-forward method I outlined above, since each character’s story is used to explain how the murder happened before the murder is solved.
The Princess Bride novel also has a unique premise. In it, author William Goldman pretends to be annotating and abbreviating a much longer work by a fictional author named S. Morgenstern. While this reduces immersion in the story, it also adds a uniquely playful element to the narration that makes the novel stand apart. However, it does need some explanation up front. When Goldman adapted his novel into a screenplay, he translated the playful narration into the framing device of the movie, which didn’t offer the same value.
Drawing the Frame Into the Story
You can also make a framing device work by breaking the fourth wall. Since framing devices almost always feature characters telling a story, that’s one of the few ways to create two-way interactions between the storylines.
The most famous example of this rare technique is probably The Neverending Story. The frame character, Bastian, finds a magical fantasy book and starts reading. At first, the story in the book seems entirely separate from Bastian’s story. If Bastian were immediately sucked into the story world, the book would be a portal fantasy without a framing device. Instead, readers leave Bastian for a while and return to him periodically. Then, as the book continues, Bastian starts to realize that the characters notice his reactions. They start referencing him, until the Empress calls him out by name.
To make this pay off, the entire story has been molded around this concept. Bastian has a character arc about whether he should indulge his imagination or keep his head on the ground as his father wants. The story world is being destroyed because real-world kids don’t believe in stories anymore. Because of this, the fourth-wall break is an essential part of the story instead of a distraction from it.
Regardless of whether you’re considering multiple viewpoints, multiple timelines, prologues, or framing devices, the primary consideration is the same: every part of the story should benefit by being told with the others. If that’s not true, they shouldn’t share a binding.
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