Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Narrative Mode ~ #5 Frame Narrative

framed with a strong outer shell
The frame narrative is a fairly difficult format because it requires a fair bit of juggling between the framing story and the story within the frame.  The two must be connected, each enhancing the other by offering interpretive value on the part of the frame, while the inner story offers details and meaningful specifics.  Before I lay out the process, let me give some examples most people will be familiar with.
  • Chaucer's Canterbury Tales ~ Chaucer sets up his frame with a menagerie of characters who are individually or in small groups going on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket.  They meet at a tavern and agree, with some finagling by the tavern owner, to travel together and participate in a story-telling challenge.  This is a very complicated frame narrative because not just one story is to be told but several, two by every member heading out on this jaunt and two by everybody on the return trip.  Chaucer never finished all the stories, but it was even more complicated because within the outer frame were several inner frames (various mini prologues and epilogues) which introduced and leapfrogged off each story to the next.  To add to the complication, Chaucer created a character named Chaucer who was the speaker in the outer frame who was retelling each of the stories by presenting it exactly as "he" heard it told by his fellow pilgrims.
  • Conrad's Heart of Darkness ~  Conrad's framing was not nearly so complicated as Chaucer's.  His frame has five characters on a ship on the Thames in England.  One is telling about where they are and who the other characters are.  A second (Marlow) is telling his story about an experience he had on the Congo in Africa, but the story is retold by the original frame speaker who on occasion intrudes on Marlow's narrative, inferring meaning and commenting on Marlow's actions and personal interpretation of his experience.
  • Bronte's Wuthering Heights ~ Bronte sets up a visitor (Lockwood) coming to the region to rent a manor house and its surrounding property from Heathcliff, the unscrupulous owner of side-by-side properties.  The visitor retells for a large part of the story the narrative of Nelly, all-around servant of the Earnshaw/Heathcliff/Linton families.  Nelly shares with Lockwood the activities of the other characters over the past twenty years in several gossip sessions the two hold over the course of his several months stay.  Lockwood picks up near the end of the novel upon revisiting the manor to tell much of the finale of the inner story.  His part in the frame is limited, his character more a foil for Heathcliff and a vehicle for telling the story than anything else.
So those are the popular examples.  The format breaks down in the following manner.
  1. First an outer story which provides an opportunity to tell a story.  This can be two people meeting at a coffee shop or something else equally simple or much more complex. If one of the two characters comes in appearing moody and withdrawn, the other character may wish to know the reason for the emotional condition. 
  2. The second then may agree or not agree to share the problem.  What is essential is that the frame and the inner story must be connected and somehow one of the characters feels free to or is compelled to tell a story.
  3. One option to the example above is that the first speaker tells about his recent experience.  If written ironically, the reader may come to understand that the recent experience of the happy character is the cause of the moody character's troubles.  A second option might be that the moody character's telling of an experience leaves him feeling better and the first, happier character is made moody because he is affected by the story told.  In any case, some story of epiphany would tie the two together.
  4. The inner story must be a thorough immersion for the reader whose return to the framing story completes the last piece to understanding the whole story (frame and inner narrative).
 The Little Handbook of Narrative Frameworks available on Smashwords and Amazon.

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