Today I decided to talk about frame stories. “Frame story” is a bit of a misnomer; it’s actually short for “story with a frame,” and it’s a very specific story structure in which the opening (whether that’s the prologue, Chapter One, or the first scene) and closing (whether that’s the epilog, last chapter, or last scene) form a separate-but-related story or incident that “frames” the main story. Some stories have a double-frame – the story-within-a-story-within-a-frame – and you can theoretically take it down as many levels as you want, as long as you can keep it all clear for the reader.
Frame stories used to be a lot more popular than they are now. The as-told-to frame, where two characters are talking (often in a bar) and one starts telling the other the story that is the main story, got used quite a bit – supposedly, having an authority figure within the story tell a tall tale made it more believable or acceptable to the reader.
Personally, I think that the reason frame stories fell out of fashion is that it’s difficult to come up with a framing incident that is interesting enough to get the reader involved, memorable enough that when the reader gets to the end they’ll recall what’s supposed to be happening, but not such a tense cliff-hanger that the reader will scream in frustration and flip straight to the end to find out what happens.
There are, however, two kinds of frame stories that you still see every so often. The first is the prologue-epilogue frame, in which the prologue and epilogue form a separate-but-related story or incident that brackets the main story. The prologue presents a character who is going to read, write, tell, be told, or set in motion the main story, and the epilog returns to the character to give his/her reaction once the story is finished.
A frame prologue-epilog usually takes place later in time than the main story, making the bulk of the novel a sort of mega-flashback. Generally the prologue/first frame scene ends with someone leaning back and saying or thinking “So why shouldn’t I hang/courtmartial/fire/exile you?” and the person in front of him saying “Well, sir, it’s like this…” and we’re on to the start of the real story, only coming back at the end to find out if sir really did hang/courtmartial/fire/exile the tale-teller.
The main trouble with this one is that the main story needs to be very strong to compensate for the fact that we know the characters who’ve appeared in the prologue are going to survive. I’ve also seen a few of these in which the author appeared to think he/she needed an excuse to write in first-person. If that’s all the frame is, it’s probably scaffolding that can be taken down and dispensed with once the rest of the story is finished, as most of the readers I know don’t need that kind of justification for a first-person story. (And I should probably add that a story within a frame does not have to be in first-person, even when the first frame scene ends “Well, sir, it happened like this…”)
The second sort of frame story you see around a fair bit is more like one of those shadow-box frames that has multiple compartments, each containing a different picture. It’s usually used to string together a bunch of closely related short stories. If the frame story is strong enough, and does a good enough job of stitching the short stories into a coherent whole, you get what’s commonly referred to as a “fix-up novel;” if it’s not, you get something more like a short story collection with a series of introductions by the characters, like Poul Anderson’s Tales of the Flying Mountains.
A good writer can use a frame structure to reinforce or undercut the events or the theme of the main story. You can give things an unexpected or humorous twist in the final segment of the frame, revealing information about motivations or manipulations or behind-the-scenes players that nobody in the main story had. Also, the frame story does not actually have to include the protagonist of the main story; maybe the frame is the sidekick or one of the villain’s minions explaining what happened to his/her mother.
The main question to ask when considering whether to use a frame is: does it add anything significant to the story besides word count? Does it make the overall story even cooler? If it doesn’t pass the coolness test, you should probably pass on including it. On the other hand, if all the story coolness is in the frame, maybe the frame should be a story of its own. Frames are, after all, supposed to enhance what they surround, not draw all the attention to themselves.