Frame Narrative Definition and Overview
Simply put, a frame narrative is a story within a story. It could be a character telling a tale to other characters around a campfire, or it could be a character sitting down at a desk to regale a story directly to the reader. The structure of such novels can vary; however, they usually start off with the narrator telling the story, then switch to the actual story being told.
Well-known frame narratives include The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb, and Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice. In these books, a character relays the actual story to other characters or the reader. For example, in The Name of the Wind, the actual tale is regaled by an innkeeper to a chronicler. In Interview with a Vampire, a vampire tells his life story to a reporter.
Frame narratives can be used to incorporate broader contexts. Their nature implies a passage of time—a character had to live through something to be able to tell others about it. This can raise interesting questions. How has the character changed? What were the eventual consequences of her actions? That being said, frame narratives can become confusing if the story’s structure is neglected.
What is the primary goal of the frame narrative?
Is it to show growth or regression in the narrator? Is it to introduce a plot twist? Is it to give context to a broader story? The writer adds an additional layer of complexity to a work when writing it as a frame story. This structure impacts the suspension of disbelief, how characters interact with one another, what can be left out, and what should be included. Poorly implemented frame narratives can be difficult to understand. If there is no thematic reason for nesting a story inside another story, then a more traditional structure should be used.
What will the point of view of the nested story be?
The first-layer of a frame narrative concerns the narrator. This is essentially the person or being who says, “Once upon a time….” The nested, second layer is the story being told. An important consideration is the point of view in this subsequent story. It is usually either first-person (I, me etc.) or third person (he, she, it etc.). Either is acceptable, but consistency is key. As mentioned, frame narratives are structurally more complex than regular, unnested stories. You don’t want to add even greater complexity by alternating between different points of view in the second-layer story.
For example, if the first chapter of the narrator’s story is written in the first-person, then you should think carefully before writing the second chapter in the third-person. Experimental narrative structures can work, of course—there are many bestselling books that have done so. However, it is easy to muddy the reading experience by introducing unnecessary narrative components. Remember, simplicity is almost always better.
Will the point of view of the nested story be limited or omniscient?
In writing, the point of view also consists of a second aspect: the knowledge of the narrator. The point of view is considered omniscient if the story is being told by someone who knows all the thoughts and motives of characters. It is considered limited if the story is being told by someone who does not know everything there is to know about the world. That’s why books are sometimes described as first-person omniscient, third-person limited etc.
In frame narratives, the degree of the narrator’s knowledge can be tricky to balance. The narrator from the first layer already knows what happens in the nested story. However, suspense still has to be maintained—even though hindsight plays a prominent role. Doubt as to the outcome of the second-layer story must be a constant—else the read risks being boring.
Again, consistency is key. The amount of information imparted to the reader in the second layer should not hamper suspense or mystery. Of course, there must be a level of reflection during the novel—else there wouldn’t be a point to writing it as a frame narrative.
How reliable will the narrator be?
In fiction, the unreliable narrator is a literary device whereby the storyteller’s version of events is either deceitful or incorrect. This type of narration can be used to increase the mystery or suspense of a piece. It also allows for interesting plot twists. Due to its nature, the unreliable narrator is often employed in frame narratives, where the writer has more leeway to develop the character of the storyteller.
Although the unreliable narrator can make for a riveting read, it also adds an additional layer of complexity. If used in a frame narrative, the writer needs to balance two story threads as well as various misconceptions and untruths littered throughout the prose—all of which have to be resolved before the book concludes.
How will the frame narrative be structured?
Will a single story be interwoven with stops and commentary from the storyteller? Will it be a collection of short stories with scenes from the narrator separating them? Will the narrator have a fleshed-out story of his own (with character arcs and tensions and the whole gamut)?
Even if you are a writer who plans little, you should still strive for at least a moderately consistent structure in your frame narrative. Various story threads and points of view can be difficult to follow if the story jumps around too much.
Is a frame narrative structure absolutely necessary for your novel?
All considerations lead to the following question: Is it necessary for your novel to be written as a frame narrative?
At Manuscript Mentoring, we often see nested stories with a good premise bogged down with an unnecessary storyteller. This is especially true for frame narratives that have a more active narrator—a storyteller who uses hindsight to discuss events as they evolve. This may seem like an easy way to flesh out a world, but these types of frames often cross over into excessive exposition. We cover exposition at length in one of our other articles; suffice it to say that too much backstory too quickly can severely hamper the enjoyment of a read.
The structure of frame narratives are also sometimes used to add a layer of safeness to a novel. This can be done either indirectly with the storyteller’s tone, or with outright statements about the nested story. An action scene prefaced with a reassurance that nobody gets hurt is an example of the writer playing it safe. Entire books have been written on the topic of safe writing; needless to say, it is the bane of reader enjoyment and should be avoided at all costs.
Obstacles aside, frame narratives can be terrific when properly implemented. Different timelines and perspectives can make a story unpredictable, and the fallibility and biases of a narrator can lead to interesting resolutions to conflicts and problems. How well a frame narrative works depends largely on the plot, its reveals, and how the nested story transitions in and out of the larger narrative.
Manuscript Mentoring’s developmental editing service can help improve the structure and cohesion of your frame narrative. If you’re struggling to piece together the disparate parts of a complex book idea, then have a look at our Services page.