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How to Write a Frame Story that Works

When they’re done right, frame stories can add a lot to a novel, but crafting a compelling frame story requires understanding of their purpose and how they’re structured. In this article, I’ll explain what a frame story is, the three different types of frame story, why they’re hard to get right and finally, how to write a frame story that works.

What a Frame Story Is

Just like a picture can have a picture frame, a story can have a frame story. And just as a well-chosen picture frame can enhance a picture, a well-written frame story can improve a story.

That’s because a frame story can:

  • Lead the reader into the main story
  • Link the past to the present, and so make the story seem more relevant
  • Explain parts of the story
  • Set up the world of the story
  • Add context, meaning, or alternative perspectives
  • Create initial suspense
  • Provide a final twist
  • Make the story seem more believable

These are all useful ways of helping your reader to suspend their disbelief and engage with your novel, and so knowing how to write a frame story is a useful skill.

Three Types of Frame Story

Glue

If the author writes a novel that comprises multiple short stories, then a frame story can bring them together into a coherent whole. I call this a ‘glue’ frame story.

A 'Glue' Frame Story

This type of frame story is as old as storytelling. The ancient Egyptians used ‘glue’ frame stories, as does the Sanskrit epic, The Mahabharata.

For example, Dan Symonds’ Hyperion has a glue structure. It has a frame story about an expedition. As the expedition proceeds, the expedition’s six members tell stories about their backgrounds. These six stories make up the bulk of the novel.

Skipping the Boring Bits

A 'Skipping the Boring Bits' Frame Story

This type of frame story is similar to the glue type, but the author uses the frame story as an opportunity to skip ahead by using narrative summary. Something like:

‘So what happened after that?’

‘I didn’t see him again for two years and then we bumped into each other on the street…’

And back to the main story.

Bookends

A 'Bookend' Frame StorySometimes an otherwise complete narrative opens and closes with a frame story. I call this a ‘bookend’ frame story. This type of frame story has the same purpose as a false document: helping the reader engage with the novel and suspend their disbelief.

For example, Jack Higgins uses the opening frame story in The Eagle Has Landed to set up a mystery that makes the reader want to read on. The author, a journalist, claims to have discovered the graves of German paratroopers in a Norfolk churchyard. The bulk of the story is then the tale of those paratroopers.

The last chapter of the novel goes back to the frame story to deliver a clever final twist. This is a brilliant use of a frame story.

Similarly, in Rogue Male, Geoffrey Household adds a preface and afterword, from the ‘editor’ of the story where they explain how the story came into their possession and the likely fate of the author, in an attempt to make the reader believe the story is true.

Out of the Frame

A 'Bursting out of the Frame' Frame Story

Also fairly common is a frame story which bursts out of its frame. It has the opening frame at the start, but the closing frame is at the end of the second act and then the story continues.

For example, in Spy Game, starring Robert Redford and Brad Pitt, the Chinese have captured Pitt’s character. A frame story of Redford’s character being interrogated links multiple flashbacks to explain Redford and Pitt’s relationship and why Pitt was in China. After the interrogation ends, Redford attempts to rescue Pitt.

The purpose of this type of frame story is to create a coherent and engaging story from a narrative that would otherwise be fragmented, confusing and backstory-heavy.

What a Frame Story Isn’t

Just because a story has two timelines or multiple characters or several threads going on at once doesn’t mean it has a frame story.

For example, Ian M Banks’ novel Inversions has two separate, but linked, story-lines with a shared narrator, and alternates between them. Part of the fun of the novel is for the reader to put together the clues and determine how the stories are linked but, despite including an epilogue by the narrator, it’s doesn’t have a frame story.

Why Frame Stories are Hard to Get Right

The main thing is that there has to be a point to your frame story.

  • A ‘glue’ frame story can come across as a transparent attempt to string a bunch of unrelated short stories together.
  • A ‘bookend’ frame story can just seem pointless.
  • A ‘Bursting out of the Frame’ story can end up just going over the back-story before the action starts.

For example, Frederick Smith uses a bookend frame story in 633 Squadron, which opens and closes in a pub in 1955, whilst the bulk of the novel occurs in 1943. However, there’s no real mystery in the opening bookend and the final twist is unremarkable. This is a poor use of a frame story, and unsurprisingly was ditched when they made the movie.

So, think about precisely why you have a frame story and what it’s adding to your novel. If the answer is “not much”, then you need to think about whether you really need it.

How to Write a Frame Story that Works

So, this is the trick with a ‘bookend’ frame story: use the first chapter to set up a mystery and only fully resolve it in the final chapter. It’s also critically important to make sure the final reveal isn’t either too obvious or an anti-climax.

If you’re using the frame story to help with suspension of disbelief, you should use it to answer the questions that readers might have about the plausibility or supposed provenance of the story. The point is to have the reader asking, “Could this really be a true story?”

When writing a ‘skipping the boring bits’ frame story, the thing is to know what to summarise. One thing might be to look at your writing and think about which chapters you found boring to write, felt you ‘had to’ write to get exposition across, or are just  plain uninspired. Those are prime candidates to be removed and sketched over using a frame story.

If you have a ‘glue’ frame story, you need to make sure it’s doing its job of connecting the disparate stories without seeming like a blatant contrivance. To do that, you need to make sure the frame story is interesting in its own right. Scheherazade is fighting for her life in the frame story of The Arabian Nights, for example.

Regardless of the type of frame story, the most important thing is to make it a good piece of writing in its own right. If the characters in your frame story are as good as the characters in your main narrative, and you add elements to the frame story that play into the theme of the main story, then you’ll add a new level to the overall story.

Things to Do

  • Make a note of some of your favourite novels or movies that utilise frame stories.
  • Identify which type of frame story they used.
  • Identify which of those frame stories worked and which didn’t and think about why.
  • Consider if any of your own work would benefit from a frame story:
    • Could you link some of your short stories together with a ‘glue’ frame story?
    • Might a ‘bookend’ frame story help your readers suspend their disbelief?
    • Would a ‘skipping the boring bits’ frame story improve the pace of your main story?
    • Could you use a ‘breaking out of the frame’ structure to make your backstory more accessible?
  • Experiment with a frame story for one of your own stories.
  • If you already have a frame story, consider exactly what it’s adding to the story.
  • Boost the characterisation and add thematic elements to your frame story to make it work better.

Want to Read More?

The book I recommend for an in-depth study of story structure is Story by Robert McKee. It’s available on Amazon US here and Amazon UK here.

Help!

If you need help with how to write a frame story for your novel, or any other aspect of your writing, please email me. Otherwise, please feel free to share this article using the buttons below.