As you probably know, most of us at this blog like to read mysteries, write mysteries, and talk about mysteries. Why else would we call ourselves sleuthsayers, right?
Some of us occasionally enjoy reading and writing in other genres as well--fantasy, Western, sci-fi, romance, horror, etc. And sometimes even in that hard-to-describe-but-I-know-it-when-I-see-it category that's not a genre at all: literary.
At the time of this writing, I'm lucky enough to have short stories in the current issues of two publications: Woman's World (March 18, 2013) and The Saturday Evening Post (March/April 2013). They are vastly different markets, in content and format and just about everything else. WW is easy to find, has been around for a long time, and publishes 104 stories a year--one mystery and one romance every week. The Post is hard to find (I located a copy only yesterday of the issue that contains my story), has been around for a very long time, and publishes (I think) six pieces of fiction a year. And my two stories are as different as the two magazines. My 700-word WW mystery is a lighthearted whodunit with series characters, while my 2600-word SEP story deals with relationships, loss, and hope, and features a protagonist who "changes" as a result of what he sees and learns in the course of the story. By definition, I suppose the first one is genre and the second one is literary.
The thing I'd like to focus on, though, is that my SEP story follows a structure that I've always liked, and that I've occasionally found handy to use: it's a frame narrative.
Thinking inside the box
I think of frame stories as those that are told by one character to another, and that create a story within a story. The first (I'll call it the "wraparound") story is begun in the present, then takes the reader into the past, where the second (main) story is told--often in its entirety. I sometimes picture the second story as a really long flashback. When it finishes, the reader is brought back to the present, and the first story then ends as well.
Other examples of novel-length frame stories are Wuthering Heights, Frankenstein, Ethan Frome, and The Princess Bride. Short stories that come to mind are Kipling's "The Man Who Would Be King" and Stephen King's "The Last Rung on the Ladder."
When should a frame story be used?
Again, who can say? I suppose it should be used anytime it might add to the impact or clarity of the story. (Introducing a character as a narrator is effective even when "framing" isn't used.) Another way to look at this is to ask a related question: When should you use bookends? The answer might be "Use them whenever what they support can't stand up on its own." If a before-and-after story can "prop up" another story set in the past, the frame-narrative technique is probably a good option. Also, the project of course has to be long enough to be able to sustain a second storyline.
Over the nineteen years that I've been writing for publication, I've probably used frame stories a dozen or so times. In each case, I felt that it added depth to the story in a way that I couldn't accomplish otherwise--although a more talented writer might have been able to do it with a single storyline.
Have any of you used this approach with your own novels or short stories? Have you noticed or approved of its use in the fiction that you've read? Would you be willing to use it in future projects if you feel it might help?
I consider it just another item in my writer's toolbox, ready and waiting in case I need it. You can never have too many of those.