16 March 2013

Framed


by John M. Floyd

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.

In Stephen King's The Green Mile, the wraparound story involves the protagonist as an old man in a nursing home who tells his friend a long tale about a life-changing incident that happened to him as a young prison guard. The "main" story takes place sixty years in the past, and when it's completed the wraparound story picks up again, at the nursing home. By that time the reader, who has been "listening" to the narrative along with the friend, has now come to care deeply about the lead character as both a young man and an old man, and wants to hear "the rest of the story." In my opinion, framing the book in this way made it a more effective, satisfying, and memorable novel. It also allowed the writer to tell two stories in one, and to reveal a couple of big surprises at the end that were set up in the middle.

Other examples of novel-length frame stories are Wuthering HeightsFrankensteinEthan 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."

Fringe benefits

Another reason I think frame narratives can be successful is that they demonstrate the time-proven technique sometimes called a circular ending or a full-circle story. This happens when the story or novel or movie begins at a certain place or with a certain scene or event, and then ends either in that same physical location or with the characters performing that same activity. Why does this always seem to work well? Who knows. Maybe it goes back to the traditional "hero's journey" structure, where the protagonist leaves his familiar routine, embarks on his quest for adventure, confronts his enemies, and eventually returns--a now older and wiser person--to his routine. Or maybe it's because we as readers and viewers silently yearn for a sense of order and logic to our daily lives and endeavors, and (by extension) to the fictional stories that are supposed to be a metaphor for those lives. The circular ending just feels right.

Examples of these full-circle storylines: The Wizard of Oz (opens and closes with Dorothy at the farm), The Searchers (starts and ends with the view of Monument Valley through the open cabin door), To Kill a Mockingbird (Atticus Finch's house), Lonesome Dove (the town of Lonesome Dove, Texas), The Lord of the Rings (the Shire), Pulp Fiction (the same L.A. restaurant), Shane (the little boy watching the gunfighter approach/disappear in the distance), While You Were Sleeping (the train station), Escape From New York (Liberty Island), The Natural (starts with the little boy playing catch with his father, ends with the grown-up boy playing catch with his son), Forrest Gump (the white feather blowing in the wind), High Noon (Will Kane and his bride, standing together with the whole town watching), and many others. Not all stories that have circular endings are frame narratives, of course, but all framed narratives have--at least to some degree--circular endings.

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.

13 comments:

Janice Law said...

Another good column- and congratulations on your stories. I remember the Saturday Evening Post as a fixture in my childhood.

David Dean said...

Good stuff, John, and congrats on the stories!

I used a variation of the frame technique in a story called "Ibrahim's Eyes," and again in an upcoming EQMM tale called, "In A Dark Manner." Sometimes a story just cries out for "framing."

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Excellent post, John. Framing is something I've been seeing as long as I've been a reader without ever thinking much about. But I think the challenge is to make the frame story as interesting as the story framed, so it comes across as essential to the whole. I can think of one of Michael Gruber's that didn't work for me, and as an example of one that did, Fried Green Tomatoes.

BTW, I had no idea the Saturday Evening Post was still being published. Back in the Sixties I worked for Curtis Publishing, which at that time published SEP and the Ladies Home Journal, among others.

John Floyd said...

Thanks, Janice and David.

As you said, David, sometimes structuring a story that way just seems natural. I rarely set out thinking I'll do a "story within a story"--and when it turns out that way, I only realize it afterward.

John Floyd said...

Liz, I'd forgotten about Fried Green Tomatoes--great example.

As for the SEP, I too had thought it wasn't even around anymore. And sure enough, it's pretty hard to find--our local Books-A-Million has it on the rack, but I've not seen it elsewhere around town. I think I read someplace that its circulation is now around 350K, whereas it was once 6 million. I was especially surprised to learn that they still take fiction now and then.

Robert Lopresti said...

congrats on the two sales, especially SEP. What a coup!

My story "Shanks Commences" in AHMM last year has a frame, but it goes on several pages after the frame ends.

My favorite example of a frame story is probably Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, because it has only HALF a frame. The "outer" story never comes back, which i think HJ did deliberately to increase the discomfort one feels with the ending, the sense that something is wrong here. (A feeling which I will be discussing this Wednesday in this space, come to think of it.)

Robert Lopresti said...

congrats on the two sales, especially SEP. What a coup!

My story "Shanks Commences" in AHMM last year has a frame, but it goes on several pages after the frame ends.

My favorite example of a frame story is probably Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, because it has only HALF a frame. The "outer" story never comes back, which i think HJ did deliberately to increase the discomfort one feels with the ending, the sense that something is wrong here. (A feeling which I will be discussing this Wednesday in this space, come to think of it.)

John Floyd said...

Many thanks, Rob! Still not sure how my Post story made the cut, but I'm glad it did.

The Turn of the Screw IS a great example.

Looking forward to your Wednesday column!

Dixon Hill said...

John! The Saturday Evening Post? Dude, you RULE! Seriously.

And, thanks for such a great post on frame stories. Did you ever read Water for Elephants? It covers an old man in a nursing home, relating his adventures in the circus years earlier, but keeps returning to activity at the nursing home.

--Dix

John Floyd said...

Thanks, Dix, for the kind words! And yes, WFE is an instance where the main story is not only "bookended" but--as you said--returned to several times throughout the narrative. (I liked the movie version as well.)

Fran Rizer said...

John, sorry to be a day late, but I have to comment that until you told me you'd sold a story to SEP, I had no idea it still existed. I'll make it a point to get a copy.
On a personal level, as a sixteen-year-old college freshman, I applied to chauffeur the then editor of the SEP from Charleston to Philadelphia and back for the Thanksgiving holidays. He said, "I had assumed I'd get a male driver." I replied, "But do you have any kids under age twenty-five? If not, I doubt your insurance covers a male, but females are automatically covered." I wound up with the job and had some real adventures in Philly on several trips.

John Floyd said...

Fran, you've had some adventures, that's for sure. Great story.

David Edgerley Gates said...

John,
I love frame stories. R.L. Stevenson's THE WRECKER is a great one. There's also, perhaps, an 'invisible' frame, usually first person, where whoever's telling the story comments on it, from a distance, i.e., historical irony, a technique I've used in the Mickey Counihan stories. And sometimes the frame is actually the story, as if the past were prologue. Look at, for example, Somerset Maugham's "Red," where the back story is told by the host to his visitor, but the punchline is in the present day. Kipling is another guy who used this method very effectively.