Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

18.27: Framing Stories

Have you ever framed a story within a story? Are you looking for a way to add structure or tension to your story? In this episode, we contemplate the value that can be added to your writing by putting it into a framework. Our hosts discuss various frameworks in fiction—from Frankenstein to Dark One: Forgotten to The House of the Spirits. 

[“Dark One: Forgotten” Deep Dive Ep. 4] 


Take something you’ve already written (or are currently writing), and add a frame story to it. Start with a prologue and an epilogue. Has this changed anything that happens in the middle of your story?  

Thing of the Week:

Charlotte Illes Is Not a Detective, by Katy Siegel (Published on June 27!) 

Credits: Your hosts for this episode were Mary Robinette Kowal, DongWon Song, Erin Roberts, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler. It was produced by Emma Reynolds, recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Frameworks in fiction. A podcast being recorded by a character. A story told by a character, like in Frankenstein. Beginning and ending frames. Value? A sense of verisimilitude. Tools for setting time and place. Adding tension, structure, or information. A perspective of larger movements. Signaling genre. What’s the meta? Framing can constrain you, or be unnecessary! Frame stories, like prologues, must be good on their own.  Ending frames can twist our understanding. Frame stories aren’t just beginning and ending bits, sometimes they are woven throughout the story. The frame can be resonant with the story. Ticking clocks, encyclopedia entries between chapters, epistolary. Frame stories are a 201 technique. Frame stories push the boundaries a little bit. They can add tragedy, horror, scale. Cartoon barbarians! 

[Season 18, Episode 27]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.

[DongWon] Framing Stories.

[Erin] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[DongWon] I’m DongWon.

[Erin] I’m Erin.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Dan] Today we want to talk about frameworks in fiction. Dark One: Forgotten, the kind of central conceit, the inspiration behind that story, is that you are not reading a book or listening to an audiobook, you are listening to a podcast being recorded by one of the characters. So it’s telling a story within this very specific framing. That changes the way that it’s written, it changes the way that you would interact with it, and the way that we are able to tell that story. We thought that this was a really good opportunity to talk about frameworks in fiction, because this is something that’s been around for a very, very long time. There’s a lot of different frameworks that you can do. For example, if you’ve heard the term frame story, you have probably heard it in the context of something like Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Wherein the entire story is being told to you by one of the characters. There’s a little bit at the beginning where they say, “Now I’m going to tell you the tale of what happened to me.” Then a little bit at the end that says, “That was the story. Thank you for listening.” But there’s a lot of other kinds of frameworks that we can do. Before we get into specifics, let me ask the group here, what value do we get by adding a frame like this, by casting our story in some kind of different frame or format?

[Mary Robinette] So, some of it… There’s two different, I think, value areas. One is the reason that people started doing frame stories in the beginning was it gives a sense of verisimilitude. It’s like, “This is a travelogue of a real place, you can actually go to,” Gulliver’s Travels. Spoilers, you cannot go to any of those places.

[Dang it. What?]

[Mary Robinette] I know.

[Dan] We want to go to that fourth one.

[Mary Robinette] This true crime podcast, this is the thing that actually happened to this person. So it gives this sense there. The other thing is that it often will give you some narrative tools for setting up time and place. Like epistolary novels can do a lot of heavy lift, because you’ve got a date stamp at the top of every section. So those are two kinds of areas that they can give you. But I think there’s some others.

[DongWon] I have often suggested to clients, when we’re doing especially early stage structural edits, if a book feels like it needs a little bit more tension or a little bit more structure or you need a way to give readers a certain piece of information that your protagonist may not have access to, the frame story can be an incredibly useful way to do that. Right? Whether it is a piece of… Neon Yang’s The Genesis of Misery has this frame story, these two unknown narrators having a conversation. That comes up two or three times in the story that A) gives us the shape of what’s about to happen, so once we meet the protagonist, we get a little bit of like the arc of what’s coming and also a little bit of that perspective of greater pieces moving outside of the character perspectives. So big political things sometimes. The movement of history. Technology or magic systems that are operating in the background. A frame story can let you get that information in, which lets you punch up the tension in act one and lets you really signal heavily what genre you’re in, what kind of story you’re telling in a way that can be hard to do when your character is just… When you’re showing what your character is doing. It’s a way for you to like cheat and like tell your audience a bunch of stuff in a fun, cool way. I absolutely love a frame story. I think it can be so useful at the beginning, the middle, and the end, to just punch up certain moments where the story’s getting a little confusing or a little flabby.

[Howard] I think it’s… For terminal… Terminological semantic purposes, it’s important to recognize that there’s a lot of ways you can talk about this. Often, the way I talk about it is just by saying what’s the meta? What’s the meta for Dark One: Forgotten? Well, it’s a podcast. It’s a podcast. That creates a framework. What’s the meta for Name of the Wind? Well, it’s a framed story, someone is telling a story within the context of another thing that’s happening.

[DongWon] Blair Witch Project’s one of the best ones of all time.

[Howard] The Blair Witch…

[DongWon] Because they went very meta and convinced a certain set of the audience that this really was a documentary. Right?

[Howard] Yes.

[DongWon] I think it… There were people I know who watch that movie, there were 12 or 13, who were genuinely confused. That just amped up the absolute terror that they felt watching the movie because they were like, “This is a real thing. This happened.”

[Howard] I just say this to clarify, because there is a story to be told in the meta itself, that this is a podcast. When we say framing story, sometimes we just mean, “Oh, it’s like Scheherazade, the Arabian Nights,” but sometimes we mean, “No. There is this framework we are working within that is in media res or whatever.”

[Dan] Yeah. I’m glad you mentioned Blair Witch, because that’s one of the things I wanted to mention about horror, specifically, is that a frame like this can heighten that sense of danger, because if you are listening… Dark One: Forgotten’s a good example. It is not exactly a found footage movie, but it’s playing with that same idea. Right? If it had been done as an audiobook, there would always be that sense of this is a story being told to me that creates, even if it’s only subconsciously, a little bit of safety. You know that if… When something bad happens, that it’s only happening two characters in a story. But if even just for a second, I can trick you into forgetting this is an audiobook and make you think you’re actually listening to Christine Walsh’s podcast, that she’s recording on her phone while being chased by a serial killer, then when something bad happens, it’s happening to a real person. Because we’ve tricked you.

[Mary Robinette] There is a danger, though, that you can feel like, “Oh, I’m going to add this frame story.” It can constrain you, or it’s just completely unnecessary. I went back and did a reread of Where the Red Fern Grows, which for a certain population of… A certain… Like, your sixth grade teacher read it aloud to you or you had to read it. It’s devastating. I went back and read it. There’s a frame story on that sucker.

[DongWon] There is?

[Mary Robinette] That I have no memory of at all.


[Mary Robinette] No memory. It does nothing. There’s no… It just makes the beginning and end flabby, because it’s this old man talking about I saw this dog in the street and it reminds me of this dog I used to have. Then he tells where the red fern grows. Then he finishes the story and he’s like, “I wonder what happened to the dog I saw in the street?” It’s like, “Wha?”

[Howard] Thanks for the story, grandpa.


[DongWon] Yeah. I mean, because frame stories are often used as prologues and epilogues, they get a lot of the same challenges that prologues do. Which is, they have to be good in and of themselves. It’s your first interaction with this world, it your first interaction with the story. So if you’re putting a frame around it, that is not just like a little thing that you dash off that’s like, “Ooo, wasn’t that fun?” It’s like, no, that’s got to do some heavy lifting. Right? So, pulling off a frame story, I think, requires real chops and real confidence in what you’re doing. So, it’s not… I often say that it’s like added N edits, but it is… Which is often true. It’s still, however, takes a lot of attention and focus to get that right. It’s a thing that you should really dedicate as much time on as you’re dedicating to any story opening, to any other major structural component of your story.

[Howard] One of my favorite frames… It’s a half frame… Is in Larry Niven’s… I think the novel is called Protector. The novel is about this guy who discovers that humans are descended from a race that had three lifetime cycles, and old age is actually immortality. There’s a virus that can cause this to happen, and blah blah, and whatever. We get to the end of the story, and he says… It twists right at the end, it says, “So if you’re reading this, I’ve infected you with the Protector virus, and you’re going to become immortal. When you wake up, be fast. Because they are coming and they are angry and you need to be ready.” Then it ends. I’m like, “Oh, my goodness. I want to be the sequel for that story.” It was so much fun.

[Erin] I think ending frames, like where you find out, like, it was a frame all along…


[Erin] Are such an interesting tool. Handmaid’s Tale has like the sort of part I think everyone forgets, where it… There’s like this was a research project sort of at the very end. One of my favorites is actually from Planet of the Apes, the book. Where at the very end of the novel, they’re like, “This would never happen.” And it’s an ape family. They’re like, “Humans? Talking?”


[Erin] “No. Impossible.” It’s like so… It was kind of fun, because you’re like, “Wow, it does kind of turn things on its head.”

[Yeah. Yeah.]

[Erin] I think that is always a [garbled]

[Howard] Well, I love how in the adapt… The movie or TV, I can’t remember which one it was. Movie adaptation of that, they realized we need to do the twist… This needs to have a twist. That that twist… I don’t think that twist will work. What will work? A Statue of Liberty sticking out of the beach? Sold! That’s the one we all remember.

[Dan] Yeah. I love the way that those kind of closing frames can, by retextualizing part of the story, or recontextualizing, rather, they change your understanding of it. One of my favorite books of all time is The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende. It is… It has two narrators. Some chapters are first person from the main character guy. Other chapters are third person. You find out at the very end, and I apologize for spoiling this like 40-year-old…


[Dan] Book, that the third person chapters are all written by his granddaughter, as she is filling in the corners of his life story. It changes everything. It is so cool to have that experience that I’ve now ruined for you.


[DongWon] Yeah. One of my very favorite movies of the last few years is a film by Pedro Almodovar called Pain and Glory. There are these very artificial looking sort of… And you think it’s just like memory that he’s having, and again, I’m going to spoil this, I’m sorry. These very beautiful scenes of his childhood, that then turn out to be the movie that he struggling to make over the course of the film. So it’s all the aging director and it’s him reflecting on his childhood. Then, the final shot is really… You see the boom mic’s coming in to the scene of the beautifully shot memory that he has. It just recontextualizes the whole movie. It snaps everything into focus in this way, and provides the catharsis for the character of like, yes, he managed to do the thing. We see him suffering for this whole movie, but he does make the thing that he’s trying to make, and you don’t realize you’ve been watching it all along until you get to the end. I cannot recommend that movie highly enough.

[Dan] All right. Let’s pause for a moment, and when we come back, we’re going to talk about different kinds of frames.

[Mary Robinette] The thing of the week is a book that I just read that I am completely in love with. It’s Charlotte Illes Is Not a Detective by Katie Siegel. Katie Siegel does Tik-Tok’s, and she did this Tik-Tok of a character who used to be a child detective, like an Encyclopedia Brown, a Nancy Drew, and is now a 28-year-old who doesn’t do detecting anymore, but carries this baggage of everyone remembering her as a child detective. So she’s adapted this into a really good murder mystery novel. It’s her debut novel. It’s a good murder mystery. But it’s also this really compelling story about depression and friends and family and figuring out who you are. It’s lovely. The character voicing is really good. I am just… I just really liked this a lot. I felt like I wanted all of these people to be my friends. It’s very cozy. It’s a very cozy story. So this is Charlotte Illes Is Not a Detective by Katie Siegel.

[DongWon] We’ve talked about this a little bit before the break, but one of the things I want to get into sort of in this back half is the way in which you can use the frame story as a really integrated tool in the rest of your text. Right? It doesn’t just have to be the thing at the beginning and the end, it can be a thing that is woven throughout your story that can change how you experience the narrative. We talked a little bit about how the final frame can sort of reflect backwards and change your understanding of what you’ve seen so far. But there are other cases where… The other thing about a frame story is often it lets you do direct address to your audience. It lets you do second person in a way that works really well, because it’s either a letter written to somebody if it’s epistolary, or sometimes it’s a story being told to you. N. K. Jemison’s The Best Season, this is a minor spoiler, but at some point in the book you start to realize someone is telling you this story. Then the question becomes who the hell is talking to you right now? Once you start to put the pieces together of what’s actually happening, she’s done this beautiful formalist thing over the course of the novel that you don’t even realize is happening until you’re about halfway through. So, sometimes the frame story… You don’t have to be so rigid and think of it in that Frankenstein way or Lolita, where it’s like here’s a document that we found at the beginning, and then we’ll return to it at the end. It can be a thing that’s really woven throughout that changes your relationship to your reader and forces them to think about what’s happening in the text in a way that like situates them as a subject in… That the story is happening to in a certain way.

[Howard] I think the first season of ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder, the headliner there is Viola Davis, and she’s brilliant in everything that she does. The in media res… I thought at first that, oh, this is just in media res. They begin by showing me the immediate aftermath of a murder. Looks like some college kids may have done something bad, and they’re trying to cover something up. And now we go three months earlier, and they’re in class. Okay. I think I know where this series is going to take me. Each episode bounces you into a different portion of the current, the just after the murder, it might be a little bit forward, it might be a little bit back. As we advance the clock of the story, three months earlier, two and a half months earlier, six weeks earlier. I watched this and every episode gave me chills, not just because it was well written and I love watching Viola Davis chew scenery, but because the form they were using was new to me. I had never seen in media res done this way. I can’t yet figure out how I would do it in just prose or in comics. But I love it, and I love learning things.

[Erin] One of the things I love about that example is I think it also shows how the frame itself can be resonant with the type of story that you’re trying to tell. So this is a story about getting away with something, it is about a ticking clock, it’s about things compressing. Similarly, the frame itself plays with time, and plays with the clock ticking down. Another… Sometimes this works in a completely different way. I keep thinking about the sort of Encyclopedia Galactica…


[Erin] Like the idea that you’re like encyclopedia entries happen in between chapters, which is a form of like… A very…

[Howard] Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

[Erin] A very formal frame. But it also tells you a lot about the world. This is a world with a centralized understanding of things, where people are documenting what’s going on. This story that we’re telling is a thing that may be documented one day. It’s either very important, or, sometimes, like in Hitchhiker’s Guide, very silly. You’re playing off the fact that it’s not the kind of story that would end up in this big encyclopedia. But it’s doing something that is resonating with the story.

[DongWon] It allows you to introduce contrast in that way.

[Erin] Exactly.

[Dan] Yeah. A great example of what you’re talking about, Erin, is the book, the Prestige. Where the movie is basically a cool movie with a twist, the book is an epistolary, which DongWon mentioned earlier. That’s a story that is told primarily in letters or correspondence. Two people are writing letters back and forth to each other. One of the really brilliant things The Prestige does is one of the people writing the letters… Those letters are weird. There’s clearly something going on, because some of the letters act one way, some of the letters don’t, or they seem to have forgotten things that happened. This leads toward the same twist which I am hesitant to reveal because it’s a massive spoiler. But it… Just like Erin was saying, the specific frame they have chosen allows them to tell the story in a certain way, to create a very specific feeling, lead towards a very specific moment of revelation, that wouldn’t work in any other format.

[Mary Robinette] There’s a wonderful book Code Name Verity which I listened to in audio. In audio, it loses one of the things that happens in the print book. Which is that the entire print book is a code. She’s sending a coded message. She’s a spy. So it’s wonderful. It’s one of the best audiobooks that I’ve ever heard. But that’s a piece that doesn’t translate over. It’s an inherent part of that frame story.

[Howard] [chuckles] Yeah. We had a similar problem with the audiobook for Xtreme Dungeon Mastery second edition. Because in the physical book, there is, if you flip the pages, there’s a little cartoon barbarian running and smashing things. We just could not figure out… That’s not in the audiobook at all.


[Howard] I’m so sorry.

[DongWon] One thing I think that is coming across in how we’re talking about this is this is not really a 101 technique. This is a 201 thing. Like, doing a frame story is truly pushing the boundaries a little bit, in terms of the formal constraints of what you’re doing in your text. That’s not me discouraging you from trying. You absolutely should try it. But I think when you’re thinking about do I want to add a frame to it, there’s a lot of questions you will be thinking about of like, how is this adding tension? What am I adding in this moment? How am I using juxtaposition to create more tension, as we discussed several episodes ago? These are really opportunities for you to be very playful with time, with POV, with a sense of inevitability and dread. It’s a way to introduce tragedy, it’s a way to introduce horror into your story. I think that can just make things feel bigger. Right? The reason so many epic fantasies have that frame scope frame to them is it gives the sense of grandiosity, of scale, in a way that’s hard to do when you’re just staying in the characters perspectives. So it really works with certain genres really, really well. Crime, murder, tragedy, horror… Any of those things that are like trying to get across very specific ways of playing with expectations and dread and tension. So, something to think about as you’re approaching it. I just want to encourage everyone when you start figuring out do I want to add a framework to this, really think hard about how you’re going to apply it, and what techniques you’re bringing to bear to make it happen.

[Mary Robinette] Also, what constraints it’s going to place on you.

[DongWon] Exactly.

[Mary Robinette] Because once you put that frame on, you have limited the paths that you can take. Sometimes that is like super exciting and a really good learning experience. Like, oh, can I convey this information if I do this entirely as a series of emails back and forth?

[DongWon] That’s one of the reasons I generally don’t like epistolary, because it locks you into such a very specific framework of back and forth. It’s ironic that one of my most successful titles is entirely an epistolary novel. But I think sometimes the constraints that the frame can introduce will really bother a certain subset of your readers who are trying to logically make it work. So there are ways in which you can be playful, but do be careful about what it does to your world building.

[Howard] Talking about Xtreme Dungeon Mastery again, and the light came on. In the first edition, Tracy tells this story towards the end of the book about how in the room with the pillars of runes that couldn’t be read, and he decided to role-play his barbarian and just smash down the nearest door, and drag the adventurers through the dungeon at high speed. It was when he learned how collaborative role-playing works. Early in his career. In the second edition, as we were preparing it and laying out the materials, I had a conversation with Tracy and I said, “What if we put that story first? Because it’s early in your career, and we use it as an introduction. Then we take that barbarian and we have them smash down doors at the beginning of each chapter, and use the barbarian as a thread for the content of the whole book.” That’s why we put the little cartoon barbarian in the corner. Tracy loved the idea. You triggered this, DongWon, by saying, this is an expert level technique. When the first edition came out in 2009, I wasn’t even able to have the idea, much less execute on it. When we did the second bit edition in 2021, 2022, Sandra and I and Tracy were able to look at things and begin editing and re-ordering material and make what might otherwise be a very dry gaming supplement about how to do stuff into a story, where the careening path of this barbarian drags you through the drier material.

[Dan] I’m really glad, DongWon, that you brought up this idea of constraints, or maybe it was Mary Robinette. The idea that once you have chosen to tell your stories in a framework, that locks you in. That can be difficult, but it also… The constraints themselves become another tool you can use. What I’m thinking of is the kind of Alias-style 72 hours earlier. Which is a framework. Right? The… If the beginning of your story is horrible thing happening or bizarre situation, how did we get into this, what’s going on, and then you get 72 hours earlier, that… First of all, it allows you to start off your story with a bang, but really what’s going on narratively, when this is used well, is we know this horrible thing is going to happen. We know that the character is going to get caught, or that this awful thing will happen. Then, that creates a ticking clock, it creates a sense of foreboding that you can use as a tool to play with your audience.

[Erin] Similarly, I think epistolary, one of the challenges of epistolary is that when you’re writing a letter, you are presenting yourself in a specific way to the person who’s reading the letter. You’re not going to be getting the thoughts underneath. You’re going to be trying to… Like, when you’re writing an email at work, you’re not going to necessarily put everything you think about your boss in that email. So if that’s the conceit of the story, how do you get your seething resentment at your job…


[Erin] You know what I mean? Per my last email…


[Erin] So, but there are tools to do that. Then you can put things are… That things in your work that suggests that and suggest the tension in how do I want to present myself and what am I truly feeling. So then that becomes a tool that you can use in epistolary. So, similarly, it’s both a constraint, but also something really cool that you can play with.

[DongWon] Yeah. One other thing I want to add to that is you don’t have to let the framework overstay its welcome sometimes. Right? So I have a project coming up. It’s still in development, but act two and three of the book are about a plague that hits the city and changes everything. Once you get to act two, everything really changes. So we had this problem in act one of how do we signal that this is coming. So what we ended up doing was introducing an epistolary component where every now and then, you would see a letter from this character who is one of the villains, a truly unpleasant person, talking about this things starting to happen and how no one was talking about it, whatever. Then, again, slight spoiler for a thing that no one has read yet, but, like, she just dies in a very comically horrible way towards the end as she gets infected with the plague after being like so scornful of everyone around her. In a way, that was like, yeah, she’d accomplished what we needed which was to signal this was coming. Her role was done. She’s out. Then we can move on with the rest of the story. So you can really use a frame in very tactical ways. It doesn’t have to be, again, at the beginning of the story, end of the story. It can be a thing that sort of gets you to a certain point, builds to a certain thing that you need to signal. It really solved a solution for us, or solved a problem for us, in a really just fun and elegant way.

[Dan] All right. This is been such a wonderful conversation. Let’s get some homework.

[DongWon] So, what I would like you to do is take a thing that you have already written, either a short story, your work in progress, whatever it is. Try and add a frame story to it. Do this as a very traditional beginning and end. Add a frame, like a little prologue and a little epilogue. Then take a step back and think has adding that changed anything that happens in the middle of your story? Just experiment a little bit, play with it a little bit, and I think you will find that this is an interesting technique that you might be able to apply to this or future work.

[Mary Robinette] On the next episode of writing excuses That, we tackle how to make interruptions in your dialogue more believable, how to vocally furrow your eyebrows, and mumble core. Until then, you’re out of excuses. Now go write.