6 Types of Framing Structures

Framing Structures are a literary device used to add context to a story for the benefit of the audience’s understanding or deepening the experience. They’re everywhere in fiction, but how can you choose which one works best for your story? In my experience, they fit into one of the following six categories, which I’ve defined for you today! Each has different purposes, strengths, and weaknesses, and none is better than the others, so this article takes an analytical look at what makes them work well, and includes examples to illustrate. So let’s get into the trope talk, shall we?

Passed down

These are stories that start with one character (normally an elder) passing down a story to a younger audience that serves as a reader stand in. We hear the story within a story through the lens of the character hearing it for the first time. This is often the simplest kind of framing sequence and creates a feeling of familiarity or relatability with the framing characters. Writers understand the joy of telling a story to an enraptured audience, and who hasn’t sat for a read-aloud as a child? This framing sequence also brings the story into our world, and people may want to go find the story from the story. A great example of his framing structure is The Princess Bride (both the movie and book), where the grandfather tells the story to his sick grandson, and the author makes snarky commentary in the margins.

Recounted

This structure is very similar to the “Passed Down” structure with one key difference – the character doing the storytelling exists diegetically or in-universe. The scale of this frame can vary from the protagonist recounting their entire life story to a new acquaintance to sharing a short tale between characters as they sit around the campfire. This is another common and relatively simple structure that can be used to great effect for immersion or demonstrating a moral. Often, at the end of the story, a character might explain what they or the subjects learned from the experience and how they came to be in the current situation. These can take a first or third person approach and the form of a retrospective or in media res, where the reader is filled in on the history as necessary. The audience learns more about the world through the characters, as this is a great way to sneak in subtle exposition. It also helps you learn about the characters themselves. Are they an unreliable narrator or lecturing their subject?

An example of this structure is seen in A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness, where the monster tells Conor three stories in exchange for his truth. This is one of the oldest examples of a framing sequences as well, being found in One Thousand and One Nights, where the storyteller is a woman in the sultan’s court who receives a death sentence, but tells the king a story each night, never ending it before dawn so that she can postpone her execution one more day. After One Thousand and One Nights of stories, the king decides to spare her life. (For further reading, The Library of Congress has a fascinating article on this.)

Dream Sequence

This structure is very useful for playing with surreality and fantastical elements without breaking the status quo. It allows endless what-if scenarios to put the characters through a gauntlet of incredible (or horrifying) experiences without necessarily putting them in physical harm, though the stakes can be raised if what hurts the character in the dream world can also hurt them in real life. Sometimes this trope gets a bad rap for being used as a fake-out, but dreams give us a deeper look into a character’s psyche, especially if they’re not the type to share their emotions externally. The Matrix is the quintessential example of this trope, but my personal favorite is my good friend Quinn’s book, Dream’s Shadow, which takes this framing sequence to the next level in a way I’ve never seen pulled off so well. If you’re interested in reading more about this WIP, you can read our conversation here!

Nested

Nested structure is an exponential version of the recounted structure, where a character begins to tell their own story, then takes a tangent to explain an element of that story. This gives a “story inside a story inside a story inside a…” situation, which can provide more depth to the world and set up foreshadowing for future plot points to come back later. This is less common in modern literature, which is as streamlined and trimmed as possible, but it can be seen often in classic literature. In Frankenstein, the framing character is the sister of a sea captain receiving his letters from an artic expedition. The captain comes across Victor Frankenstein who tells him the story of how he arrived in the artic, which includes telling the Creature’s story of how he survived abandonment by hiding near a family cottage, which includes telling the story of that family, and then backing out of the layers towards the present. The entire novel is told in retrospect using a dive in-climb out model.

Another subset of this is the tangent-setup nesting structure, which is seen in The Count of Monte Cristo. Every few chapters when Dumas explores a new plot thread, it may seem like he’s simply getting distracted and exploring unnecessary backdrop – I remember when first reading, I found the Italian Bandit and Haydee subplots to be tedious, but just when I thought I’d forgotten about the event, the characters return to play a role in the final revenge schemes. It’s pulled off so well I wrote a 4 part analysis last year, so if you’re interested in learning more about this, I’ve linked the first part here.

Epistolary

Epistolary framing structures tell a story through letters, newspaper clippings, journal entries, and the everyday writings of characters interacting with the plot. Often, each snippet contains one limited POV, and the sum of each part gradually reveals more about the story through the eyes of the narrating character. This format is especially useful for mysteries and suspense where keeping the audience partially in the dark is important to the plot, and they allow for an extremely narrow focus on character psychology. Dracula is the best example of this framing structure, and I also wrote this post breaking down why it works so well for the horror genre if you’re interested in reading more.

Discovered

In a discovered plot, the framing character is an investigator of some sort collecting clues about what’s really going on. This framing structure is not unique to serial mysteries, but this is perhaps one of the most common examples, where an anthology of standalone adventures gradually builds to an overarching meta plot. While it is difficult to pull off, the culmination of events can be extremely satisfying, and red-string brigades will have a blast trying to connect the dots before the framing character does. This structure also supplies endless rewatch/relisten/reread value as you can go back and pick out the foreshadowing in each episode. My favorite example of this trope is Rusty Quill’s The Magnus Archives, a horror fiction podcast that has some of the best setup/payoff delivery of any work I’ve seen.

Which framing structure is your favorite? Have you read, watched, or listened to any of the examples provided here? Are you using a certain framing structure in your wip? Tell me about it in the comments, let’s start a discussion. Thank you for reading, and happy writing!

In the Dark – Dracula

Hello my friends, it has been a hot minute since I last shared a reading rec, but what better month to get back into it than October! Today I want to share my personal favorite classic horror novel, and break down what makes it work so well. I’m sure we’re all familiar with the characters of Dracula from pop-culture, but they’re often so far removed from the original context that the concepts lose their teeth (heh). To understand why Dracula became such a ubiquitous icon of the vampire horror genre, we need to revisit why people feared him in the first place. For this article, I’ll be referring to the book with italics, and the character in normal text, to avoid confusion. This will also include spoilers, since I stand by a copyright-spoiler expiration policy. If you want to read the book for free, a copy is available from Project Gutenberg (which is what I used to find my excerpts.)

I’d also like to preface this with a disclaimer that if you’ve read the SparkNotes summary, this article will have a much different analysis. In my opinion, the SparkNotes takes a bad-faith assumption that treats the male characters as sex-motivated repressed Victorians who ignore religion for scientific advancement and fear Strong Women ™. I disagree, but I encourage you to read the book and both analyses to form your own opinion. If you’ve read the book already, leave a comment to start a discussion!

Framing Structure

Dracula is an epistolary novel, told through a series of 1st person journal entries, letters, and newspaper clippings. Bram Stoker introduces us first to Jonathan Harker, who meets Dracula at his Transylvanian castle and experiences the threat first hand, and isolated from the rest of the characters. His diary entries show his desperation and fear as he tries to escape, then cut off, leaving us to wonder if he’s still alive.

The story then cuts to an exchange between Mina Harker and her friend Lucy. Through these letters, we meet the most of the rest of the supporting cast: Dr. Seward, Arthur Holmwood, and Quincey Morris, the three men who propose to Lucy. During this portion of the story, the tension is low, but since it comes after Jonathan’s diary entries, we know that the threat is still out there. Stoker creates a feeling of dread as we wait for the Dracula to reappear. When he does, the characters remain oblivious to the growing horrors that plague their town, as they lack the context of Jonathan’s experience. The dread becomes dramatic irony, as the characters live in ignorance and the reader watches the events unfold, unable to warn them.

This framing sequence throughout the book also maintains a sense of mystery, as the reader still doesn’t know Dracula’s whereabouts or ultimate plan until halfway through the story. We learn more about the true series of events alongside the characters as they collect pieces of evidence and put the full picture together. Once the characters are on the same page (literally, after they transcribe and share notes), the festering slow burn becomes a race against the clock as they try to prevent Dracula from destroying England, and the world, once and for all. The act of transcribing the details of the events immediately after the fact also gives us a view of the scene as the character themself tells the story and reflects on their experience. The way they choose to describe the settings and feelings helps to build up the tone of dread and terror throughout the story.

The Characters

Every character in this book is memorable and lovable in their own way. Through their writing, we gain insight into each personality and how each views the world. Dr. Seward is analytical, Jonathan is straightforward, Lucy is romantic, and Mina is emotional and perceptive. We also get to see how they perceive the others. It’s wholesome to hear Seward and Quincey praising the qualities of Arthur when he gets the girl instead of him, and saying he’s happy that Lucy is happy. Mina’s and Jonathan’s love gives them hope amid the disaster. Whenever one member of the group does something especially brave or clever, we only hear about the event from their friend recounting the glory of the deed. The framing sequence gives us a deeper insight into the group dynamics, and it became one of the sweetest found families I’ve ever read. When adaptations remove the characters from this POV, they also lose this interpersonal element of internal admiration, which the original captures so well. Mina remarks of her new friends:

Dr. Seward went about his work of going his round of the patients; when he had finished, he came back and sat near me, reading, so that I did not feel too lonely whilst I worked. How good and thoughtful he is; the world seems full of good men—even if there are monsters in it.

From Mina Harker’s Journal

By creating these dynamics that invest the reader, Stoker also raises the stakes. Losing any one member of the group would devastate to all the others, and when Dracula attacks Lucy and Mina, it’s not only scary, it’s also tragic. We feel their grief through their personal writings, in a way they don’t always share publically, so we know what they’re suffering when their friends don’t. We also see how they lean on each other for support when it is too much to bear alone, and this combination of dynamics makes the story compelling for more than just the titular character.

The Stakes

This is a Catholic book!

Even if you’re not religious, I believe anyone can still enjoy the story by experiencing the threat through the lens of the characters who wholeheartedly believe in the Christian afterlife. To them, vampires are an affront against God’s holy plan of salvation. Dracula is a murderer and a rapist, but beyond that, he also brings other people into the living hell of immortality against their will. This is a sin paramount to the others, as the Bible condemns leading others into sin: “It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” from Luke 17:2.

There are also exponential implications past Dracula’s immediate influence. Each victim that loses their humanity goes onto turn other people and terrorize their local communities with a single-minded blood-thirst. Van Helsing likens this to a plague and insists that they must stop the cycle before it is too late. It leaves you wondering how many people he’s indirectly hurt throughout the years, and how many times this tragic story has played out in the past. From the weeping townsfolk pressing crucifixes into Jonathan’s hand, we can take a guess.

It takes convincing from Helsing for Seward, Quincey, and Arthur to accept the existence of vampires.

My thesis is this: I want you to believe.”

“To believe what?”

“To believe in things that you cannot…Now that you are willing to understand, you have taken the first step to understand.”

Van Helsing and Dr. Seward

As soon as they have the faith to listen, Van Helsing systematically proves what he knows to be true, proving that science and faith rely on each other and the characters value both in their approach to the world. He takes the men to the graveyard that evening and they see first-hand how vampire-Lucy has lost almost every shred of her humanity. At first, Seward (who recounts the event) is still skeptical, but his disbelief is born out of love for Lucy and desperate fear. With the evidence staring him in the face, he doesn’t want it to be true, because that means the only just and merciful solution is to kill the vampire that took the soul of their friend. They decide to let Arthur strike the final blow. As her would-be husband, they know Lucy would want to be laid to rest beside him, and this is the closest she can have. Vampire-Lucy beckons him to join her, but she is selfish and callous, wearing the appearance but completely replacing the kind and generous woman they knew. Arthur still has to kill her, so she will stop killing children, and it is just as much justice for Lucy as it is a tragedy. He considers it an honor to be the one to drive a stake through her heart, and let her have the peaceful death and chance at true eternal life and happiness in heaven that she deserves.

Thematic Inversion

It is also worth noting how Dracula perverts what the heroes see as good and holy for his own means. When he speaks about the vampire ladies in his court, Luca, and Mina, his language is possessive and obsessive. He sees the women as his property, compared to the men who speak with devotion about the ones they love. Jonathan and Helsing exclude Mina at first from the meetings to discuss how to deal with Dracula, a fact they deeply regret later when the Count attacks Mina. Love and a desire to protect motivate their choice, rather than dismissal.

Van Helsing obtains a dispensation to use the Eucharist (God’s body, blood, soul, and divinity under the appearance of bread and wine), to use against the evil. When it touches her, she burns, and in her later diary entries, her grief hurts just as much. As soon as the men realize their failure, they go out of their way to support Mina and respect her input, which ultimately helps them create their final battle plan. But even as they scheme, Jonathan remarks on how the vampire’s influence compromises his position:

To one thing I have made up my mind: if we find out that Mina must be a vampire in the end, then she shall not go into that unknown and terrible land alone. I suppose it is thus that in old times one vampire meant many; just as their hideous bodies could only rest in sacred earth, so the holiest love was the recruiting sergeant for their ghastly ranks.

Jonathan Harker’s Journal

There is also a symbolic perversion of the presence of blood throughout the book. Christians believe that we are saved from sin and eternal death through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross – his blood fulfilling the Moasic covenant from the Passover, where the blood of an unblemished lamb saved Israelite families from the angel of death. Stoker’s inclusion of the Sacred Host throughout the story, treated with the utmost reverence and not simply as a fantastical tool, makes a clear (but oft overlooked in pop culture) parallel between Mina made unclean by the blood of Dracula, but saved through the blood of Christ.

How can writers use Dracula to develop their stories?

  • Using limited or first person POVS and/or unreliable narrators preserves the mystery and fear of the unknown
  • Revealing the twist to the reader but not the character creates dramatic tension and dread
  • If the reader falls in love with your characters, any deaths or threats will hurt more. Likewise, hurting a character’s loved ones is a gut punch. Or worse, forcing your characters to hurt their loved ones for their own good.
  • Ask what your characters have to lose? Is their humanity or free will at stake? What would be a fate worse than death?
  • How does evil warp what the character’s love? Can you twist any symbols or themes into dark mirrors of themselves to create a poignant parallel between the heroes and the villains?
  • What separates a hero from a villain? How close do your characters get to turning? Having them walk the knife’s blade between good and evil can make for excellent drama, especially if they’re conflicted about their state/actions.

I hope you found this analysis interesting and useful! It was fun to revisit this format after so long, just in time for Halloween. Do you agree with what I have to say? Did you learn something new, or use any of the questions to develop your characters? Leave a comment below, and let’s start a discussion. I’m curious to see what you have to tell me. Thank you for reading, and happy writing!

Runaways Beta Call and September Goals Recap

Hello my friends, I have a special announcement for you today! I am now recruiting beta readers for Runaways!

If you aren’t familiar with the story, Runaways is a middle grade fantasy novel that focuses on themes of betrayal, forgiveness, and sisterly love. You can read the synopsis and some early excerpts right now on its WIP Page, but I plan to release it serially on this website in the coming year, and I need help to get it ready to share. If you’re interested, please check out This Form – all the relevant info is in the introduction to help inform your decision. I’m super excited to share this story with the world, and I appreciate all the support so much. 🙂

While we’re on the topic of big updates, I also completed most of my goals this month! (?) School is now in full swing and I think I’ve finally adjusted to the balance of school, work, activities and writing. (If you want to hear more about that topic, you can check out this post). I spend most of my limited free time working on my books, so I’ve been a little more absent on social media, and while it’s frustrating that I can’t interact or edit as much as I like, I’m happy I still have these opportunities. So without further ado, what did I get done?

Won by 4 points! 12/14 goals

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