Frame Narrative: Definition & Overview

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  • 0:00 Frame Narrative Definition
  • 1:10 Frame Narrative As Structure
  • 3:10 Frame Narratives In Literature
  • 3:50 Frame Narratives In Film
  • 5:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ann Casano

Ann has taught university level Film classes and has a Master's Degree in Cinema Studies.

Frame narratives are one of the oldest literary techniques used by writers. They put an interesting spin on traditional plot structure and serve to grab the spectators' attention by pulling them into the story.

Frame Narrative Definition

Sometimes when we're watching a film or reading a book, a character will start to tell a story to another character or perhaps a character will sit down to write a novel. When we go inside this second narrative, or this story within a story literary technique, it's called a frame narrative (also called frame story or frame tale.) Frame narratives are one of the most popular literary techniques used in storytelling. We regularly see them in almost every written art form: novels, poems, plays, films, television, opera, and musicals.

Imagine the main narrative as a picture frame. It provides the structure for the story: the beginning, the middle, and the end. Now imagine secondary stories placed inside of the picture frame. A writer can put a second or third or really an unlimited number of stories within the context of this frame. All of these stories are held together by the main narrative, the frame essentially connects what would otherwise be unrelated stories. Typically the initial narrative will be used as a setup for structural purposes. The secondary story (or stories) will be more important and ultimately take on a larger role.

Frame Narrative as Structure

Let's say I'm writing a novel about the emotions of a young man going off to war for a second tour of duty. The main narrative or the frame of the story will be the soldier leaving his family and friends to go fight in Afghanistan for a year. However, before the man deploys, he wants to leave a series of videos to the people who matter most to him, just in case he doesn't make it home. This frame narrative will set the stage for the secondary stories to follow. It will help the reader move from one story to another story.

In the first video, he tells his infant son the story about the day he and his mother first met. While the soldier is telling this story to the camera, a second narrative emerges. Suddenly the reader is no longer reading about the soldier preparing to go off to war. Instead, we are reading about the love story between the soldier and his wife.

Next, the soldier wants to make another video, this time for his estranged brother. Before we get into the video, the reader would most likely hear from the soldier again as he sets up the camera and maybe talks a little bit about his brother. Then the reader moves into the story. It begins with a horrible fight the two had several years ago. The events come alive as the reader is introduced to all the circumstances of the fight that broke up the relationship between the brothers.

There are an unlimited number of possible secondary stories. That number is up to the writer. In this example let's say that there will be three video stories. The final one begins once again with the soldier speaking into the camera. This time he wants to leave a video for his best friend. In this story, we witness the night that the best friend saved the soldier from going AWOL. Perhaps the soldier was so upset that he was being deployed again, he thought that he didn't have the stomach to go back off to war. But his best friend talked him into staying in the army, gave him strength, for his family and for his country.

In these examples, the 'frame' is the soldier making videos for the important people in his life before going off to war. The frame provides structure, the way to connect seemingly unrelated stories: the son, the brother and the best friend.

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