A good story, like a good picture, is more striking with a frame.
A memoir or family history is intended to give your life (or at least the stories you’ve chosen to tell about your life) context and meaning. Your stories are usually illustrations of a larger point. But will your readers see your point?
A frame is a device to help your reader see what the point of the story is. By framing a story with a brief introduction and conclusion, you can add levels of meaning that aren’t explicit in the story.
Public speaking has a famous maxim: “Tell’em what you are going to say, say it, then tell’em what you said.” A frame is similar, except you don’t summarize the story – you suggest or hint at meanings with techniques such as symbols, repeated images, things that are said and done, then make explicit all the subtle meanings you reader might not otherwise see.
You are probably familiar with the framing of a story. Aesop’s Fables like “The Tortoise and the Hare” is an example of a framed story which leads to a specific lesson stated in the conclusion. The moral is, slow and steady wins the race. In parables like “The Good Samaritan” or “The Prodigal Son” a story is presented in a way that the reader will recognize a lesson that applies to himself or herself.
One of the tricks that authors use is to introduce a story with a hook or a teaser. These devices not only create reader interest in the story, but help the reader anticipate the meaning or significance of the story which will follow. Hook or tease your reader by starting off with an unconventional beginning. Use humor, or a surprise, an unusual idea, or an interesting fact or a question. In your introduction of the story, give a few details to indicate why you’ve chosen to include this story in your memoir. Don’t give away too much – you’ll answer your reader’s questions by telling the story.
You’ve completed the story. What does it mean? In fiction, this question is left to the reader to decide. But as a memoirist or family historian, one of your goals is to give meaning to your life. As you conclude a story, you can explore more deeply why the events you have described were significant. What lessons did you learn? What lessons about life did you gain from what happened? What did the events illustrate about your values? Your conclusion gives the story you have told a context for understanding by answering questions like these.
The introduction and conclusion are guides you give to the reader to make sure that she sees the meaning you seek to convey with the story you tell. By providing a strong frame you show off the picture of events you have placed within it to best advantage.
(Photo by Amy Loves Yah, attribution under Creative Commons)