The Power of Narrative Frames
Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a good example of how a narrative can be structured so that the reader can be both drawn into the story by a vulnerable character and yet guided through it by a narrator. Lee paints Scout as a naive and innocent young girl who at the beginning of the novel is just beginning school. Scout’s encounter with racism and brutality is told to us through the older and wiser Scout, the narrating voice who can interject at times to point the way or to increase the drama.
Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is an example of how larger-than-life elements in a story can be made more real by placing them at a narrative distance. Heathcliff’s dramatic and occasionally savage tale is told from the perspective of the servants who worked for him, then relayed to the reader through the narrator, a Mr. Lockwood, who is merely a visitor at the beginning of the novel. This double or triple ‘lens’ effect removes the story from us by several degrees, but surprisingly has the effect of solidifying it. It is as though we look at the events of the tale through the wrong end of a telescope, and so somehow strive to pay more attention to the tiny details.
The 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life shows us the loveable George Bailey’s ineluctable slide towards suicide as things go progressively wrong for him, but from the comedic standpoint of Heaven, looking down upon the events on Earth in a giant flashback. This removes us from feeling George’s frustration and eventual despair and heightens the film’s intended uplifting effect.
Stories don’t have to be told simplistically, and are often better when they are communicated through a series of vias. The straightforward picture of the author as storyteller, sitting down before an audience and conveying a story is one thing; but if the storyteller decides to remove himself or herself from the tale and communicate it through a framework of some kind, using narrators, or devices such as letters or flashbacks, then the illusion can become more real. Adding in a narrative frame creates a kind of theatre: instead of an author reading a story to us, we see a set of events played out while the author is invisible behind a screen. Perhaps fiction evolved this way inevitably, beginning with illiterate audiences who needed a storyteller to be physically present. As audiences grew more literate, the author didn’t have to actually ‘show up’ but could deliver the story ‘by proxy’. As the novel developed, then, the removal of the presence of the author was reflected in the structure of the tale itself. When films came along, authors became truly invisible, hidden behind giant collaborative teams and colourful moving images - it’s rare for cinema-goers to ask who the writer of the film was.
Experiment with this in your own work: how could you step back from telling the story? Are there devices - flashbacks, letters, other characters acting as narrators, and so on - that you could use to make your story appear to stand alone?
For more, see How Stories Really Work.