4. The Frame Device

The final major way of beginning your first chapter is to use a frame device. In this, your story is bookended on the front and back (and usually a few instances in the middle) by a story that is outside the main story. The primary tale is framed by this other story.

The Princess Bride (the novel and the film, both of which were written by William Goldman) is a frame-device story. The movie begins with a kid playing a video game. He’s staying home from school because he’s sick. His grandfather comes over and offers to read the boy a book to pass the time. Whenever he reads the book, the movie switches over to the main story, a fantasy swashbuckling adventure. Throughout the story, we cut back to the grandfather and boy, where we get commentary on the story and see a bond developing between them. Then it’s back to the fantasy world. The movie ends in the modern day as well.

Another example of a film that uses the frame device is Titanic. The story the audience cares most about is the historical tale of Rose and Jack and Cal onboard the doomed ocean liner. But we access that story through the device of an old woman (Rose) in the present. There’s a minor story going on in the modern day—they’re searching for a jewel she had while on the ship—but the real drama is the historical part. Now and then during the story we cut back to Old Rose, and the movie also ends with her, but our interest is in the other set of circumstances.

Would a frame device work for your story? One reason to consider a frame device is that you’re concerned a modern reader simply wouldn’t care deeply enough about your primary topic. If it’s too far removed from where they are in their lives, you might use a frame device to show someone very much like the reader (a kid playing a video game, for instance) coming to enjoy the main tale. Show someone like us getting involved in the story, and maybe we’ll go with you as well.

Another great thing about the frame device is that you can use it to make large jumps in time in your primary story. If you need to jump 10 years, just cut back to the frame story and have the narrator say, “It went pretty much like that for the next 10 years. Until finally …” and then return to the story. The frame device can act like a DJ transitioning between songs.

Why don’t authors use a frame device more often? I think it’s because it sometimes involves people who are out of danger and out of the action, which isn’t especially engaging. The instinct of most writers is to skip the frame and go straight to what’s inside it, and I agree. But there are good reasons to use a frame device in certain situations, and if you show movement or growth in the frame story, too, you can achieve something special.

Consider your choices, and then choose the beginning that fits naturally with the story you want to tell. If you approach your first chapter from a strategic standpoint, you have a better chance of maximizing your novel’s potential—and engaging the reader from the very beginning.

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