Episode 18: Framed


It’s a writing technique I love to hate and hate to love: the frame. Frames, in general, are often an either/or proposition. Either they enhance your writing with an added layer of wit, or, more often, they get in the way of the main story.

So, what is a frame? The best example I know of (because of my personal bias, of course) is evidenced by the movie The Princess Bride. The main plot of the movie is a fractured fairy tale about Wesley (the Dread Pirate Roberts) saving Princess Buttercup from an unwanted marriage. However, on top of this tale of comedic delight is the added complexity of a grandfather reading the story to his “sick” grandson. This reading part (the frame) encompasses the story and makes the audience take a step back. I would argue that the frame in The Princess Bride works mainly because the story is poking fun at romantic adventures (though ultimately fulfilling the genre’s expectations). The frame reminds us that this is just a fictional account.

Therein lies the danger with frames: they remind the audience that what they are experiencing is art. The frame is still a part of the work itself—albeit on a different level. However, when you make your reader move up a level, this discombobulation also reminds them that there is another frame as well (i.e., the reader’s existence outside the writing).

Frames can be an effective way to get your point across. As with the above movie example, a certain detachment can be important if you have a reason for needing distance (e.g., to undermine the seriousness of the action, to provide insight, to inject humor). In such cases, the frame adds a layer that is arguably necessary for the impact of your writing.

But here’s my advice: avoid frames unless the piece demands it and err on the side of caution. Using my excellent polling resources (read: personal anecdotal non-evidence), I would say that 98% of frames are not needed. Most writers (me included) use frames at some point because 1) it’s different, 2) we are emulating another writer, or 3) it seems “deep.” While all of these are certainly noble justifications, writing should never be subservient to or made to fit a particular form unless the form fits the function.

One of the first short stories I wrote to be workshopped was an interesting (read: overwrought) literary work about the search for meaning on a daily commuter bus. To make it more “artsy,” I added a frame in which the fictional writer of this story within a story was talking to the audience throughout (yes, three frames). Needless to say, the majority of comments suggested that the frames detracted from the main story. The artistry overwhelmed the plot (though the comments were more blunt than that).

Frames are not without merit, and some can be poignant and effective. Most, however, are not. Use them only when the artistry doesn’t destroy the art.

With all that said, should the writer even take risks? More on that next week . . .

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