Friday, October 19, 2007

Frame Stories

I just rewatched Moulin Rouge, and to be clear, here is the frame for the story.

On screen, we see a red curtain open up and images start to flicker on a screen; this is frame one, an audience watching a film.

In the image, we see Toulouse singing about Christian; this is frame one, Toulouse singing about the story.

We then flash to Christian, writing on his typewriter; this is frame three, Christian writing his story.

We're at least three steps removed from the actual story: we're watching a movie about a movie about a guy telling the story about a guy telling a story. There's a sketch in The Kids in the Hall about two guys sitting in a bar talking about a movie one of the guys watched the night before, and then we see the movie, and in the movie, two characters are talking about a movie one saw where two guys were sitting in a bar discussing a movie. There's an episode of The Simpsons in which characters share stories and read notes that bring us into stories within stories within stories to an absurd degree. That's what this seems like, but it's for real. And then, of course, Christian's story is about writing a play that reflected his own life story. I'm getting tired.

Other famous frame stories? There's Heart of Darkness, where a guy tells the story about hearing Marlowe tell a story. There's The Turn of the Screw, which if I remember correctly, a guy tells a story about another guy telling a story he heard (there may have been somebody writing the story down). There's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a very famous frame story. There's Frankenstein, where Frankenstein tells his story to a particular ship captain. Of course Don Quixote may have started this all: the narrator describes reading and translating from a particular chronicler or Quixote's adventures. The frame story is a very old function and convention of Western literature.

The benefits of a frame story? Sometimes the frame itself can add thematic meaning. Sometimes it places the audience into the story. Sometimes it renders the narrative unreliable.

Think about frame stories.


  1. Eco created 'Name of the Rose' as a frame story. He purposely made the story fourth or fifth hand in order to distance himself from the action. Said it made him feel less self conscious.
    Great book, btw. Don't know if you've ever read it but it's one of my all time favorites.

  2. I watched The Glass Menagerie last night and I'm pretty sure that's a frame story.

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  4. What about Joe Dirt? He's telling his story on the radio for a good portion of the movie.

    I don't know if I'm completely grasping the concept of a frame story...but I think Joe Dirt is, at least part of it anyways.

  5. There's a difference between a narrator and a frame story. If a person is simply telling the story, that's just a narrator. A frame story usually involves somebody listening to the story (which is why Joe Dirt may seem that way, but I still don't think it is).

    For example, in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," the actual story is the story told by the ancient mariner; the frame story is the guy on his way to the wedding who is compelled to stop and hear the story.

    Details on some of the other examples I provided:

    In "Frankenstein," there's a ship captain with his own problems listening to Dr. Frankenstein tell his story.

    In "Heart of Darknesss," there's a guy on a boat with a bunch of people, then Marlowe starts telling the story of Kurtz.

    In Don Quixote, the narrator tells us he's translating from a chronicle by an (Arab?) historian.

    A frame story takes us a step further away from the actual narrative (or brings us in with the listener)--it's a somewhat separate story from the main story. You could argue that the examples I cite from "Moulin Rouge" are actully just varying levels of narration (the film, Toulouse, Christian) rather than a frame story.

  6. Ok, I understand it now. The Glass Menagerie isn't one.

  7. The Princess Bride?