In literature, a framing device is a story that surrounds another story. That is, a novel begins with a story, and that story is interrupted by another story, told to completion. And after the inner story ends, the novel returns to the starting story and finishes that. Some examples of frame stories are Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. I call this the Hard Frame because it’s clearly two different stories, one within the other.
Personally, I don’t enjoy the Hard Frame very much.There’s something about the outer story itself that makes the inner story seem less compelling. Less real. And, usually, the frame itself is short, both front and back — and that I find uninteresting.
However, my father was a carpenter, and on his own he built several houses. The parts of building houses that he enjoyed most were laying the foundation blocks on top of the footer; erecting the frame; and shingling the roof. As a child, I was very aware of frames as they pertained to houses.
A frame as it pertains to a house is not separate from the house, the way the two stories in a Hard Frame story are somewhat separate and distinct from one another. A frame as it pertains to a house becomes part of the finished house: of critical importance, but invisible.
Somehow, this kind of frame, which I’m going to call a Soft Frame (because it’s not a beginning story artificially used to get the real story started and ended) has made it way into some of my novels, particularly The F Words. This kind of “frame” is related to the circular ending, which I’ve written about in The F Words: Circular Ending. The Soft Frame does not call attention to itself, the way the Hard Frame does.
In The F Words the imprisonment of Hank Renner, Cole’s father, soft-frames the beginning of the story. Hank’s release from Cook County Jail soft-frames the end of the story.
To soft-frame a story in this way is not complicated and it’s not difficult. It’s not even necessarily visible to every reader: some will notice it, others won’t. To soft-frame a story in this way (far more subtle than the story-within-a-story approach) is to give a little nudge or pat to the whole thing, like shaping pliable dough that will be baked and become bread.
Very recently I read Michael Connelly’s novel, Desert Star, featuring Harry Bosch and Renée Ballard. This isn’t a Hard Frame story within a story, as are classical framing-device stories. But the story is definitely soft-framed: it starts with one cold case, more or less abandons that to concentrate on another for most of the book, then returns to that first case at the end. Such a structure is very satisfying. And, I would say, such a structure is necessary if you’re going to start with one story and then abandon it — you absolutely must come back to it, or the reader won’t be satisfied.
In The F Words I did not have to return to the fact that Cole’s father was sent to Cook County Jail that day (the day the story opens). But, because an important part of Cole’s growth comes from visiting his father in jail, it seemed to me that I would be leaving that part of the story hanging if Hank wasn’t released from jail within the course of the novel. And once I decided that, then it made sense to me to end the story with that event.
Certainly it’s not necessary to frame, either Hard or Soft, in order to write a good story. But I find it satisfying to do this. I guess that, like my father, I enjoy framing.
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3 responses to “The F Words: Framing Device”
Ha, please don’t on my account (I’ll take your word :). I always liked that story and The Adventure of the Cardboard Box as being of the most macabre in nature of the Holmes canon. Thank you so much.
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Nice. I can see where this is different from plots and subplots (excuse my ignorance.) Another would be Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Valley of Fear, yes?
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Fascinating question! I am impressed by your remembering The Valley of Fear! Of all the Sherlock stories/novellas, it’s the one I remember the least. But I DO remember that it has a very large flashback section as the central part of the story. Since it has been decades since I read this novella, I just now looked it up to learn more about its structure. The articles I skimmed imply that parts one and three are the main story, and the center, part two, is a flashback that helps explain the main story. This would mean that parts one and two are not a frame, because they are the main story. HOWEVER: I could be wrong, or the critics could be wrong. I will read the story again and tell you what I think about whether or not there’s a framing device in use.
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