On Frame Stories

What’s a frame story, you ask? Well, it’s a fictional book that’s primarily written to shove the opinion or agenda of the author down the reader’s throat. The story takes a backseat to the message, and the characters either exist as mouthpieces for that message or become examples of What Happens to the Bad People Who Don’t Live By Our Philosophy.

While it’s fine for a novel to have a message or to teach good values, they should always first focus on the storytelling and the characters who are experiencing the plot. And furthermore, if you have an important message that you want to impart to others through fiction, it will actually be much more effective if it’s funneled through an authentic and enjoyable story. If you as an author find yourself more interested in inspiring people on what to believe than you are in telling the characters’ story, you should just be honest and write prescriptive nonfiction.

Many books with a religious or spiritual theme get this wrong. Every character is a plant—meaning they were specifically invented by the author to serve a singular purpose or “represent” something—and most of their featured dialogue seems rehearsed, overly organized, too structured, and preachy. When the action stops frequently so a major character can philosophize, preach, or reminisce on some topic that illustrates exactly what the story is about, you’re probably dealing with a frame story. It’s also really common for characters in frame stories to have very few defining characteristics beyond their role in the story and very little irrelevant back story. (Okay, I know nobody likes infodumps about characters’ back stories, but it’s very frustrating for me whenever it’s 100% clear that a character started living on page one. Unless they were BORN on page one.)

What’s especially troubling is when you agree with or really like some of the spiritual or philosophical messages. The very popular Left Behind series is a Christian fiction bestseller that depicts the End Times and is pitched as an exciting post-apocalyptic (literally!) future for what’s in store if you are not a believer. And while it sold millions, most of the Christian people I know who read it disliked it because the characters were constantly launching into their conversion stories and persuasive page-long essays about why being a Christian is vital. Considering nearly all of their audience is already Christian, they are (literally, again!) preaching to the choir.

And what about books like The Celestine Prophecy? It’s sold as fiction, and presents a New Age philosophy imparted through various revelations that the protagonist discovers while on an adventure. You know what? I’ve read it. And I can’t remember the main character’s name without looking it up. The story clearly wasn’t about the characters or what they were doing. It was about a deliberate attempt to engage the reader in a belief system or philosophy. I liked several of the insights. I remember those. I thought the story around it was unnecessary. And the sales pitch for its upcoming insight (released in the next book, of course) was blatant. The author might have made a loyal reader out of me if he’d either sold his insights in a tight little philosophy book OR written a story to fill in the frame.

But then there’s the question of how you’re supposed to use positive messages in your book without making the novel a frame story. It’s actually very simple, and I’ll emphasize that I’m not saying books shouldn’t have messages. I’m saying they absolutely must read like stories (not lectures) and absolutely must contain people (not puppets).

For example, the book Holes has a pretty straightforwardly anti-racist message in it. The story bounces back and forth between the past and the present, and in both time periods a relationship between a black person and a white person undergoes challenges and shows how they’re better together. In the past, it’s a white woman and a black man who fall in love, and the Old West town isn’t willing to stand for it. In the present, it’s a white boy and a black boy who form a lasting friendship and finally win against the authority that’s beating them down.

But the main characters—and even some of the secondary and tertiary supporting characters—have depth and history so you know where they’re coming from; they have personal struggles and idiosyncratic quirks; they are about way more than representing their race. And nobody ever stops the action to give us a nice speech on why it’s so important that black people and white people get along. (And it should be noted that their races also are not at all invisible. It’s not one of those “they said this one’s white and this one’s black, but we wouldn’t have known from context otherwise” kinds of “I don’t see color” books. Their racial backgrounds are part of the characters. They just aren’t their defining characteristic or sole identity.)

How about one of my favorite teen books: Stargirl. Now, this is clearly a “be yourself, don’t change for anyone” story. Is it a frame story? Not even close.

What’s interesting is how overt this message is without being a frame story. It’s the characters that make it special—Stargirl is certainly quirky in a manic-pixie-dream-girl way, with her ukulele playing, weird clothes, and tendency to change her name to whatever suits her. But she’s more than that, too. She’s special because she pays attention to what other people feel, and reacts to it; she’s special because she isn’t “trying to be an individual” with her stunts so much as honestly being cut from a different cloth; she’s special because when you see her weirding everyone out by cheering for the opposite team as well as her own team, you know her well enough to understand why she does it. When she goes through her self-exploration phase in the opposite way that most teens do—trying to be more conventional, for the sake of love—you don’t get a tidy wrap-up at the end where everyone’s learned their lessons and now we all know to be ourselves. We understand why fundamentally changing yourself for someone else is not about love, because we see the consequences as they take their toll on these characters. We don’t feel like we just watched an after-school special about individuality. We feel the loss and we understand the people who lost. And that’s what the book is about. You’ll come away with a message, but you’ll never feel like the author tricked you into following a character’s story just so they could make them give lip service to their own agenda.

The key to presenting a message through fiction is always going to lie in the authenticity of your characters. Make us understand them and why everything in their lives has led them to believe what they do, and we’ll believe in them enough to want to listen to you. But make their personalities secondary to the message you’re piping in from a different universe, and I promise you we’ll feel it.

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