Build the House Before the Rooms: a Case Study in Framing

Recently I mentioned a series of four short stories I’m trying to write to get back into my deadlocked project. The main idea is to have all four stories in the same release, using a frame story to link them together. It’s a great convention, and can bring seemingly isolated stories together into a cohesive book–but like any writing technique, it’s easy to do it poorly.
I’ve never tried a frame story before, so I thought I’d do some practical research and look at some examples. Here are three of note:

Shades of GrayStar Trek: The Next Generation

We’ll start with the bad. This episode of Star Trek is often pointed to as one of the worst in any of the series, because it doesn’t seem to go anywhere. It also points to a larger problem in television: the clip show. I’ve always thought of a clip show as little more than a marketing tool–it’s a way for producers to reel in potential new viewers by showing them the “best” clips of a series–but most of them are, in fact, frame stories.

The episode starts with Commander Riker getting injured on an away mission. He slips into a coma, and has a series of dreams–which, of course, are shown to the audience as clips from previous episodes. The premise is so on the nose that the writers might as well have grabbed the camera and shouted: “Do you remember this one? Huh? Do you??” I admit that Star Trek has some lousy episodes, but this one is plain ridiculous.

/Vitrol. Anyway, the thing with clip shows is that it’s difficult to introduce a plot while cramming in all those clips from past episodes. And that’s the issue here; the writers concocted a interesting problem for the characters to overcome, but neglected it in favour of showing clips. Riker’s illness could have made a good episode if they concentrated on it, but it’s pushed to the side. The point of this episode from a production standpoint was that they didn’t have the budget to do a big show, and were forced to recycle. Because of that, much more focus is put on the clips than the central problem the frame story introduces, and the episode as a whole suffers for it.

As a frame story, this fails because the frame does nothing to really connect the clips. There’s an excuse that Riker’s illness forces him to relive painful moments, and this is supposed to provide a thread for the episode to follow–but it really doesn’t hold up. The whole episode feels disconnected and thrown together, and as a result is largely forgettable.

The lesson here is that when using a frame story…use the frame story. Don’t introduce a convention then leave it behind, you’ll just confuse your audience.

The Illustrated Man–Ray Bradbury

Bradbury is an unquestioned master of science fiction, and this is probably one of the best introductions to his work. It’s a series of short stories (all but one previously published in periodicals), which, like most great science fiction, deal with the human condition. The stories are often dark, but they all put across some great questions. It’s a really nice collection, and a seminal work for sci-fi enthusiasts.
The frame store here is about a man who comes across a vagrant covered in tattoos–tattoos that move. The vagrant explains that a woman from the future inked them, and that they each tell a story. As the man gazes into the animated tattoos, we transition into one of the eighteen short stories in the book. It’s simple, effective (to a point), and intriguing. But it doesn’t entirely work.

Again, we have a disconnect between the frame story and the short stories written around it. The stories include some of Bradbury’s great classics–The Veldt, Marionettes Inc., and a personal favourite, The Rocket–but they don’t all have a clear connection to one another. The ‘human condition’ theme is vague enough that it covers almost all of science fiction, so it doesn’t really serve to string these stories together.
“But,” you say, “that’s what the frame story is for!” And you’d be right–the purpose of a frame is to create some sort of cohesive narrative. But it’s difficult to do that with such disparate stories; it’s like building a house with rooms that all have different heights. Your ceilings won’t match up, and your roof will end up a jagged mess. Of course, I wouldn’t say this collection is a mess–Bradbury is an excellent writer, and he makes it work. But for those of us who don’t have dozens of classics under our belts, this book can serve as an example: put some careful thought into how things are linked together.

I, Robot–Issac Asimov

And here we come to the shining example of how to do a frame story right. In my opinion, anyway–I have to admit I’m partial to Asimov, so I’m a bit biased. It also features one of my favourite characters in science fiction, robot psychologist Susan Calvin. This book is such a great example of a frame story that it doesn’t seem like a frame at all. It’s more like reading different chapters of the same book.
In fact, that’s kind of what it is. It’s a collection of Asimov’s robot stories, of course, but the collection as a whole is set up as a sort of history of robotics. Dr. Calvin is being interviewed by a reporter looking for the “human angle” in robotics, and she tells him a series of stories in loosely chronological order. The robots are the real characters in this book, and because we sympathize with them, we see how “human” they really are; this in turn tells us important things about ourselves. Which, as I’ve said before, is exactly what science fiction is about.

That’s all well and good, but why does the frame story work so well? Calvin is a peculiar character; she’s cold and generally emotionless, but is excitable in a certain way when she talks about or works with robots. She’s like them–she understands them. And because she’s the one telling the stories, we understand them better too. Her intent in telling these stories to the reporter is to give him a more accurate view of robots, rather than treating them like literal machines, and each of the stories in this collection dance around a similar issue. The frame story is carefully interwoven with the rest, so well that you wouldn’t think that it was written apart from them.

And that, I think, is the secret to writing a great frame story. You build the house so the rooms fit inside it, so to speak, not the other way around. The reader has to care about the frame as much as they do about the surrounding stories. It’s not just a convention, a tool for writers–it should be an integral part of the narrative as a whole.

But, that’s just my opinion. Like I said, I’ve never actually written a frame story before. I want to hear your ideas: what works (or doesn’t work) for you in a frame story?

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