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?
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.
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.)
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 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 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.
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!