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What Is a Framing Device?

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  • Written By: Mark Wollacott
  • Edited By: C. Wilborn
  • Last Modified Date: 12 September 2016
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A framing device is a "bookend" scene that appears at the beginning and end of a story in order to frame the story within. At its most basic, it is a literary or cinematic device used to set up a different story. In some productions and publications, this device can be used intermittently during the story as the point of view switches between the protagonist in the story and the framing device. Another kind of framing device will start and finish with the bookends, but will also have a narrator voiceover during much of the story.

A simple example of a framing device would be for a story to open with an old man or woman talking about his or her life. The main story concerns the experiences he or she had when younger, and when the episode of his or her youth finishes, the story returns to his or her present condition as an old person reminiscing or confessing. This framing device was used in the German film Der Untergang, known in English as Downfall, which tells the story of Traudl Junge, the real life secretary of Adolf Hitler.

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The 1987 film The Princess Bride provides good example of a framing device that reappears in the middle of the narrative. In it, a grandfather is reading a book to his sick grandson; the storytelling scenes frame the medieval comedy that makes up the majority of the movie. Occasionally, the film reverts back to the grandfather and grandson as they discuss the book, before returning to the central narrative.

The framing device often places the main story in a different context to the minor story that surrounds it. In the examples given above, one story is set in the past while the other is set in a fictional world loosely based on medieval Europe. The characters featured in the framing story tend to be less well developed than those in the main story and there tends to be less time spent with them too. The function of framing characters is to provide a context to the main story being told, while adding an overarching sub-plot.

Bookending stories can also provide readers or viewers with an additional sense of resolution. In Downfall, Junge regrets how little she did to try and stop Hitler and his supporters. In the 1997 movie Titanic, an older version of Rosie is able to change another character, Brock, in the bookended scenes. In The Princess Bride, the grandson learns to appreciate not only his grandfather, but also the value of storytelling.

Stories with framing devices should not be confused with those that have parallel stories told at different points in time. The 2008 film The Reader, for example, has two storylines; one is set during World War II as a young German student has an affair with an illiterate tram conductor, while the other looks at how that student, as an adult, wrestles with his choices and deals with their consequences. These two stories are well developed and deeply connected, but one does not bookend the other.

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