Many a storytelling technique has gone by the boards these past few decades. Though novelist and critic David Lodge has told us that “everything is in and nothing is out,” nevertheless it’s obvious to anyone who reads widely that certain forms are less frequently found in contemporary fiction than was once the case. Consider, for example, the epistolary novel: a tale told in letters sent by and to the story’s characters. I’ve encountered only one recent example of such: Steven Brust and Emma Bull’s Freedom & Necessity. (Wikipedia, however, lists several other contemporary examples, including Andy Weir’s The Martian.)
A format such as that is often called a “frame story” or “framing device.” In effect, the writer tells two stories, one enclosed by the other, in a single volume. The “outer” story might be separated in time from the events of the “inner” one; indeed, this is usually the case. However, the two stories are linked in an unambiguous fashion: by protagonist and subject matter.
“Frame stories” can achieve an end that was once pursued in a different fashion, via another technique deprecated today: the omniscient narrator, not bound to any character’s viewpoint. The writer can use the frame to introduce a narrator other than himself. He then permits that narrator some of the liberties that were once marks of the omniscient-narrator style.
Among the requirements of the “frame story” technique is that the writer must have “two stories to tell.” They needn’t be wholly separate. In fact, they shouldn’t be, for the “outer” story exists to narrate the “inner” one. Therefore, they must be firmly linked, whether through their characters or their focus.
Focus is always important. The “outer” story, however important to the characters in it, dictates the focus of the “inner” one by the selection of scenes and events described. Whatever the circumstances of the “outer” narrator, he must be principally concerned with the “inner” narration. The Kevin Spacey / Kate Winslet / Laura Linney movie The Life Of David Gale is a highly dramatic example of this requirement: the “outer” narrator, David Gale (played by Spacey), is facing execution in a few days’ time...but his focus is on the key events of his life other than the one that brought him to that condition, rather than on his “outer”-time jeopardy.
I’m fond of this technique, as anyone who’s read Chosen One, Polymath, Priestesses, or Love In The Time Of Cinema might imagine. One of my two novels-in-progress uses it as well. A few readers have bridled at it – I can’t imagine why – while others have noted it with surprise and pleasure. I find that it often goes well with my subject matter, which is episodic though focused on the life and times of a single Marquee character.
One of the criticisms that’s been leveled at my stuff is its patina of archaism: the resemblance between my style and that of writers of bygone days. The frame-story approach and the interlocutory narration it supports, approaches no longer favored by contemporary writers, are part of that. But when your core story is episodic in nature, being spread over a long time interval and omitting the greater part of the events thereof, framing is exceedingly useful for emphasizing what really matters. Much of the history of even the most significant, most active, and most compelling character is “just day-to-day life.” It would be boring to the reader to need to sift through it all, to say nothing of the burden it would impose on the writer.
Episodic novels are also disfavored today. There’s a notion going about that dramatic unity is impossible when the events of the novel are widely separated in time. Needless to say, I disagree. Dramatic unity isn’t just an artifact of causally linked events closely spaced in time, but by the evolution of the Marquee characters’ natures and significance: more specifically, the reasons they do what they do, and the effects they have on those around them.
The speculative genres – science fiction, fantasy, and horror – feature few examples of the episodic novel, and therefore few examples of the frame story. In part, this is because the technique is unsuited to the sort of adventure tale most frequently told in those genres. But in equal or greater measure, it’s because the events in speculative novels tend to occur over short time spans. Nevertheless, some examples exist; the ones that leap to mind at once are Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, in which the “narrator” of the frame is the Encyclopedia Galactica, and Robert A. Heinlein’s Time Enough For Love, in which Heinlein’s perennial rogue-hero Lazarus Long tells of the high water mark events of his two thousand year life.
What examples of frame-story narration have you encountered in your reading? When has it struck you as suitable and well exploited, and when has it seems an unnecessary intrusion upon the “real story” you were being told by the interlocutor character or device?
(Cross-posted at Liberty’s Torch.)