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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » On Structure: The Frame

   
Author Topic: On Structure: The Frame
JoBird
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There was some recent discussion regarding whether or not to include a prologue in your novel. A lot of people apparently don't like it, and some have outright said that it affects your chances of getting published. My position was: I like prologues, but if they hurt the sale then find a better way to put in the information/theme/whatever.

The general consensus, as with most things, tends to be use it if it's appropriate for the story. I'm not always sure what that means. How do you, for instance, know when it's appropriate to the story? Saying something like that is almost like non-advice to me, it doesn't really resonate because I don't understand it fundamentally.

But it got me thinking. What about novels that include frames to tell the story?

I hate to keep pointing at Rothfuss for examples, but Name of the Wind is an easy one. There's a frame in that book, Kote running the small inn, and then telling the story to Chronicler. The bulk of the book is told in first person, the frame itself is told in third. But was the frame 'necessary'? I guess so, sure it was, for that book. But another book could have existed, same Chandrian plot and everything -- without that frame. Conceivably, it could have put all the frame stuff at the end. The main story would have eventually caught up with it.

So, maybe I have two questions:

1. Does including a frame hurt you in the same way a prologue does?
-is the use of a frame considered cheap or weak on the author's part?

2. How can you ever really know when something is needed? Isn't that subjective? Aren't there a lot of potential positive ways to go?

(The hardest part about writing for me has to be the endless number of doors you can walk through along the way. A blank page presents an infinite number of possibilities. Narrowing all of that down to one possibility, one novel at a time, sheesh, that's rough.)

Sorry if I'm coming across as confused, and uncertain. The truth is, I think my confidence is shaken in a way that I'm unused to and uncomfortable with. I can't seem to figure anything out these days, and I'm second guessing every decision I make in my novel every day. And that's not leading to a lot of decisions.

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extrinsic
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Second guessing and doubt tend to be subconscious prompts from hunches something's not quite working. Dig in and figure out what's at the root of the uncertainty. Seek out first principles, beginning with identifying the central problem wanting satisfaction and test for whether every part and parcel, every iota ties in dramatically, thematically, structurally, and expressively to that most essential feature.

Frame stories and their principles, traditions, and conventions have been written about extensively. Wikipedia hosts a mechanical analysis article on the topic. Investigate the gamut until you have a sufficiently satisfactory grasp of what you want to know and can apply it to your writing.

However, the Wikipedia essay leaves out more sophisticated and perhaps most artful usages of a frame story; that is, portraying situations within situations within situations with complex, intermingled, and overlapping relationships. The frame narrative's plot parallels and enhances the internal narratives' plot or plots and vice versa. One Thousand and One Nights, Scheherazade narrates the internal narratives while a less conspicuous narrator narrates the unfolding frame story of Scheherazade's problem wanting satisfaction that relates to the central themes and problems wanting satisfaction of the installment narratives. Aesop's Fables similarly collects seemingly disparate narratives into a whole through a frame story, though the frame story is the more mechanical type that the Wikipedia essay focuses on.

Though briefly discussed, Jerome Stern's Writing Shapely Fiction goes into several on point conventions for sophisticated frame stories. The text covers a cornucopia of writing topics, some eloquently, some scant, some glancing. Further investigation elsewhere of the content listing and other creative writing methods and devices is illustrative of the manifold ways writers write about writing topics. Reconciling them personally, satisfactorily to each other and to other writers' takes on any given topic goes a long way toward clearing up doubt and uncertainty.

[ July 19, 2012, 11:44 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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MAP
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I don't think using any device is going to hurt your chances of being published as long as you are using it for the right reasons. I know that is vague but prologue and frames can and have been used. If you want to uses such devices, find stories that use it successfully (like In the Name of the Wind) and figure out why it works.

The problem with prologues is that it has been used in published and unpublished stories for the wrong reasons. And the agent Kristen Nelson goes through those mistakes in her vlogg post I linked to in the other thread.

Most of us are fantasy readers, so we have all read those old fantasy novels with those horrible world building prologues, like the Belgarad sereis by David Eddings. That information can be (and was-hello redundancy) worked into the narrative without the prologue. The prologue was boring and pointless.

The point is that prologues can and do work when they are done properly. And that is something that you can figure out for yourself. Look at the books with great prologues that work for you. Think about why they worked.

I liked the Elantris prologue. Short and interesting.

I also liked the prologue in The Eye of the World first book in the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. I think it set the tone for the whole series. We see the cost the world paid when the previous Dragon defeated the Dark One. It is this dark cloud that looms over Rand that he might destroy the world even if he saves it. Sure that information could have been worked in (and it was), but it is so much more vivid to see it than be told about it. So it worked for me.

I don't know as much about frames, but I liked the framing in Wuthering Hieghts. It helped set the tone for a gothic, tragic romance. Same thing in Rebecca by Daphnie du Maurier. The story beginning with the unnamed narrator remembering Manderly sets up the mystery. If the story had just began with her meeting Maxim, it would have felt more like a romance novel.

So according to me, prologues or frames can be used to:

1. Show an event that happens before the story starts that really needs to be shown (like in Eye of the World).

2. If the story starts out mundane but has fantasy or horror elements later on, framing or a prologue can help set the tone. Make sure the readers know what kind of story they are getting (like in Rebecca-although it isn't a fantasy or horror story, but it's not your average romance either).

3. Prepare the reader for the tragic ending (like in Wuthering Heights).

4. Show a parallel story-line. It has been a long time since I read Wuthering Heights, but I think the framing also allows us to see the parallel between Cathy and Heathcliff and Cathy's daughter, Cathy and Hareton.

4. As long as it is short and interesting, a little world-building is acceptable to me (like Elantris)

Reasons not to do a prologue:

1. Because you feel that all your world-building needs to be upfront so readers can understand your story. It doesn't, and it's boring. Readers can figure it out as they go along.

2. Because you want to start with action, but your story doesn't start with action, so you use an action prologue that has nothing to do with the rest of the story except showing how badass your MC is, just to have action. You don't need to start with action, and you shouldn't have scenes that aren't important to the story.

3. To show backstory. Backstory is more interesting when it is relevent to the story. Work it into the narrative.

So there are my opinions on when to use prologues and frames, but I think you should figure this out for yourself. Look at the stories you love and see how they do it. This is your story; write it the way you want to write it.

I believe once you figure out what works for you as a reader, you will know how to use these devices in your story. Your intended audience most likely enjoys the books that you enjoy, so what works for you, will work for them.

[ July 19, 2012, 02:57 AM: Message edited by: MAP ]

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Robert Nowall
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I keep hearing that some readers will just skip the prologue and go right to Chapter One. I can't figure out why...I can't recall doing anything like that myself...and if a writer wants to tell a story that way, it's okay with me.
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Owasm
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It depends on your audience. I think readers are much more forgiving to a prologue or frame than agents/editors are.

In my view the longer the prologue, the worse it is. Rothfuss' frame works only because it helps develop the MC and provides us with a perspective that actually adds to the drama of the story. (A pause that refreshes). It works in the second volume as well.

If one self-publishes, I don't think a modest prologue hurts at all. If one is soliciting agents, it will work against you.

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rcmann
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A prologue isn't necessarily bad. "Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the U.S.S. Enterprise..." Didn't seem to hurt that show too badly. Sherlock Holmes stories were framed by 221B Baker street, and London generally.

Like so many things, the winds of fashion shift.

Matter of fact, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth..." is a prologue in a sense. It prefaces the good stuff, where the story with people get's going.

Edit. Correction:

It's "...of the starship Enterprise..." not U.S.S. Enterprise. Sorry. My bad.

[ July 20, 2012, 04:42 AM: Message edited by: rcmann ]

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JoBird
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Orson Scott Card's M.I.C.E. quotient has really captured my attention.

Is it reasonable that the frame of a novel could focus on one element, while the rest of the novel focused on another? For instance, what if the frame begins as an Idea story, while the rest of the novel begins as a Character story. Is this an obvious mistake, or a good idea?

To use the example above, assume the main portion of the novel is clearly a Character story. Should the frame exist solely to support that -- in other words, should the frame just be part of the unfolding of the Character story? If so, would the opening frame section be considered part of the real estate used to show that the MC is ready to make a change in his/her life?

***

I'm asking because it's relevant to the novel I'm struggling with right now. The bulk of my story is clearly a Character tale, it's about a man who makes a change in his life, and thus changes his place in society. The reaction of other folks to this change is part of the challenge he faces. That, and, of course, the obstacle presented by the change itself.

However, I'm very much inclined to put a frame into this story. But I notice that the frame means that the reader finds out about the character's desire for change, and then subsequent change, a little later in the novel. In fact, I feel like the frame story is actually more of an Idea tale. It presents a question, and then searches for an answer.

So, essentially the frame promises one type of story, which implies a certain climax/ending, while the rest of the novel promises a different type story, which implies a certain climax/ending. Is it possible to weave both into the same novel? Am I making a novice error?

Note, both sections of the novel are about the same character.

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MAP
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Honestly, I don't think anyone can answer this question without seeing how it works. Write the story the way you want to tell it. Then get some beta or first readers and see if it works for them.

Just write the story. Any mistakes can be fixed during revisions if they are even mistakes.

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JoBird
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I'm not so much asking how it works in my novel as I'm asking if it works conceptually. (Of course someone would have to read my novel to know if I managed to make it work.)

The question is: can two different story types be dominant in the same book? One in the frame, and one outside the frame?

If that's a violation of some known "rule" then I'd like to know as early as possible. If it is, then I certainly don't know the rule well enough to be breaking it.

As it stands, I am writing the story. But I'm also making an effort to learn structural specifics (classic dos and don'ts) from folks who may know more than I.

[ July 23, 2012, 12:19 AM: Message edited by: JoBird ]

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extrinsic
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I don't see an appreciable reason not to open with an idea-type story and progress into a character-type story, interleaving or melding the two. Challenging for a first-novel project perhaps. One principle on point, though, struggling writers are better served writing comparatively simple stories in order to build skills first.

As long as the idea concept empahsis and the character concept emphasis share a thematic foundation, and a thematically-related dramatic complication, they should weave into a glorious whole.

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MAP
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Jobird, there is no simple answer. Anything can be done.

I don't see any reason why your idea story framing a character story would Inherently be wrong. It all depends on how you do it.

It'll probably be more complex, but for all I know you're a genius and can pull anything off. [Smile] If you feel like this is the right way to tell your story, then do it. If you feel like you're not ready to tackle a story like this, write it a different way or come back to it once you develop more skills.

The point is that there are no fool proof rules in writing. There is no one size fits all. Every writer is different. Every story is different. Don't be afraid to try something new and stretch those writerly muscles, but be prepared for some failure. Failure is good. It is how we learn.

I know you didn't like my earlier answer, but I still stand by it. The only way to know if it works for this story that you are writing is for you to write it.

Good luck.

[ July 23, 2012, 12:18 AM: Message edited by: MAP ]

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Pyre Dynasty
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The problem wasn't so much with the form of the prologue but with modern readers conception of the word "prologue." That's why I don't tell people to cut their prologue, I tell them to call it chapter one.

I haven't read any review ever where people say, I didn't read the story frame. It is a perfectly valid form.

Don't get too bogged down with "rules" they aren't laws. The only real reason not to use any form or idea is if the agent/editor/audience you are targeting has specifically said they don't like it. Even then I think you should write it and find a different audience. I think of a Simpson's episode where Homer was testing for a drug company and the pill he took made him blind. The one researcher said, "Who's going to buy a pill that makes them blind?" The other one said, "We'll let marketing figure it out. Marketing is a step somewhere after writing.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Unless you're writing a short story (which tends to need focus on one kind of story, one main character, one main problem, one setting, and so on), you can use as many of OSC's M.I.C.E. kinds of approaches as you want to.

Consider that it can be argued that LORD OF THE RINGS is a character story (Frodo's growth as well as Aragorn's taking on his destiny, to name only a couple of characters who are explored in the book), a milieu story (the hobbits leaving their comfort zone and earning a place in a larger world), an idea story (power corrupts), and an event story (with the Ring trying to get back to Sauron, the whole world is in upheaval).

I say go for it, JoBird. It sounds like a cool way to do it, as long as you make sure to resolve both the inner and outer stories satisfactorily.

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mayflower988
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What are the M.I.C.E. approaches?
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extrinsic
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M.I.C.E. stands for milieu, idea, character, and event. The topic is discussed at length in Orson Scott Card's How to Write: Science Fiction and Fantasy, Writer's Digest Books, 2001.

MICE is a quotient of emphasis; one, emphasis on setting as pertains to a milieu as a dramatic situation, i.e., leaving sanctuary, experiencing a problem wanting satisfaction related to leaving sanctuary, and returning to sanctuary; two, idea emphasis as a dramatic situation, Ms. Dalton Woodbury's example of Lord of the Rings' thematic "power corrupts" is illustrative; three, character emphasis as a dramatic situation, a character experiences a personal transformation at great cost; four, an event emphasis as a dramatic situation, example, the Potter boy's coming of age being the event that spans the seven-installment saga.

MICE's approaches overlap, but one is usually emphasized over the others, thus a quotient. And as Card notes in the book, their significance crosses genre barriers. They share in common driving plot's antagonism, causation, and tension features. Along with voice (discourse) and plot, understanding MICE goes a long way toward developing fully realized narratives. SPICED: setting, plot, idea, character, event, and discourse.

[ July 23, 2012, 01:54 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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JoBird
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As extrinsic said above.

Orson Scott Card also discusses the M.I.C.E. quotient at length in his book Characters & Viewpoint. In my opinion, it's brilliant. After reading his breakdown I feel like I have a new insight into the process.

Essentially, all story types can be present, but one (the one that most interests the author) should be dominant. It's the dominant one that dictates the overall structure of the novel. (Which is why I'm hesitant to try and place two dominant types in the same novel, but nevertheless leaning that direction. Basically, the start of your novel intuitively promises to the reader how you're going to end it. Violating that promise would likely result in an unsatisfying climax.)

The milieu story concentrates more on the interesting world than anything else. It begins as close as possible to the main character entering the strange world, and pretty much ends when the main character leaves the world.

The idea story begins with a sort of a question. The mystery novel is a good example of this. Who killed the victim? It ends when the question is answered.

The character story is about the main character changing his or her lot in life. It starts with the character in the old life, shows the motivation for change, and then moves forward with the change. It ends when the character fully realizes the change, or goes back to their original existence.

The event story deals with something being out of place in the world. It begins when the main character comes into contact with whatever is out of sync, and ends when the main character either corrects the problem, or fails to do so.

Some of the story types require more characterization than others. I highly recommend that folks read Characters & Viewpoint as well as How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy. My paltry description here really doesn't do it justice. I have them both rated at five stars on goodreads. Each book really changed my fundamental thought process regarding storytelling.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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I submit that OSC's discussion of M.I.C.E. in HOW TO WRITE SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY can be particularly helpful because he talks about the structure of the different kinds of stories.
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