What is a Frame Story?

This seems to be the question of the week. At my writing group last Thursday we had a discussion of them, and just last night my husband asked me about them as well, though I’m not sure why.

So here we are. Frame stories.

For a simplistic definition, a frame story is the story outside a story (as opposed to a story within a story). To compare to a photograph, the main story is the picture and the frame story is, well, the frame. It serves as some sort of explanation as to why you’re getting the main story, and may even be as simple as an adult telling the story to a child (ala the Princess Bride movie).

It’s a fairly common literary device, and has been around for quite a while. TVTropes tells me that the earliest known example is an Egyptian tale from 2300-2100 BC. More classical examples include the Canterbury Tales, 1001 Arabian Nights, and The Comedy of Errors by Shakespeare. Oh, and the Odyssey, and Tolkien’s The Book of Lost Tales, Wuthering Heights, even I, Robot. Oh, and Jesus’s Parables in the Bible.

You get my point.

Frame stories seem to fall into two categories: 1) the frame story is a separate story to the main story, and 2) the narrator of the main story (as a character in the frame story) is directly tied to the main story, and, in fact, may merge the main and frame stories near the end.

I’ll give examples. For the first instance, a mother finds her son doing something stupid/dangerous/immoral, what have you. She tells him a tale about someone who learned their lesson never to do such things. At no point do the characters from the frame story directly impact the main story, or vice versa.

For the second, same set-up. Mother is telling her son this story, but at the end we learn that she knew and/or was there for the events of the main story, or even that the main story is still happening, at which point, the main story becomes merged with the frame, and events continue from there. (An excellent example of this is The Orphan’s Tale: In the Night Garden by Catherynne M. Valente.)

Personally, I prefer the second, when there’s more of a point to the frame story existing, when there’s some link between the two instead of just someone telling someone else a story. (Like in Frankenstein!)

What do you think, Squiders? Excellent literary device, or unnecessary addition? What are some of your favorites?

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