2 min read

Frame text

There's a funny thing books sometimes do: They frame the same story they're telling as an important story inside the fictional world they are describing, by showing or telling how others have written about the events. I call the devices they use to do this frame text.

One common way of doing that is by writing the book with a frame story. Often this means one character is telling another their story. That's how The Name of the Wind works. Kvothe is telling the Chronicler his story and that's how we learn Kvothe's story. This is common in TV and movies, too, not just books. But this is not the only way to frame the story.

The Hobbit tells you that Tolkien found the text somewhere, rather than writing it. The introduction says: Look, I found this book, a hobbit wrote this about their history. Bilbo Baggins, the protagonist, wrote this. In this setup, there's no conversation and little commentary. We don't hear how Bilbo's contemporaries feel about the story or how impressive they think it is. We don't hear commentary about whether Bilbo really wrote it or someone else did, whether it was stitched together from multiple texts from different authors, or whether Bilbo exaggerated his achievements. The introduction is all we get.

Dune takes a third approach, framing its story using the opening quotes in each character. Every chapter opens with a quote from some biography, autobiography, or history trying to make sense of the story's events or contextualizing them in some way. I think a few open with mantras, quotes from codes of ethics, or mission statements. I seem to recall reading one attributed to the Bene Gesserit. It's a thousand-page book, so there are lots.

One of my favorite My Little Pony fanfictions, Starlight Over Detrot: A Noir Tale, takes a similar approach, but pushes it much further than Dune. Every chapter starts with a quote from The Scholar, a historian trying to make sense of the story's events as part of a larger history of turmoil. Chapter 1 quotes the Scholar's Foreword to their history which lays all this context out for us. Here, the character stands outside the story, commenting obliquely on it at times in their own delightful "snippy academic" voice and perspective. The quotes here are more consistent in voice, more consistent in purpose and context, and often much more extensive compared with those in Dune and consequently they feel more important. I remember the Scholar. I don't remember any particular history writer from Dune other than the Emperor's daughter because she appeared at the end. This story is probably my favorite example of frame text because it's so extensive.

I find something charming about this framing thing. It can be fun to have a parallel track of story and commentary from a very different perspective. But even without overt commentary, it's fun to think Bilbo wrote The Hobbit and every time there's a joke, that's Bilbo getting away from himself, hamming things up in the retelling—especially because it is noticeably sillier than The Lord of the Rings. The framing gives a slightly different perspective on the character and story that's fun to engage with.