Do you need a frame story example to inspire your creative work?
If you’ve ever gotten stuck trying to write your own frame story, take inspiration from our examples.
The frame story is a fantastic literary device, and that’s why it’s used so often in film and literature. It helps you spin a tale that captures your readers’ attention so completely that they lose themselves in the fictional world you created.
You can use this literary device to enhance your writing in many ways, so let’s get started.
What is a Frame Story?
A frame story, or frame narrative, is a type of narrative that tells a story inside of another larger story.
Take the hit TV show How I Met Your Mother as an example. Every episode opens with the main character, Ted, telling his children a short story about how he met their mother. That’s the outer frame.
The inner story is about the adventures of a young Ted and his friends living in New York City 20 years ago and the events that lead him to meet his wife.
Frame narratives help writers:
- develop a character’s traits.
- create tension and foreshadow a plot development.
- establish the story’s background or context.
Frame Story Examples from Film
A frame story is a popular method for movies with narration.
Films often use them to develop characters, themes, and plots. This gives the viewer context and sets the tone of the film. Directors might also use this literary technique to heighten the suspense and anticipation in the story.
The most common frame story example is from the movie Titanic.
The movie opens on a research ship exploring the wreckage of the Titanic. The crew is searching for a lost jewel, The Heart of the Ocean.
Not finding the elusive diamond, they bring on a Titanic survivor and main character, an elderly Rose Dawson, who was wearing the diamond the day of the accident.
They’re hoping Rose can tell them where the diamond might be among the ship’s wreckage.
As Rose begins the story, we fade back to April 1914, when Rose was a young girl, and the Titanic was an unsinkable vessel.
There we follow the love story of Rose and Jack, a young man Rose meets aboard the ship. It’s not until the end of their story that we return to the elderly Rose and the research crew.
In the outer frame, we want to solve the mystery of the diamond. Where is it, and will the exploration crew be able to find it?
But as we move into the inner story, Rose and Jack captivate us. We know the fate of the Titanic, and we know Rose survives.
But what about Jack? And the secondary characters? It’s a richer story because of the additional dimensions.
The Princess Bride
The Princess Bride movie is another famous example of a frame story. It retells the tale of William Goldman’s novel, The Princess Bride.
The main story begins as a grandfather comes to visit his sick grandson. He brings a book, The Princess Bride, that he’s excited to share with his grandson. It’s a family tradition.
The grandson isn’t interested. But he submits to hearing the story, “if it has sports.”
The Princess Bride is the tale of two young lovers, Buttercup and Westley, but it’s not only a love story. It’s an adventure.
As we transition between the two frames — the grandfather and grandson in the first, and Buttercup and Westley in the second — we see the grandson become fully invested in the mishaps and escapades that await Buttercup and Westley.
When Buttercup and Westley’s story ends, the grandson begs his grandfather to read him the story again.
The story changes from a grandson reluctant to listen to his grandfather’s story to a grandson who is eager for his grandfather to tell him the story again.
During Buttercup and Westley’s adventure, the grandfather and the grandson build a cherished memory of their time together. And The Princess Bride reaches a new generation, deepening familial bonds.
Frame Story Examples from Fiction
Frame stories work differently in fiction vs. film.
In films, a director will use visual transitions to show a change in narration.
In fiction, a writer may start a new chapter when there is a new speaker.
Also, with a novel, the author has more time to use different frames in their story. A film director has only 1.5 -2 hours.
So, keep these constraints in mind as you develop your own frame tale.
A Thousand and One Nights
A Thousand and One Nights, also known as Arabian Nights, is the story of King Shahriyar. His story is the outer frame. After discovering his wife betrayed him by sleeping with other men, Shahriyar kills her.
The thought that any woman he marries will forsake him in the same way tortures the king. So, he vows to marry a new wife daily and kill each one until there are no single women left in his kingdom.
The eldest daughter of his advisor and an eligible bride named Scheherazade devises a genius plan to save herself and the other women in their community.
She offers herself up for marriage. The first night they spend together, Scheherazade tells the King a story. But she doesn’t finish. She tells him he must wait until the next day to learn the end of the story.
So, the King delays his plans to kill her so he can hear the ending. Scheherazade continues this pattern each night. This carries on for hundreds of nights.
Each story Scheherazade tells the king is a standalone story and part of the inner frame. The outer frame is Shahriyar and Scheherazade’s story.
The author uses a frame story to create suspense for the reader. They wonder if Scheherazade will die or if she will keep the king from carrying out his evil plan for another night.
The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks is an excellent example of a frame story in a novel. Sparks offers a very different outlook on marriage.
The book opens with an elderly man sitting in a nursing home reading to the woman he is visiting.
The story he is reading to her comes from a notebook.
It’s about two young people, Noah and Allie, who fall in love but are separated by life circumstances. They reunite shortly after World War II, but now Allie is engaged to someone else. While Allie acknowledges her feelings for Noah, she’s reluctant to leave her fiancé.
Eventually, the reader understands Allie is the woman in the nursing home to whom the man is reading.
But we have yet to find out who the man is. Is he Allie’s first love, Noah, or the fiancé, Lon?
While we follow Noah and Allie’s love story, we also learn more about the narrator’s love for the woman in the nursing home.
Using this narrative technique allows the author to tell the story from multiple viewpoints. We hear from the elderly man and woman in the nursing home, from young Noah and Allie, and also from Allie’s mother and Allie’s fiancé. All these different viewpoints enhance the story.
And by setting the outer frame in a nursing home with elderly characters, readers experience the vibrancy of both young love and old.
How to Use a Frame Story
There are several reasons you might choose to use this literary technique…
- To make information clear — the writer may use a frame story to standardize or explain background information the reader will not learn until later in the story. Mark Bowden does this with Black Hawk Down.
- To define setting and characters — by bringing context to the main story, the writer gives readers an idea of what to expect, as the producers did with How I Met Your Mother.
- To introduce conflict — sometimes, a writer will use a frame story to introduce a conflict the reader has to solve, like a crime, as did Jon Krakauer in, Under the Banner of Heaven.
- To create a sense of suspense — a writer may use a frame story to establish a mystery or suspense, so the reader keeps reading, as James Cameron did with Titanic.
- To create a sense of nostalgia — a writer may use this narrative technique to establish a sense of nostalgia for different times or circumstances. You see this in The Notebook.
Studying different works that use frame story is a good way to determine the best frame for your work.
Do You Have a Favorite Frame Story Example?
A frame story, or frame narrative, is a widely popular tool for writers, so many examples exist in film and literature.
We shared several frame story examples here, but is there one you think we should’ve included?
Which one is your favorite?
Let us know in the comments.