(Spoilers: Saving Private Ryan, Titanic, The Notebook, The Usual Suspects, Edward Scissorhands)
One of the narrative devices available to screenwriters is the framing story. Today I want to discuss what they are and why you might choose to use one.
First of all, let’s define our terms. A framing story describes scenes that surround the primary story, often in the present for a story told in the past. For example, Saving Private Ryan (written by Robert Rodat) has a framing story – we see Ryan in the present day going to visit the grave site of Captain Miller in France. The Princess Bride (screenplay by William Goldman) also has a framing story – the grandfather reading the book to his sick grandson. In Saving Private Ryan the framing story literally frames the movie – appearing only at the beginning and end. In The Princess Bride, we move back and forth between the framing story to the main story of the book the grandfather is reading.
What differentiates a framing story from a flashback is where the main dramatic action of the movie takes place. If the main story is in the past, then everything in the present is a framing story. If the main story is in the present, then what takes place in the past is flashback.
It's important to understand where your main story is taking place. This is the story the audience really cares about. Everything in a framing story serves only to illuminate the main story in some way. Thus you must be careful not to let the framing story overshadow or distract from the main story.
If you spend too much time in your framing story at the beginning of the movie, the audience will become invested in it (or tune out – even worse!) and will be annoyed when you jump to your main story. Then it will be harder to get them invested in the main storyline. If you cut back and forth to the framing story, like in The Princess Bride, you should not linger in the framing story or the audience will grow bored waiting for you to return to the stuff they're most interested in.
We must also distinguish between a framing story and a prologue. Sometimes there might be an opening scene that’s set in the distant past – some bit of history that sets up important information for the present day storyline, as in The Mummy (story by Stephen Sommers and Lloyd Fonvielle & Kevin Jarre, screenplay by Stephen Sommers) or the Lord of the Rings movies.
Framing stories are a potentially powerful device, but one fraught with risk. When done badly, the framing story can seem weak or uninteresting in comparison to the main storyline. Or it can become an annoyance, taking us away from the good stuff. If you’re going to use one, you should have a clear reason why.
So why would you use a framing story?
Sometimes the framing story is a way to introduce a narrator for the main story. We learn that what we're going to hear is one person's perspective on the events. You might use this to get the audience to identify more strongly with the main character or to create a limited point of view. A framing story could also create an unreliable narrator, such as Verbal in The Usual Suspects (written by Christopher McQuarrie).
Other framing stories have their own conflict and structure. Citizen Kane (screenplay by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles) works in this way. The main story is of course Kane's life, but it's framed by a reporter's search for the meaning of Kane's last words. This cleverly allows the main story to be told by a series of narrators in interviews with the reporter. (These may appear to be flashbacks, but remember our definition: the main story of Citizen Kane is in the past.) Here the framing story is a device to limit point of view of each section and control how information is revealed to the reporter, and thus the audience.
Another reason to use a framing story is to create a fairy tale quality. The Princess Bride is an obvious example of that. The framing story makes clear this is literally a fairy tale being read from a book. This helps the audience accept elements of magical realism that can be hard to pull off on film.
A framing story can also increase the emotional impact of the main story. The Notebook (adaptation by Jan Sardi, screenplay by Jeremy Leven) is a good example. In the framing story, an old man tells an old woman the tale of the rocky romance between Noah and Allie (the main storyline). We learn, of course, that the older couple are Noah and Allie and that Allie has Alzheimer's disease. It adds great poignancy to the main story and serves as a profound punctuation mark on the romance of the main story line.
We also see this in Saving Private Ryan when we see how Captain Miller’s sacrifice defined Ryan’s future. Similarly, the framing story in Titanic (written by James Cameron) shows us how Rose has held on to her romance with Jack her whole life. Many epic love stories use a framing story to make the point that what we heard was the greatest love of the character’s life.
Edward Scissorhands (story by Tim Burton & Caroline Thompson, screenplay by Caroline Thompson) has a framing story that illustrates many of these purposes. It opens with Kim, as an old lady, telling her granddaughter why it snows. The granddaughter is in bed – this is literally a bedtime story, though Kim tells it as though it were true. We then go back in time to when Kim was a teenager for the main story, only returning to old Kim and the granddaughter at the very end.
This framing story serves to tell us that we’re getting Kim’s perspective on events. This is particularly useful since young Kim doesn’t appear for quite a while in the main storyline. The framing story also creates a fairy tale quality that allows us to accept that an inventor in an old house could build an intelligent, emotional robot that looks like Johnny Depp with scissors for hands. We don't question the scientific plausibility when we see how Edward was constructed - which is good, because it's completely implausible.
Finally, the Edward Scissorhands framing story provides an emotional payoff at the end by showing how the events of the main storyline affected Kim later in her life. We learn that Edward was no passing fancy but the greatest love she ever had.
So you should consider using a framing story when: 1) you want to create extra identification with a main character, 2) need to establish an unreliable narrator, 3) need to limit point of view, 4) want to create a fairy tale tone, or 4) it can add poignancy or an epic quality to the main story. But be cautious… make sure your framing story is actually adding something of significant value to the movie and not just distracting from the main story line.