Books

Another Trope I Can’t Resist

I’ve been thinking more about tropes that call to me, and after my discussion of recent reading from earlier this week, I’ve got one to add: framing stories. That’s when the bulk of the novel is framed as a story being told or discovered in a separate story at the beginning and end (with maybe some in-between stuff) of the book.

I think I first developed a fondness for this with all the Jack Higgins WWII thrillers I read in my teens. His usual pattern was that a nameless first-person narrator (implied to be the author) was in some place researching some element of history for a book he was working on, and then a mysterious stranger would approach him and offer to tell the real story that no one has heard. The novel would then be that story (told in standard narrative format). At the end, the mysterious stranger would finish his story, the author would be left pondering whether it could possibly be true, and then he’d find some piece of evidence that supported the story, and his mind would be blown. I think I liked this structure because it gave the illusion that the story might possibly be true, that it was secret history rather than just a novel.

I like it even better when there’s an actual plot in the “present” part of the story, so that it’s parallel stories rather than just a frame. There’s something going on in the present as someone researches the past, and meanwhile we get the story of what happened in the past. One good example of this is Possession, by A.S. Byatt. Or there are things like The Thirteenth Tale or The Historian.

One other thing that I like about this structure is that it’s a way to let readers know the long-term outcome of the characters after the end of the action — not just did they survive those events, but how did the rest of their lives go? The person in the present usually learns some of this information. You wouldn’t really be able to put that in a normal novel structure, but you can if part of the story is the person in the present researching it. It then becomes part of the resolution for the present-day character to learn that the characters in the past got married, had three children, started a successful business, and died peacefully in their sleep of old age.

And, yes, something like this is on my literary bucket list. I have a plot idea that’s perfect for it, but it’s going to take a lot of research and some travel before I can write it.

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