1. jo spumoni
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    jo spumoni Active Member

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    Frame Stories?

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by jo spumoni, Feb 13, 2011.

    I'm in the very, very early planning stages of a novel, so at this point, this question may not be all that important. But I was just a little curious: what do you guys think of the classic "frame story"--you know, character tells his story to others in the present and the rest of the book is a flashback, only to return to the present again at the end? Kind of like in Titanic or Dr. Zhivago, and actually, about a million other novels, films, etc. I ask because I can imagine my book as a frame story, and I even enjoy writing a historian character who would interview the MC, but I'm not sure if it's a good idea.

    Are frame stories overused to the extent that they're no longer all that effective? When I see the trope, I sometimes think it seems a bit forced or kind of fake, but other times, it does seem to work. Considering my medium is historical fiction, I do find myself wondering if the audience gets tired of the same old tropes in that particular genre.
     
  2. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    The frame distances the reader from the action, and can also have other drawbacks, like revealing elements of the story prematurely (for example, that the protagonist survived to tell the tale).

    Therefore, there should be a reason for accepting these drawbacks. A frame story makes it clear to the reader that the story is told from a (presumably biased) point of view, so the objective "facts" may differ from the tale the narrator is telling.

    So don't just wrap a frame story around the events to be different. Have a specific purpose in mind that you cannot achieve as well without the wrapper.

    In a story by Larry Niven in his Draco's Tavern collection, a disturbing story was reluctanlt told by an alien to an annoyingly inquisitive human. Another human pointed out that it was the alien's way of reinforcing that he REALLY didn't want to discuss the topic. But the reader is left with the disquieting thought, what if the story was actually true...

    That is an effective use of a framing story. Many times the technique falls flat.
     
  3. Reggie
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    Reggie I Like 'Em hot "N Spicy Contributor

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    Are you guys talking about writing a story within a story? If that's the case, I always thought about doing that with one of my Main characters. The main character's brother tells him a story of how he died wile the main character was in California. I never thought that it would work. I think I wrote it in the present tense to seperate what is going on in the second story, while the primary story is written in the past tense. I'm not really sure if this technique really worked because I am in the planning stage of writting my novel too.
     
  4. Heather Munn
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    Heather Munn Member

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    I agree with Cogito. If you choose to do a frame story, I think you should have a truly compelling reason. If it's somehow integral--necessary for plot, or theme, or some other crucial aspect of the book--or if it brings off some particular kind of effect, like the Larry Niven example--then it has a reason to be there and the reader will feel that and not consider it tacked-on.
     
  5. jo spumoni
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    jo spumoni Active Member

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    There would be a purpose in having my story be a frame story. I just don't know how compelling it is compared to the drawbacks.

    The narrator of the frame story would be an artist who lived in 1930s and early 40s Germany. He was popular there & then, but when he moved to America, he drifted into obscurity and wound up with a really mundane job--haven't decided what yet--and the woman he married has left him and taken their daughter. If I have a frame story, a historian/researcher writing a book about WWII is going to find paintings he hid from the Gestapo (after he was banned from producing art under the Third Reich) and interview him about his life. This interview will inspire him to take up painting again, which would give the book a more inspiring ending than just how his life didn't work out. Of course, I don't necessarily need a frame story to do that...it's just a trope I see a lot.

    With a frame story, there would be some logistic problems. I've been prewriting with the assumption I would have 2 protagonists, but if I have this one guy narrate, he can't see into the mind of the other character. Plus, if the "present" is today, then my character will be over 90 years old. And of course, there are the problems you guys mention. I can think of a few ways around some of the issues: for instance, the second character could have kept a diary or letters, and we could learn his POV from that, or the historian could take some creative license and imagine what it would have been like. To get around the age, I could set the "present" a little earlier than today, say the 90s or so, and make him in his 70s or 80s. None of these are perfect solutions, though.

    I try to be deliberate in everything, but I'm pretty new at writing. Sometimes, I wind up a slave to convention, and frame stories have become pretty common. If this sounds schmaltzy or just terribly overdone, I'd love to know. I know it's all a trade-off, ultimately, and I have to take some creative license. But thanks for the input, and I'd love to hear more.
     
  6. Melzaar the Almighty
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    Melzaar the Almighty Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think that if it's how you'll best tell the story, then go for it. It might be worth, though, developing the present day part so it appears several times throughout the story instead of just as book ends, and gives a better sense of continued character development, the interviewer as a character in his own right instead of just as a plot device, and, well, basically to make it look like you have more to tell there than just a "I have a story to tell you" and then a happy ending the other side.

    I personally haven't written a story within a very clearly defined frame, but I have written novels where the narration itself is obviously a frame because me and first person narration don't get on very well so I need some sort of gimmick to cling to before I end up stabbing my main character and finding something else to write that's more interesting :p Awareness of the story being told is a good way to find out new things about an otherwise boring character - how DO they react under pressure, why do they clam up on one subject, but happily tell you about some other awful thing they did?
     
  7. VM80
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    VM80 Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'll be honest, this technique is one I don't like too much.

    I've read several books that switch back and forth between WWII and now, and everytime I just can't wait to get back to the chapters set back then.

    Definitely at least one other 'modern' protagonist is needed in any case imo.

    In the end, you gotta work out if you can keep a reader's interest throughout all 'eras', and I'd probably find that a challenge personally.

    Good luck anyway- let us know your progress.
     
  8. Melzaar the Almighty
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    Melzaar the Almighty Contributing Member Contributor

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    I suppose that's because it's a book that's advertised as being all about the war, basically, and is picked up by people looking for a historical story. Most of the action in the present is pretty much people wandering around talking about the part of thinking about it - sometimes in scenic locations or poignant ways, but not usually very relevant. :p I reckon with a bit of drama it would be worth tuning into both sides. Maybe the find of paintings is publicised pre-interview that frames the story, and some old rival/child of a rival/enemy comes looking for them for a specific and rather threatening purpose? They don't have to be a Nazi themselves - they could even be wanting one of the paintings to *destroy* family links to the war. But I bet you could come up with a quite interesting subplot to play in the frame. :)
     
  9. Heather Munn
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    Heather Munn Member

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    I think I'm leaning just a little toward "no frame story" in your case... but... it depends on some other stuff too.

    The choice between a first-person narrator (especially one telling the story of his life in an interview, and going through personal change as a result) and two third-person POVs is huge. It will likely make a big difference to what type of book you will write, and the question is which best fits your vision of what type of book you *want* to write.

    First-person, esp. in the interview situation you describe, has the potential for really going deep & psychological. Which isn't supposed to mean "endless pages of angst"--usually it's done quite subtly, with little ways the narrator says things. For instance if he's going through personal change in the telling of the story, his tone will gradually change over the course of the book--maybe we'll get to see him re-evaluate the meaning of some event or other, as he thinks about it in light of what he's learned since then. Stuff like that. So, those possibilities make this the more literary option--if you're interested especially in exploring the effect of his WWII experiences on the character, etc, this is probably what you want.

    Switching between two points of view in third-person is an option that is a little more action-oriented. If you have an intricate and suspenseful plot this is something that will serve that--or if character conflict (between the two characters?) is at the center of your story, the multiple POVs are good for that, too. This type of thing is very useful for interweaving events that affect each other within the plot, because we can "see" what's happening in two places at one time if need be, and if there's something crucial that one character can't know, the other can know it and thus the reader can too.

    So, this boils down to "first-person is better for character-oriented fiction and multiple third-person is better for plot-oriented fiction," I guess--but I don't mean that in an absolute way. It's totally been done in the opposite ways (or of course both at once, all good fiction has both elements, it's just that most fiction leans slightly to one side or the other.) It's just an expression of where the easier compatibility lies, and if you're starting out, I would recommend doing anything that makes it easier for you.
     
  10. jo spumoni
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    jo spumoni Active Member

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    Thanks everyone. These are all great things to consider.

    VM80, I know what you mean. The trope is used a lot, and sometimes it isn't in the interest of the book. That's one of the main reasons I'm asking the question.

    Melzaar, I have to confess that my book isn't about war so much as it's about censorship and resistance. I don't know if it will be all that successful in the end, but I'm hoping to do my best and bring up a lot of interesting issues in the meantime. Now that you mention it, though, if I do go with a frame, it could perhaps stand a more interesting subplot...

    Heather, I hear what you're saying. I guess I hadn't really considered that I'd have to put it in 1st person...I had always been thinking that the story would still be in 3rd. My vision, I guess (I'm beginning to realize my visions often contradict themselves), was that my historian character would be interviewing my main character in the beginning prologue and then the actual book would be sort of like the historian's writings on the matter. So a book within a book, I guess. I no longer know if that makes sense.

    I guess my book will be more character-oriented than action-oriented, but I'm not sure yet. My prewriting thus far has concerned the character conflicts, but mostly because I haven't had time to go on a research binge; the tricky part of all of this is fitting it into a real timeline, and I need to be more familiar with the era before I decide the exact sequence of events. As of now, I have a decent picture of the characters, but not of the action. Come summer, I hope to change that :)
     
  11. Heather Munn
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    Heather Munn Member

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    Mmm, sounds like you've got theme going on. I like that. I really love a book where the theme and the action interweave and inform each other, and WWII just has tons of possibilities, especially if right & wrong & the complexities of choice is what you're interested in... Have fun!
     

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