Framing a story: Presenting a narrative to an audience so the tale is immersive (but not too immersive), suspenseful (but not baffling), and complex (but not convoluted).
To frame means, among other things, to utter or articulate, to fit or adjust to something, to enclose, to shape or fashion, to invent or imagine, to plan or contrive, to devise falsely (to frame up)Karen Stein, Margaret Atwood’s Modest Proposal: The Handmaid’s Tale
What I need is perspective. The illusion of depth, created by a frame, the arrangement of shapes on a flat surface. Perspective is necessary. Otherwise there are only two dimensions. Otherwise you live with your face squashed against a wall, everything a huge foreground, of details, close-ups, hairs, the weave of the bedsheet, the molecules of the face. Your own skin like a map, a diagram of futility, crisscrossed with tiny roads that lead nowhere. Otherwise you live in the moment. Which is not where I want to be.Margaret Atwood
REASONS FOR NARRATIVE FRAMING
Frame management allows writers to closely manage audience immersion within the world of a story. Add frames and readers feel distance. Remove frames and readers enter the world alongside the characters. Writers of dystopian fiction or stories of trauma face an especially difficult challenge: Remove the reader too much and they will distance themselves from the real-world implications of a story. Push them in too quickly and they’ll fling your book across the room. Writers don’t want to retraumatise their audience.
A very common, modern technique: Take an action scene from the middle of the story and open the story with it. This may seem like an easy cheat, but if the story isn’t well-crafted it fixed nothing. The author must still make many tiny decisions. This section must come from the right part of the story. It must be the right length. It must intrigue but not confuse. It must elicit the exact questions which will be answered by the rest of the story, and no more.
REMOVING A SINGLE, AUTHORITATIVE VOICE
A picture changes depending on where you put the frame.
This applies to written and verbal text, too. A story changes depending on who tells it. Especially when a story involves themes of totalitarianism and coercive control, authors decide to make the audience do more work in thinking for themselves: Is this how the story really happened? Is this narrator biased or manipulative?
FRAMING THROUGH PARATEXT
“Paratext” is Gerard Genette’s word for the sum of the peritext and epitext.
- Peritext is within a book aside from the author’s words whereas the epitext includes author interviews and other marketing materials.
- Peritext refers to the physical features and design elements that surround the story.
Picturebooks make great case studies in how paratext contributes to and expands a story. The endpapers of picture books can be especially valuable. A pink cover can signal that a book is ‘supposed to be’ read by girls (and not purchased for boys). The cover and title of any book (should) tell readers which genres to expect from the story.
Peritext also includes:
- Front and back covers
- Dust jacket and whatever is underneath the dust jacket
- Half-title and title pages
- Epigraph (a short quotation or saying at the beginning of a book or chapter, intended to suggest its theme)
The epigraph from Swift in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale prepares us for satire (of American Puritanism and the Moral Majority).
A dedication to the trans community prepares readers to think carefully about how they decode the gender of characters in a Canadian picture book.
FRAMING WITH PLOT STRUCTURE
There are many ways storytellers bracket a tale. They all involve adding at least one other narrative voice, even if it’s just the narrator looking back on an earlier time in their own life, with the benefit of hindsight.
The story-within-a-story is a popular and effective storytelling technique. But what does that even mean? Which story is the ‘inside’ one? It can get complex.
That’s why narratologists have devised a set of words for talking about the complexity. They talk about diegetic levels.
Basically, when talking about a story with (perhaps multiple) stories within stories, first you designate which is the ‘Ground Floor’. You call that Level 0, and go up and down from there.
The stories on upstairs floors are ‘meta’. The underground floors are ‘hypo’.
Further reading: Plot Shapes of Stories
METAFICTION IS ALL ABOUT FRAMING TECHNIQUES
Metafiction: A story which keeps reminding its audience they’re reading a story. By definition, metafiction happens within a frame. The frame is made obvious.
POSTMODERN FRAMING TECHNIQUES
A feature of Postmodern literature: There’s no such thing as the truth. The ‘truth’ looks different depending on your viewing angle. Moreover, a Postmodern story will read differently each time you come back to it, supposing you’re a slightly different person the next time.
Authors achieve this by increasing the number of “frames” in a story, or shifting it. “Framing” is a visual analogy, but is sometimes known by other words, like “textual layering”.
- defamiliarizing the setting (e.g. to a dystopian one)
- shifting the time (e.g. set a story in the future) a.k.a. use “temporal shifts”
- mimic various formats of telling a story within a single work a.k.a. “mulitiplicity of genres”
- journals (confessional or pseudo-factual)
- newspaper/magazine clippings
- reference material
- found notes
- transcriptions of interviews
- retellings (perhaps with mention of faulty memory)
- conversational digressions
TELLING A STORY FROM VARIOUS VIEWPOINTS
We might call this “overlapping of frames”. A story overlaps because the same events are recounted, but from different points of view. Each character in the story sees it a little (or a lot) differently.
When authors make use of different characters (or unseen narrators) to tell a story, they are creating a parallactic experience for their audience. First we see a world from one point of view, and with extra (or revised) information we are encouraged to shift our perspective a little. By practising perspective-shifts in fiction, readers may take that valuable skill with us into the real world.
FORMAT BLENDING: THE FRAME OF PSEUDO-DOCUMENTARY
- Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
- Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka’s Warday, and the Journey Onward (1984)
One of these stories has largely fallen out of popularity while the other has been adapted for TV. But both of those novels are stand-out examples of authors making use of a (pseudo-)documentary format to manage audience immersion into highly unsettling dystopian storyworlds. Audiences tend to glean information from documentary and apply it to our own lives, but we can do the opposite with defamiliarized speculative fiction set in the future, or in an alternative present, treating those stories as pure entertainment.
So a blend of format (documentary + dystopian fiction) positions readers exactly where we need to be: Despite Roe vs. Wade, women do need to worry about continuing patriarchal control over their fertility. Margaret Atwood was warning us back in 1985.
Some authors subvert stories by drawing us into empathy with a problematic point of view before offering an alternative view, challenging us to change our mind.
SYMBOLISM AND MOTIFS AS FRAMING DEVICE
In stories which use framing techniques at a high level (through paratext, plot structure etc.) be sure to cast your eye around for motifs which connect somehow to framing in its broadest sense:
- Things hidden/lurking inside other things (including mise en abyme effects)
- Various ways of masking
- Things which look different depending on which side you’re on
- Symbols ‘convoluting on themselves’ (a feature of Postmodern stories)
- Stories referring to other stories (intertextuality is another feature of Postmodernism)
AN EXAMPLE OF CLOTHING MOTIFS AS ‘FRAMING DEVICE’
In Gilead, women have been framed. Framed by their red robes and wide wimples, the handmaids are clearly visible, marked and delimited by their social status. For the wearer within the frame, the wimples serve as blinders; to look through them is to see only straight ahead, a narrowed view of the world. For us as readers, to look at the wimples is to read the authoritarian practice of Gilead which attempts to control women, and to permit only one view of reality. By decoding Atwood’s framing texts, we can read the frame itself as well as reading through it. Such a reading may in fact expand our view, for it adds layers of inference and possibility.Karen Stein, Margaret Atwood’s Modest Proposal: The Handmaid’s Tale
Containers within containers, boxes within boxes — numerous examples of things-within-things encourage readers to (subconsciously) look deeper into a story, perhaps understanding its themes at a visceral level.