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Some Thoughts on Frame Tales

October 19, 2013


The frame tale often makes for an exciting story. We don’t just get the story being told, but, literally, the story of the telling too. From Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio’s Decameron to films like The Princess Bride and The Life of Pi, the drama of the story being told to a stand-in audience has enchanted viewers and readers for centuries.

But what exactly does the frame do? Why use one in your story?

There’s an underlying note of caution in those questions for contemporary writers. And it’s there for good reason. Any frame will strike readers as a device. As such, a frame should only be used when its appearance heightens effects that are necessary to the story.

Otherwise, like any superfluous device, the frame may annoy and thwart, gumming up the works of your primary story with a gimmicky outer ooze. A poorly designed frame may even enrage some readers, as it did J.R.R. Tolkien who famously abhorred such fictive machinations in fantasy stories because he thought they hinted at authorial shame or reluctance for the (then-emergent) genre of fantasy.

But if you use a frame well, as with The Princess Bride, it could be crucial to the story. It might offer your audience a hermeneutic key for unlocking the significance of the tale within.

Here’s how. The frame story creates two levels of fictionality. The outer frame simulates reality in stark contrast to the fiction it contains. In Henry James’s timelessly spooky “The Turn of the Screw,” for example, the outer tale contextualizes the strange goings-on with the governess and her weird adolescent charges. It works psychologically to trigger class anxieties as well as standard parental fears.

When James has a teller begin the story within a high-society party, he places the telling of the story in the social world most associated with the inner story’s absent landlords and parent–of those who should be taking better care of the poor possessed children. Tension is created easily as the listeners are also likely to identify with the enraged employers of all the story’s underclass ghosts.

Frame stories like James’s, as well as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and countless others, suggest that stories are not to be understood apart from their social contexts. They insist upon presenting stories as rhetorical transmissions — with tellers, intentions, and receivers.

In the medieval tradition of Boccaccio and Chaucer, the frame established a model community of narrative reception. It trained others in how to best read and react to the interior fictions.

Then, as now, the frame has either a periphrastic (circumlocutory) or a pedagogical function: it either delays the immediacy of the story or it teaches audiences how they might respond.

The story without a frame encourages a reader who to enter the story disembodied, fully abstract, unmediated by the content. But the frame story requires that the reader be slightly removed from the embedded story world. We are mediated as we read such stories. Our entry is buffeted, curtailed.

Sometimes, though, that added mediation can be a good thing. It can heighten a desired effect.

In Wuthering Heights, for example, our closest stand-in is someone we are not always happy to identify with. Lockwood’s thirst for Catherine Earnshaw’s story is from the start perverse. He desperately wants to know her story and steals glimpses into a private series of writings left behind in her room after death. He is supposed to be sleeping in that room. Her room. The room of the dead woman whose interiority he symbolically wishes to seize control of and master (just like Heathcliff).

We as readers are made to feel uncomfortably simpatico with Lockwood as he peeks into the dead woman’s story. And then her ghost shows up at the window to interrupt his reading. The glass breaks and the phantom rubs the reader-proxy’s arm against the jagged shards until his blood is said to wet the sheets of her former bed upon which he lies.

There it is ladies and gentleman: a trifecta of sex, violence, and death, all wrapped up into an inaugural and sanguinary scene that consummates our symbolic entry into the dangerously libidinal world of Wuthering Heights.

If the frame is going to be that crazy, just think of what the story will be like…

  1. Michael Andreoni permalink

    I think there are some good possibilities to using a narrative frame, particularly in modern humor. For me, nothing is funnier than a story told by either an innocent, who consistently misinterprets what’s occurring, or a certifiably crazy person reacting with hilarious paranoia to the most mundane scenes.

  2. currankentucky permalink

    Another great post! Thank you! I love your blog and in appreciation have nominated you for The Liebster Award. Follow this link for more.

    • Ms. Curran you are indeed an angel, and I am so thankful to be nominated. However, I’ve just been so busy lately that I’m afraid I won’t be able to do a proper job of nominating others. But thank you, thank you, thank you for your kind words and for your courage.

      • currankentucky permalink

        Welcome nonetheless!!!

  3. I had no idea there was such a thing as a “frame story” – and it turns out my novel was one all along (hope it hasn’t fallen into the trap of being gimmicky). Thanks for the education!

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