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Fun Joel's Screenwriting Blog


-- On Screenwriting and Related Topics

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Location: Los Angeles, CA

I moved from NYC to LA in October, 2003. And though I still think NYC is the greatest city in the world, I'm truly loving life here in the City of Angels. I'm a writer, reader, and occasional picture-taker.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Following Up on Framing Stories

I was going to respond in the comments section to the last post, but instead decided it would be more in depth and I should post separately.

So first to respond to some of the specific commenters:

Amitbe -- I had thought about The Usual Suspects. I need to rewatch/revisit to determine exactly where that falls in the scope of the flashback/framing story device. But I think it definitely relates to one of the traditional uses of the Framing Story, which I will discuss a drop later on.

Steve -- I haven't seen The Never-Ending Story, but sounds interesting. I'll have to check it out.

Joshua -- Not a traditional framing story, but I want to discuss those kind of tales as well. I'm referring to the ones where the film opens with an event at the end or late in the film, moves back to the start, and then catches up to the opening scene again. Definitely an example of that here, and there are many other as well.

Lucy -- Haven't seen that film either. Will check it out.

Okay. So as I thought more about framing stories as a device, I went to one of my favorite research tools, Wikipedia. The entry they have on Framing Stories gave me good food for thought. So I thought I'd mention a few of the points.

First of all, it mentioned a book, the film of which definitely makes effective use of the device. So much so I can't believe no one jumped out and said it immediately. Wizard of Oz! Classic usage!

Now beyond that, I realized that many of the same reasons one might use a framing story in a book might also apply in films, though not all of them, and the device doesn't have to be overly clever or effective to achieve its goals. It might just be a subtle device that adds a bit.

First of all, though much rarer in films, there is the example in which a framing device is used to collect a number of disparate tales. The first film examples that spring to mind for me are Four Rooms and the recent film The Ten. I forget (and have to revisit), but I think The Adventures of Baron Munchausen might work the same way.

I think that often in literature, a framing device helps to add a certain amount of verisimilitude. If a character tells it over to another character, for some reason it seems a bit more like it really happened to someone. Perhaps because it is one more step removed from what we are reading on the page. If I read a novel, it is words describing an event that theoretically could have taken place. If I read a framed story in a novel, it is words describing another person's recounting of an event that theoretically could have taken place.

This purpose, however, seems less necessary in film. Film, by its nature, is such a realistic medium. (I often discuss the way our mind relates movies to potential reality because we are so used to seeing news and other videographic documents of actual events, that there is no physical distinction between what we see as a fictional film and what we see as documentary footage.) Thus, I don;t think the framing device adds any aspect of realism that didn't exist already.

Another usage of the framing device in literature is to raise questions about the narrator's objectivity or reliability. This is certainly useful in film as well, and perhaps might relate to the frame and narration in a film such as Sunset Boulevard, or another similarly structured film, Double Indemnity. This was also the purpose I referred to above regarding The Usual Suspects.

Next, a framing story may be used to position the specific angle from which the viewers experience the story. Theoretically, this could be the purpose of the framing device in Titanic, creating a certain emotional depth to the story. In my opinion, this failed here, and was in fact unnecessary; there was a lot more emotional depth in the historic tale itself than in the contemporary framing tale. Still, the device can be useful for this purpose, and I'll have to think about a potentially effective use of the device in this fashion.

Frame stories can also be used when the central story is a dream vision of sorts. Obviously, this is what took place in Wizard of Oz.

I think there is also a distinction to be made between film in which the framing story is told by a completely distinct narrator and those in which the narrator is a character in the central story. Princess Bride is a prime example of the former. The Ten, in part, is an example of the latter, since Paul Rudd's character does appear in one of the other ten stories.

So, that's more on frame stories. Any other thoughts you all have, I'd love to hear them.

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Blogger Lucy said...

You've never watched The Neverending Story OR The Company of Wolves?!?!? I'm amazed! These heavily influenced me when I wrote the script you read. You'll see why in retrospect (if my script is at all memorable, of course!). In fact, now I think of it, that script could qualify as a framing story, albeit a tiny one. Damn. Didn't realise I'd done that. Funny the things you do subconsciously!

3:58 PM  
Blogger Emily Blake said...

Hey, Lucy, that's what I was going to say about Neverending Story.

How could anyone not have seen that. I mean, that was part of childhood. It was required.

I still get upset over that damn horse.

6:38 PM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

I kind of figured there was no rush to see it...

...since it was "neverending!"

(Groan here.)

Thank you, thank you. I'll be here all week people!

9:35 PM  
Blogger E.C. Henry said...

Funjoel, would you consider "Saving Private Ryan a framed story? This movie begins with a survivor of D-day going back to a grave sight where he is moved deeply by the memory of those fallen, which was what Steven Speilberg was doing (in my opinion), "Saving Private Ryan" is a movie that honors the American vets. who gave their lives for the greater good of turning back the Nazis in Europe.

Been thinking of "framing story" conventions since you explained them, and that device appears to have a MAJOR drawback that you haven't talked about. This drawback is that the frame isn't the main story trying to be told, its an echo of the main one.

So in using a framing device, in a way, it's like the writer doesn't trust his, or her own, ability to pull the story off on its own. The framing story is by definition the weaker of the two stories and could well end up eatting up valuable screentime that could be used to better delve into the real story.

My point: a frame for a story can be an unnecesarry distraction.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

5:36 PM  
Blogger oneslackmartian said...

Did we mention Forest Gump? He sits on that park bench through most of the film, recounting his life story with a complete stranger.

12:26 AM  
Blogger M J Reid said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

6:00 PM  
Blogger M J Reid said...

Another shining example of a well-done framing story: Ying Xiong, AKA Hero (the Jet Li movie, not the Dustin Hoffman movie of the same name.)

It managed to keep the feeling of immediacy of a flashback while also playing with the unreliable narrator motif. Some excellent stories coming out of Asia these years.

(Previous comment deleted due to malformed HTML tag. I hate Blogger sometimes.)

6:02 PM  
Blogger M J Reid said...

Oh, one more that jumps to mind, Big Fish, adapted by John August. Not sure whether that one qualifies as a framing story, but it certainly brings up the unreliable narrator element.

Various versions available on John August's site.

6:28 PM  

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