A frame story is one of the oldest storytelling devices around.
As Homer, Chaucer and the authors of The Arabian Nights knew, it’s an effective tool for whisking the audience under your story’s spell.
But, what is a frame story, exactly? And how can you use one to a satisfying effect in your next screenplay?
A frame story is also known as a frame narrative, a story within a story, a frame tale, or nested narrative.
In The Arabian Nights, an ancient collection of Middle Eastern folk tales, Scheherazade is the bride of a vengeful king who has sworn to execute her the next morning. On their wedding night, Scheherazade begins telling the king a story but stops at dawn before reaching the end.
To hear how the story ends, the king lets her live until the next evening, when Scheherazade does the same thing again with a new story. She continues in this way for “a thousand and one nights.”
The story about Scheherazade and the king is a frame story surrounding the other stories Scheherazade tells.
This storytelling tool offers a variety of options in the crafting of screenplays.
You can play with the audience’s expectations via an unreliable narrator, as can be seen in The Usual Suspects, explore echoes between past and present-day settings, as in Julie & Julia or The Notebook, or tie together only loosely related stories, as in Four Rooms.
A frame story is a tried and tested story-craft device used by many of the greats – including Homer, Chaucer, and Shakespeare – but like any tool in your toolkit, it’s important to understand how it works to get the best results.
Here are some tips for how to use a frame story artfully in your screenwriting.
Aristotle wrote a treatise on dramatic writing in the 4th century BCE called Poetics, and it is full of potent advice that still rings true today. He urges the dramatic writer to observe the principle of unity, “the story…must represent one action, a complete whole, with its several incidents so closely connected that the transposal or withdrawal of any one of them will disjoin and dislocate the whole.”
When you are constructing a plot using a frame story, you are creating two separate stories and weaving them together.
The separate story threads must combine into a unified whole that is satisfying to the audience. And the theme at the heart of your screenplay has to beat for both the inner and outer stories.
Remember that what you are trying to do is connect. How does your frame story connect to its inner story or stories? To the theme you are exploring? To the audience?
Your job as an artist is to make your audience feel empathy for your characters as they travel through a specific story representing universal human themes and end up somehow transformed by the journey. If you can accomplish the magic trick of connection and catharsis, your audience will love you for it.
In using a frame story, part of the magic spell you create for your audience is the difference between your two story worlds. You can enhance the pleasure of that journey by making your two stories distinct from each other.
You can emphasize differences in setting, cultures, time, characterization, and voice. These differences will also make any thematic similarities between the two story-worlds stand out in sharper relief.
One potential danger in constructing a plot using a frame story is that you might get your two timelines confused. Unfolding plots contain lots of small details which we can lose track of as writers. The audience, however, sees every detail with a completely fresh eye and can be misled by any small missteps we take.
To keep both stories straight for the sake of your audience, plot them carefully, separately, then figure out how to weave them together into one master plot to create maximum story tension and arc.
You might like to check out the function of Arc Studio Pro that allows you to outline your screenplay with a plot board.
I know that we are all striving to make the very best art we can, as writers. But sometimes in the hurly-burly of art and filmmaking, things don’t go well. Shoddy plotting and writing happens, which results in disappointment and boredom for the audience.
Avoid using the frame story as a lazy way to provide exposition. Your audience will smell this a mile away.
There is a rich history of frame stories in cinema. Read the screenplays of other writers who have used frame stories and study how their frame stories work. Also study the frame stories that don’t work, and ask yourself why, and how you could have done it better.
One of the most beloved frame story films ever made is The Princess Bride. A lovable, wry Peter Falk is the grandfather who reads a dashing fairy tale of revenge and true love to his reluctant grandson, Fred Savage, who is sick in bed. The unenthusiastic grandson is hooked into the story’s drama and ends up engaged and totally passionate about the characters in the story, Wesley and Buttercup.
This film’s frame has its own transformative arc and internal consistency. It is also portrayed as highly distinct from the inner story – it’s an American suburban boy’s bedroom in the 1980s, contrasted with a medieval fantasy world.
In The Princess Bride, the characters explore the theme of love – love lost, love found again and reconciled. The frame story echoes the inner story’s theme, with the grandson bonding more closely to his granddad by the end.
I have included Saving Private Ryan as an example of a frame story film that doesn’t work so well, in my opinion. It features a bookend framing device that feels incongruous and too obvious, almost as if it were pasted onto the much more subtle and vivid inner story, to make its theme about the costs of war obvious to the audience. But it does this without joining its frame to the artistic unity of the inner story.
Stranger Than Fiction is a film from 2006 starring Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Will Ferrell (in a straight acting role for once – and doing it well). It’s an example of how a frame story can be used in startlingly innovative ways in film plotting.
The film opens by following the precise, mundane life of Will Ferrell’s character, Harold Crick, an IRS employee who lives according to an ironclad routine dictated by his wristwatch. Things start to go awry for him when he begins to hear a voice inside his head describing him and every action he takes. It is the voice of Emma Thompson, playing an author, Karen Eiffel, who is writing a novel in which Harold is the main character.
This is how the frame story gently peeks into the narrative for the first time. Harold falls in love with Maggie Gyllenhaal’s beautiful, brainy, subversive bakery owner just as we learn that Karen Eiffel always kills her protagonist at the end of the book. At this point, the audience starts to root for the love story to triumph and Harold to live, while Karen wrestles with writer’s block and the choice of how to kill Harold.
The inner and outer stories are both vibrant, compelling and complete in their own existence – but they also tangle together in deeply satisfying and surprising ways to form a masterfully plotted whole story.
As you can see, a frame story, if deployed thoughtfully, can be a powerful way to present your story and engage your audience.
As I kiss you on both cheeks and say good-bye, I’ll leave you with a few more examples of frame stories in film/TV to read or watch, if you’d like to spend more time studying this classic storytelling technique: Forrest Gump, Slumdog Millionaire, The Irishman, The Fall, The Words, Titanic, How I Met Your Mother, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Big Fish, The Hours, Gabbeh, Synecdoche, and New York.