In the world of filmmaking, storytelling techniques come in a multitude of forms, each serving a unique purpose. One literary device that has been employed throughout the history of cinema is the frame story.

A frame story, also known as a framing device or narrative frame, is a narrative structure that encompasses the main story within a secondary story or framework.

In this article, we'll explore the definition of a frame story and delve into some compelling examples that showcase its power in storytelling.

Let's dive in.

What is a Frame

Frame Story Definition

A frame story, also called a frame narrative, is a device used to structure a film (or any form of storytelling) where an overarching story or narrative serves as the outer framework for one or more inner stories.

This outer story provides context, perspective, or a point of reference for the inner stories, which are often told by characters within the outer narrative.

Why Do Writers and Filmmakers Use Frame Story?

What Is a Frame Narrative?'The Grand Budapest Hotel'

Credit: Fox Searchlight

Frame stories can be a powerful tool for filmmakers, allowing them to weave multiple narratives together, explore different perspectives, or provide context to the central plot.

It does a whole lot more, including:

  1. Context and Perspective: Frame stories provide a context or perspective for the main narrative. They can set the stage for the inner story, offering insight into the world, characters, or themes. This context can be particularly useful when dealing with complex or unfamiliar settings, as it helps viewers understand the main story better.
  2. Engagement and Intrigue: Frame stories can pique the audience's curiosity and draw them into the narrative. By introducing a mystery or enigma in the outer story, filmmakers can create a sense of intrigue and anticipation, encouraging viewers to stay engaged throughout the film.
  3. Narrative Complexity: Frame stories allow for narrative complexity by incorporating multiple layers of storytelling. They provide a framework for weaving together multiple narratives or perspectives, creating a more intricate and intellectually stimulating viewing experience.
  4. Emotional Impact: Frame stories can enhance the emotional impact of a film. They offer opportunities to connect with the characters on a deeper level, as viewers often become emotionally invested in the characters within the frame story, who are usually narrators or observers of the main story.
  5. Timelessness: Frame stories can convey the idea that the central narrative is timeless or has enduring significance. By framing a story within a larger context, writers and filmmakers can emphasize the universal themes and enduring qualities of the inner story.
  6. Character Development: When characters within the frame story are used as storytellers or narrators, it provides an opportunity for character development. The act of storytelling can reveal a character's personality, motivations, and values, enriching the overall character arcs.
  7. Reflection and Commentary: Frame stories can be used to provide commentary or reflection on the inner story or on broader themes and concepts. The characters within the frame may offer insights, interpretations, or judgments that add depth to the narrative.
  8. Cinematic Experimentation: Filmmakers often use frame stories as a means of experimenting with cinematic techniques and structures. The nested narratives or shifting perspectives can challenge traditional storytelling norms and offer a unique visual and narrative experience.
  9. Unity and Connectivity: Frame stories can unify disparate elements within a film, creating a sense of cohesion and connectivity between different storylines or characters. This can be especially useful in ensemble films or those with complex, interconnected narratives.
  10. Artistic Expression: Frame stories allow writers and filmmakers to express their creativity and artistic vision. The choice to use a frame story, its structure, and its integration into the narrative can be a deliberate artistic decision that adds depth and uniqueness to the work.

By strategically using this technique, writers and filmmakers can engage their audiences more effectively and craft narratives that are both memorable and impactful.

Frame Story Examples in Narratives

Frame stories are actually very common in film and television. Sometimes, we call them "bookends," but they function all the same.

Here are some examples:

  • The Princess Bride (1987): Rob Reiner's cult classic The Princess Bride uses a frame story to introduce the central tale. The film begins with a grandfather reading a book to his sick grandson. The book's story, set in a fantastical medieval world, unfolds as the grandfather reads it to his grandson. The frame story provides a heartwarming connection between the two generations and adds an extra layer of emotion to the film's fairy tale adventure.
  • The Notebook (2004): This romantic drama, directed by Nick Cassavetes and based on Nicholas Sparks' novel, utilizes a frame story to narrate the enduring love between Noah and Allie. An elderly man in a nursing home, played by James Garner, reads a love story from a notebook to a fellow resident, played by Gena Rowlands. The frame story allows for the portrayal of love's timeless nature, emphasizing the power of memory and storytelling.
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014): Wes Anderson's distinctive filmmaking style shines as the film employs a layered frame story structure that begins with a young girl reading a book by an author who recounts his encounter with the hotel's owner. The story unfolds in a series of nested frames, creating a whimsical and engaging narrative structure.
  • Cloud Atlas (2012): Directed by the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer, the movie is an ambitious exploration of interconnectedness across time and space. The film uses multiple narrative threads, spanning different time periods and genres, to tell a complex and intricate story. A post-apocalyptic storyteller reading a manuscript serves as the frame story, linking the various narratives together and emphasizing the idea that stories have the power to transcend time and change lives.

Frame stories are a versatile narrative tool that filmmakers can use to add depth, context, and thematic resonance to their films. Whether it's creating an emotional connection between characters, exploring the passage of time, or weaving together multiple storylines, the frame story has proven its effectiveness in various cinematic genres.

As filmmakers continue to experiment with storytelling techniques, frame stories remain a compelling option for crafting memorable and layered narratives.

Let me know what you think in the comments.