What do you call a story within a story?
Story-ception is the most obvious and comedic answer, and it’s not entirely incorrect.
A story within a story is what’s known as a Framing Device, a plot device used frequently to structure both movies and TV episodes.
Let’s dive into what framing devices are and how you can use them to make your storytelling more dynamic and entertaining. But before we do, what's a plot device, anyway?
What Is a Plot Device?
Plot devices are storytelling techniques writers can use to impact or move their stories forward, handy tools every screenwriter should have in their back pocket.
What is an Framing Device?
Imagine a picture frame.
Doesn’t matter what color it is or what image is inside.
Got one in your mind? Good.
That picture frame is your movie. The frame itself — those four sturdy sides around the beautiful image — is how you tell the story of the image behind the glass. It’s the story around the story or, more broadly, a story within a story.
Story-ception, ladies and gents!
Alright, if you want to get technical about it instead of metaphorical, a Framing Device (or Frame Story) is a narrative technique wherein a writer surrounds their primary story with a secondary one. In other words, they frame their main story with another story.
Framing Devices lead the audience into the larger narrative, oftentimes by having characters in the outer story tell the primary story in some way.
It’s 80-year-old Rose recounting her story of star-crossed love set on a doomed ocean liner voyage in Titanic. It’s Forrest Gump with his box of chocolates talking to anyone who sits next to him on that bench. It’s how, in every single episode of How I Met Your Mother, Ted Mosby tells a piece of his backstory to his very bored-looking kids.
But a Framing Device doesn’t have to appear as literal storytelling on screen. Letters, books, documentaries or interviews, diaries, and journals can all serve as Framing Devices too.
Think about how the documentary interview footage steers the story in I, Tonya or how The Notebook is set up as a man in a retirement home reading a story to a fellow resident — both are exceptional uses of Framing Devices that lead the audience into the main storyline.
Sometimes the Framing Device — whatever it is — actually exists to plant a seed of doubt in the audiences’ mind as to whether the inner story is true.
Which story is real and which is fiction? Is it all a dream, hallucination, delusion, or tall tale? We’ll probably never know…
Why Framing Devices Work
Frame Stories are a tale as old as time.
Seriously, some of the first known stories to feature Framing Devices date back thousands of years to ancient Egypt (“The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor” and “The Eloquent Peasant,” if you’re wondering!) There are early examples in Homer’s epic Greek poetry, folk tales from the Islamic Golden Age, and classic British literature.
The long history of this plot device alone is proof enough of its effectiveness, but there are also myriad other reasons Framing Devices work as a structural storytelling technique.
First and foremost, Frame Stories allow the writer to anticipate the audiences’ reactions.
This technique, called procatalepsis, is most often used in speech but works just as effectively in writing. If a character is telling the primary story, their on-screen audience can pose questions or raise issues the real-life audience might have about the story.
The Princess Bride does this particularly well by having the grandson interrupt the story to ask questions about Buttercup, Humperdinck, and the other goings-on in Florin.
Overall, Framing Devices are a way to get audiences into complex, fantastical, or meta stories. Using a Framing Device is a bit like easing yourself into the water by dipping a toe in before doing a cannonball right into the deep end.
Framing Devices can help a screenwriter establish context, introduce a character, and/or set the tone. Additionally, the outer Frame Story often adds crucial thematic meaning to the larger narrative.
More Plot Devices: Everything You Need to Know About Montages
Things That Are NOT Framing Devices
Sometimes one plot device just isn’t enough. And that’s okay! It’s totally acceptable to combine a framing device with another storytelling technique.
But it’s not acceptable to believe that these other devices are exactly the same as Frame Stories.
Flashbacks vs. Framing Devices
Say it with me! Just because it’s a Flashback doesn’t mean it’s a Frame Story!
This can get confusing because the main narrative within a Framing Device is often a Flashback (for the perfect example of this, read more about The Grand Budapest Hotel below).
But not every Flashback is a Frame Story.
For example, Casablanca features an extended flashback sequence right in the middle of all the drama. The Paris flashback is a great sequence that provides much-needed context for the story… but it’s not a Framing Device. It’s just a Flashback.
Voiceover vs. Frame Stories
Here we go again! Just because there’s Voiceover doesn’t mean it’s a Frame Story!
Now… can voiceover function as a Framing Device? Absolutely yes.
Dan Fogelman’s family drama Life Itself does this particularly well — using the narrator to move the audience through seemingly unconnected stories until the final scene when all the storylines come together and the outer Framing Device is revealed.
But Voiceover and Frame Story are not synonymous.
Think about Richard Curtis’ romantic comedy About Time, in which voiceover by the main character, Tim, provides context and commentary throughout the entire film. But Tim’s voiceover is not set up as a Framing Device. It’s just a really great Voiceover.
Now that you understand the concept of Framing Devices, let’s take a look at a few examples.
The Framing Device in The Princess Bride
“When I was your age, television was called books! And this is a special book.”
Is there anything better than a grandparent reading you a story on a day when you’re stuck in bed with a nasty cold?
Well, to the kid in The Princess Bride, yes, his baseball video game is much better. But only until he realizes how incredible the story his grandfather’s reading really is.
The Princess Bride is a classic example of a Framing Device. The main narrative of Buttercup, Westley, and all their friends and foes unfolds through the Framing Device of a grandfather reading from a beloved book.
It’s a straightforward and effective way to ease the audience into the fantastical, heightened storybook world of Florin and allows the grandson to sporadically interrupt the narrative to question the plot on behalf of the real-life audience.
There’s even a slight twist at the end of the film that highlights another function of Framing Devices.
After the grandfather has finished the story, the grandson asks if he’ll return the next day to read the book again. The grandfather obliges, saying Westley’s catchphrase “As you wish” with a knowing smile.
These final moments of the movie use the Framing Device to make the audience wonder if the story is real and the grandfather is an older Westley. The best part? The Princess Bride doesn’t answer that question, so it’s up to the audience to decide.
The Framing Device in The Grand Budapest Hotel
Writer/director Wes Anderson is particularly fond of Frame Stories, and The Grand Budapest Hotel is a perfect example of a complicated use of this plot device.
The main narrative of Anderson’s winding tale of two employees at the glorious Grand Budapest is framed by not one, not two, but three — three! — Frame Stories.
When you have this kind of Frame Story within a Frame Story within a Frame Story, it’s what’s known as a Nested Story. In these cases, the stories are “nested” one on top of another on top of another, which sounds more complicated than it actually is.
The movie begins with a young woman visiting the grave of a renowned writer known simply as “The Author.” In her hands, she carries his book “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”
From there, we go into the story of that book to what I can only assume is meant to be the Introduction or Prologue chapter by the Author himself. Here, we see the Author speak directly to a camera to set up the story he’s about to tell.
That brings us to a third Frame Story, which centers on the Author as a young man, visiting the Grand Budapest many years after its prime. There, he meets an elderly man named Zero Moustafa, who recounts the film’s main narrative, which itself centers on his own adventures as a young man.
Now that’s story-ception at its finest.
Interestingly, Anderson and his director of photography Robert Yeoman decided to shoot the movie in a handful of various aspect ratios, a technique that helps the audience visually identify which Frame Story they’re in at any given moment.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is also a great example of a Framing Device that adds depth to the overall narrative. The elderly Zero Moustafa comments on how the main narrative ends, giving the overall story some much necessary thematic resonance.
Other Examples of Framing Devices
- The reporter trying to find the true meaning of “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane
- Alan Turing tells his own story to the police in The Imitation Game
- Borden and Angier’s diaries function as a Framing Device within a Framing Device in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige
- The movie adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera features a Frame Story that centers on an elderly Raoul
- Adult Gordy reacts to tragic news and remembers his childhood in Stand by Me
- The main narrative of The Usual Suspects is presented as courtroom testimony
- The sole surviving Spartan recounting the story of the final battle in 300
- Usnavi telling the story of a few days In the Heights (this Framing Device is not part of the stage production though!)
- Dan Fogelman’s Life Itself is presented as a series of nested stories all part of a larger Frame Story
- One could argue that the entire sixth season of LOST utilizes a Framing Device in the flash-sideways storyline
How to Use a Framing Device in Your Story
Frame Stories have been used so often that many viewers see them as lazy storytelling. Like many Plot Devices, a Framing Device should only be used if your story warrants one.
See, if you add a Framing Device to your script without good reason, the audience will undoubtedly be left wondering why it was there in the first place.
Framing Devices are too often set up in the beginning and then subsequently forgotten about by the time the credits roll. And why go to the trouble of setting up the device if you’re not going to use it?
With little exception, for a Framing Device or Frame Story to be warranted, it must have a larger narrative purpose or be inextricably tied to the story’s themes.
The documentary interview Framing Device in I, Tonya is warranted because it contributes to the overall theme of conflicting viewpoints. Could the story have been told without the documentary-style interviews? Yes, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as good of a movie.
Another reason to use a Framing Device is to call attention to the story itself.
Framing Devices can highlight a main character’s unreliability or make the audience question whether the story is fact or fiction, dream or reality.
Check out this list of questions before you commit to a Framing Device…
- Is the Framing Device critical to the story you’re telling? (AKA: Does it have a larger narrative purpose?)
- Is the world of your story fantastical, magical, or trippy enough to require easing the audience in?
- Does the Frame Story highlight the artificiality of storytelling or make the audience question the story’s validity?
If your answer to any of the above questions is “yes,” congratulations, you’re the proud new parent of a Frame Story!
Framing Devices are an interesting plot device screenwriters can use to affect the structural foundation of their story.
But before you hang that frame on the wall, make sure to question whether it needs to be there in the first place.
Check out our other plot device breakdowns from this series here!
Britton Perelman is a writer and storyteller from the middle of nowhere, Ohio. She’s had jobs in travel writing, movie trailers, and podcasting, and is currently getting her MFA in Screenwriting at the University of Texas at Austin. When not writing, Britton is most likely belting along to Broadway musical soundtracks, carefully making miniature bookshelves, or napping with her dog, Indiana Jones. Find more of her writing on her website or follow her on Instagram.