At the end of October, we’re going to be posting a review for Dante’s The Divine Comedy, in which I talk about a need to write a post about framing stories. When you read that post, I hope that you come back here. See, when I wrote the review, I had not yet written this post, but because of how I schedule posts, this post on framing stories will end up going live significantly before the review for The Divine Comedy. That’s why you’ll often see a review for something that I have in my Currently Reading page pop up on my Goodreads account long before it posts here on IGC Publishing. With that technical complexity out of the way, let’s talk about framing stories.
If I had sixty minutes to solve a problem, I would spend fifty five minutes defining the problem, and only five minutes solving it.Albert Einstein
Or at least the quote is most commonly attributed to Einstein; the concept immensely predates him, and will doubtless continue to be relevant. It also serves as justification for why I’m about to spend the first part of this post going through a drawn-out exercise in defining just what a story is. See, in order to talk about framing stories, we need to be able to separate them from the story itself, and that means understanding on a technical level, in a shared language, just what exactly a story is. Yes, I’m an engineer.
For our purposes in talking about framing stories, we will define the story being framed as the plotlines explored directly by the narrative. To take a well-known example, look at Harry Potter. The plotlines of the character arcs, and combatting Voldemort, are the core story. A framing story could be if there were a line at the beginning or end of the books saying “based upon the diaries of Harry Potter, Wizard.” Which takes us conveniently to the next set of definitions we need to supply.
I like to divide framing stories into two types: explicit and implicit. We’ll talk about explicit first, because they are the easiest to understand. What I call explicit frame stories will align more closely with what you may have learned about the concept as a literary device in an English class you may have taken in a former life. The example I see used for this most frequently is probably Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, where we are first introduced to a character who is writing about a story being told to him by another character, and that second character is the one to whom events happened. To define this idea of an explicit framing story, then, we might say that it is a device by which a story is textually nested. That is, the author writes about someone who is the one “actually” telling the story.
An example with which this particular audience might be more familiar is Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chornicles. We are introduced to Kvothe, and then Kvothe is given an excuse to tell his story to the chronicler, another character in the story. This device is often said to add tension to a story, but I don’t think that’s quite accurate – I would argue that it’s changing the nature of the tension, not increasing it. Without a frame story, the driving question might be something like “what happens next?” With a frame story, the question becomes something closer to “how did this character come to be like we see him or her now?” Think about how different reading The Name of the Wind would be if we didn’t know that Kvothe becomes this mysterious and bitter innkeeper with many names, and instead jumped right to the part where he’s telling us his story.
Explicit frame stories come and go, and there are plenty of modern examples, but I would tend to say that they are more common in older works. Perhaps this is because there were fewer genre conventions upon which authors could rely in earlier centuries. In older works, the frame story’s main purpose seems more like a tool to help the reader suspend disbelief and become immersed in the work, while frame stories in more recent pieces tend to serve a more story-centric purpose, changing the central question as I discussed previously. Sanderson’s Alcatraz series is another fine example of this idea: because of the frame story, the central questions becomes “how did Alcatraz end up like this?” He even makes that question quite explicit in the books.
Now, we’re going to diverge from what you may have learned in English class, because what I call the implicit frame story is a device firmly rooted in genre fiction, and particularly speculative fiction, and it has everything to do with suspension of disbelief. In my posting about building the learning curve in a story, I touched very briefly on a problem that speculative fiction authors have to address. Not the problem of exposition, but the problem of suspension of disbelief, which is centrally related to what I like to call plausible impossibility. This is one of the major reasons people who don’t read genre fiction will cite for disliking it: the element of the fantastic. They can’t quite bring themselves to accept wizards and fire-breathing dragons and magic swords as valid even in-world. For them, the separation between the “real” world and the fiction world isn’t sufficiently strong.
People that do read genre fiction don’t fail to notice the friction between the world described in the story and the “real” world, but they have developed techniques that allow them to still enjoy what is written, and those techniques are, in essence, what I refer to as implicit framing stories. They are a way to address a very particular rabbit hole of queries, which tends to culminate with the question of “if this is a story set upon a world in a completely different universe than ours, then why is it written in English using an alphabet developed on Earth?” Our earlier post on anachronisms touches briefly on this idea, as well.
JRR Tolkien wrote a very good essay on this subject, and it was that essay which led me to my idea of an implicit framing story. An implicit frame story exists to answer the question of how the story came to be told to you as you are sitting down and reading it. Tolkien’s answer, in his essay, was that readers would be best served to think of a work of genre fiction as a translation, that the author acquired the text somehow, and converted it into a form that humans on Earth can read. This type of implicit frame story is probably the strongest for those who go too far down these kinds of rabbit holes, and it covers a whole host of anachronisms and other apparent holes, like describing a room as spartan in a world that never had a Sparta, or a character putting their feet upon an ottoman in a world with no Ottoman Empire.
There are other types of implicit framing stories, but most involve the author, or at least the narrator, being somehow privy to both the events of the story, and to modern language conventions in order to effectively communicate it with you. I’ve seen some that go so far as to claim that the author has a magical device that allows them to pop into characters’ heads and interpret what is happening in there. There’s also the other extreme, where an author will just say “look, we both know that what really happened here is that I imagined the whole thing, so of course I know exactly what they were thinking at this time, even though that’s not how it would end up being recorded if it were to actually happen.” Unlike explicit framing stories, implicit framing stories are more about the reader-author relationship than about the text itself.
When you read the review for The Divine Comedy, I hope that this helps clear up the confusion I may have initiated about frame stories. If you have any other questions, feel free to post them in the comments below.