If every author followed the exact same formula for crafting stories, their readers would languish in boredom! Creators constantly combine different storytelling techniques and literary devices in order to make their works shine amid a sea of other brilliant works. One available narrative device is the framed story.
Perhaps one of the most popular stories told using this device dates back to the 9th century: One Thousand and One Nights, also known as, Arabian Nights. The tale’s protagonist, Scheherazade, tells her husband awe-inspiring stories with intense cliffhangers in order to avoid execution and to rescue other women from the same fate. The majority of the action occurs in the stories that she tells in between the pockets of narration detailing her life.
Framed stories can be found in today’s popular media as well. TV shows often use this device to create playful episodes in which characters take turns telling stories. Examples include Futurama’s “What If Machine” episodes, Gravity Falls’ “Bottomless Pit!” and episodes of Family Guy such as “We Three Kings.” Popular examples of movies include Forest Gump, Tangled, and Big Fish.
What Exactly is a Framed Story?
Imagine a painting hanging on the wall, decked out in an ornate golden frame. You stand and appreciate it for a while, taking in the average-looking home and admiring the way that the artist used blue around the old woman sitting in the middle of the room. You get a lonely feeling looking at her, and can’t quite make sense of the soft smile on her face. Then, you notice a painting hanging on the wall in the background. It contains a young woman laughing with children. You realize that it is a portrait of the woman and her family. They seem quite happy. It gives you insight into why the lonely old woman smiles.
Framed stories are just the same: a story (or a set of stories) within a larger story that gives you a deeper understanding.
These works typically begin with a framing narration that introduces a character, or multiple characters, who will tell a tale. They set the scene, and launch into the telling. At the conclusion of the tale, the framing narration returns in order to show the impact it had on the listeners.
Creators can use this narrative technique in several ways. Let’s take a look at some of the more popular ones.
Fiction Within Fiction in Adventure Time
Sometimes the framed story comes entirely from a character’s imagination. Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time gives us great examples in its Fiona and Cake episodes.
These rare but well-loved gender-bending episodes follow the adventures of Fionna and her magical cat companion, Cake. The first of these episodes, “Adventure Time with Fionna and Cake,” opens right into the adventure. Fans don’t find out what is really going on until the end, when the scene switches to Ice King reading pages from his book of fanfiction.
Unlike other framed stories, the episode does not open with a framing scene introducing the story, but that doesn’t disqualify it from being a framed story. Authors occasionally use creative license in order to end their work with the framing narration instead of starting with one in order to leave the audience in the dark until the close. What’s important is the purpose that the story serves. Ice King’s imaginative “Fionna and Cake” episodes give the audience (and maybe even other characters) some important insight into Ice King’s personality.
It’s no coincidence that his two protagonists resemble Fin and Jake. At first, it seems like just a fun nod to the fans (which it might be!), but further examination tells a much sadder story.
The ancient wizard constantly tries to befriend the heroic duo, only to have his efforts fail time after time. Ice King just wants to feel included in the adventures and lives of the people of Ooo. He doesn’t have the social skills to do so, and creates his fanfiction to make up for it. We can see this in the episode “Bad Little Boy.”
It starts with a poorly crafted Fionna and Cake adventure told by Ice King, who inserts himself into the story’s climax and rescues his heroes. They tell him that he’s a super cool guy, and Ice King cries for joy at having the opportunity to meet them. Fionna tries to cheer him up, and invites him on the sort of adventures he wishes he could take with Finn and Jake. In the end, Ice King visits a room in the depths of his ice castle devoted to the fanfic’s heroes. He kneels before two massive ice sculptures of his protagonists and discloses his hopes that he will meet them one day in the real world.
We see him wishing to meet Fionna and Cake in another episode as well. In “Mystery Dungeon,” Ice King tricks various denizens of Ooo into helping him through a dungeon in order to bring his stories to life. After the adventure fails his expectations, Ice King tells Fionna in his Imagination Zone that he believes she’s real. Watching from a distance, Finn comments that nobody in the world is as sad as the Ice King (except for Shelby watching the situation play out, perhaps).
We can infer that Ice King, isolated in his land of snow with only a surly group of fleetingly loyal penguins for company, lacks companionship. Knowing this casts his princess-nabbing antics into a new light. He isn’t kidnapping the royal ladies out of malice, but out of a desire to fill the void with the companionship that he can’t seem to earn on his own. Failing time and time again, he writes fanfiction in order to know what having friends feels like.
A few novels that utilize the framed narrative in a similar way include The Canterburry Tales, Frankenstein, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
Bonus: The Ice King’s imaginative tales aren’t the only framed stories featured in Adventure Time. What time is it? Scavenger hunt time!
It Came from the Past
Framed stories aren’t limited to fictional stories told inside of fiction. Many creators utilize the technique to delve into the past of the framing narrative. These stories start with a character introducing a riveting tale about their past, and launching into it for the majority of the work. Just like the fictional frames, these past-delving narratives can happen in different ways depending on the creator’s wishes. It might continue uninterrupted to the end, with the framing narrative coming back to wrap things up, or it might revisit the framing narrative throughout the work in order to introduce new elements of the story.
Let’s take a look at My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. The first season’s twenty-third episode, “The Cutie Mark Chronicles,” uses this narrative style to explore the history of the Mane Six.
The episode opens with the Cutie Mark Crusaders conducting their usual shenanigans to find their cutie marks. After another epic failure, the determined trio set out to ask their role models for cutie mark origin stories. Along the way, they run into each member of the Mane Six and get their cutie mark history. Each of their histories occurs inside of the framing narration of the Crusaders running around Ponyville on their quest.
The framing of the episode serves several purposes. First, it gives Lauren Faust and team an engaging way to tell their intended story. It also discloses the protagonists’ cutie mark history in an engaging way and sets the stage for future episodes.
So why didn’t they just tell the whole story in the past? That’s where a third purpose comes in. Using the framed story technique allowed the writing team to give more information about the Cutie Mark Crusaders. Here, we see the trio trying a new technique to solving their problem: asking the older ponies how they did it. Telling the story this way gives the creative team a chance to demonstrate the Crusaders’ resourcefulness while also exploring the relationship between the Crusaders and the Mane Six.
Finally, their choice to tell it this way allowed the episode to end with the Main Six sharing their stories in the bakery. They reach the essential conclusion that they all got their marks from the same event, which serves to cement their friendship even deeper.
Flashbacks aren’t Framed Stories
An important thing to keep in mind is that framed stories are different than flashbacks (a narrative device where the author gives us a glimpse of events that occurred in the past). You can determine the difference by asking yourself one question: does most of the action take place in the past, or the present?
If you answered that it takes place in the past with occasional narration from the present, you have a framed story. If instead, you determined that the majority takes place in the present, you have a flashback. The events of a flashback usually serve the main story in some way, such as explaining an important event, revealing information about a character, or creating contrast between past and present.
Both My Little Pony and Adventure Time make use of flashbacks in multiple episodes in order to give the audience a glimpse of what happened. Let’s take a look at “Memories of Boom Boom Mountain” from Adventure Time’s first season. Flashbacks throughout the narration show the audience scenes from Finn’s past that guide his actions in the present. These glimpses take up only a short portion of the overall story. The majority of the action takes place in the present as Finn works hard to keep everyone happy.
Video Games Put a New Spin on Things
Video games also utilize this narrative device. Games like Assassin’s Creed and Fable 3 use a framing story to launch players into the heart of the game.
Video games as a genre have also created a unique spin on the framed narrative. Many RPGs, especially open-world RPGs, feature books and letters hidden throughout the world that players can discover and read. The items, while not always important to the player as a tool, often contain the history and lore of the world. Sometimes, they just tell the story of characters who the player will never meet, or ones they interacted with on various quests.
These items give the player a deeper understanding of the world as they run around exploring it. Occasionally, they provide insight into certain characters’ actions, or hints on the location of an obscure quest. Framing these tales within the game’s overall narrative gives players a more in-depth understanding, and allows them to create their own experiences of the journey throughout the game. Players can generally complete the game without reading any of these, but taking a moment to pause and peruse gives them a more wholesome experience.
Tag, You’re It!
Do you have any favorite shows, games, comics, or movies with a framed story? Share them in the comments! Don’t forget to talk about your take on what purpose the framed story serves in the work. You can also connect on Twitter at @Popliterary, or send a message on the “contact me” page.
And as always, if you have a literary device you want to know more about, or a game, comic, show, or movie that you want to see make an appearance on the blog, leave a shout-out in the comments!