Tag Archive: Frame Stories
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As some of you might know, the book I’m currently writing is a frame story – a story within another story. For this project, I wanted two parallel plotlines, but with one important change. In my project the two stories never converge, not even at the climax as a traditional duel plotline will. This is not a story structure many writers use, and even fewer offer advice on how to use it correctly. So when looking for help with this tricky story, I turned to movie and TV screenwriters for inspiration and guidance.
By studying the six types of parallel narrative structures in screenplays and by reading scripts, I’ve gleaned 4 tricks that will strengthen any novel with two or more non-converging plot lines.
Create linkage between the plots
Something must bind the plots. In my case, one storyline takes place in the past while the framing story takes place in the present. I used the setting as the tool to bind them together. Both stories take place in the same small fictional town and the landmarks and geography of that town became the physical anchor for the two plots.
Mirror the themes and metaphors
I did this in a few different ways. First, I repeated the number of characters in each storyline. Both have ten characters. I also repeated relationship patterns. For example, both plots have one set of siblings and a former romantic couple. They also share a creepy tone.
Make key plot points correspond
Although the inciting incidents worked out fine, I’m still struggling with making the midpoint reversals happen at about the same time. Also, synchronizing the climaxes is not going to be easy. I’m not there yet, but I can already tell I’m going to need to make some story adjustments.
Use different but compatible goals for each storyline
One protagonist wants to set right a mistake and mend a broken relationship, while his companions want to escape a winter storm that has them trapped. In the other storyline, the protagonist wants to break a curse, thereby freeing herself, but also damming her companions. Freedom, forgiveness and release become the reoccurring goals in both plots.
The structure I’m using in my project is closest to what screenplay writers call tandem narrative. Some examples of tandem narrative are the films Sliding Doors and Traffic. I also found reading the script for The Princess Bride very helpful.
Since I feel like I’m on fresh ground with my parallel non-converging plots, I would love to hear from anyone who has more tips to share.
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As you may have figured out from my post last week, 6 Tips for Re-imagining a Classic Story, I’m working on a project for NaNoWriMo that involves a reinterpretation of a classic tale. In my case I’ve decided to tell it a frame story. This is a literary device using a narrative structure to tell a story within another story. It’s also sometimes called a frame narrative, a frame tale or a nested narrative. This is a very old form of narrative structure (it shows up in stories from ancient Egypt) and it’s been used by too many authors to count from Shakespeare to Michael Crichton. It’s also the darling of films (Titanic) and TV shows (How I Met Your Mother.)
There are two basic styles of the frame story.
In both cases the writer needs to have a pretty good reason for going this route. Frame stories are notoriously hard to get right. Some reasons to try this type of story structure are:
- To experiment with different ways of expanding a central theme.
- To incorporate changes to the central theme over time.
- To connect a large number of short stories into a single narrative.
- To play with the role of the narrator, perhaps to trick the reader into buying into the narrator’s version of events.
- To change the point of view so different characters can give their own interpretations of the same key event.
For my project I’m doing the second type, with the cyclical frame. I’m using The Decameron as my retold story. For those who are unfamiliar with the story it’s about a group of nobles who hide out in the Italian countryside during an outbreak of the Black Death. To amuse themselves and each other they tell stories each night and the stories reflect and expand on the noble’s concerns about the world they live in.
Some of the tips for writing a frame story I’ve picked up along my journey are:
- Firm up the themes.
It’s easy to get lost while you’re creating each short story and forget the theme. I’m working with betrayal as my central theme, so each of my stories deals with how someone reacts to a betrayal.
- Find ways to fuse the frame and the inner stories together.
Aspects from each part should either contrast or complement the other. In my case, each narrative plays off the same location and setting. Also each of the frame characters has an echo character in the inner stories.
- Form a plan for keeping voices distinct.
I created a set of vocabulary notes for the frame narrative’s voice, then another set for the storytellers in the inner stories. In my case this created an extra level of planning. I’m sure I’ll have a lot of cleaning up to do, but I didn’t want each story to sound like the same person told it.
- Plot all the timelines.
The frame narrative and the inner stories need separate timelines. I’ve already started to get a tad out of order with my inner stories and it’s only a few days into NaNo. I messed up by creating a single timeline for the project and I needed to backtrack. Now if I want to reorder something from the inner stories I can figure out where it goes back into the frame narrative timeline without messing everything up.
- Pull it all apart.
Even though I don’t plan on anyone reading my story this way, I feel the frame story should be able to stand alone. In hindsight I think I should have written the frame first. Since I missed that step, the best I can do is read the frame separately and see if it would make sense as a solo piece. If I’ve failed, I’ll have to go back in and rework it. I’ve also followed in the footsteps of other cyclical frame authors and attempted to create inner stories that can stand alone.
- Read some narrative frame stories.
It’s amazing how many frame stories are out there. Study how different writers use this device and you will learn a lot. I think one of the most difficult aspects of the frame story is keeping the main narrative story sounding fresh when the ending is partly known. Sometimes the closing frame needs a little unexpected punch. Rose drops the necklace everyone is looking for over the side in Titanic. In Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King, Carnehan shows the narrator Dravot’s severed head, still wearing his golden crown.
If anyone out there has some experience crafting a frame story, please share your tips and tricks for making it work in the comments. With the month ticking away on me, I need all the help I can get.
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