A frame story is a narrative within a narrative. It occurs when one character decides to tell another story to the other characters around him/her.
This could be orally or through a secondary written story/letter/journal inside the first. This technique is also known as frame narrative or embedded narrative.
The secondary story, in some cases, becomes more important than the first. This happens in novels like Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights, as referenced in the section of “examples”. These two novels are rooted fully in the world that one character recreates for the audience. So much so that the exterior narrative, which started off the novel, is often forgotten until the story wraps up at the end. In the case of these two novels, the stories they outline are very influential, but they also relate directly back to the initial outer story. There are some examples of frame narratives in which the “story in the story” is just that, a story. It may not have any serious bearing on what happens or happened to the person telling it.
When a character sits down to tell the story of events that happened to them there is an interesting tension that’s created. These events are in the past but for the reader, they appear to be playing gout in real-time. There is always the realization that these things have already occurred and that the character telling about them is reliving something in the past.
Purpose of a Frame Story
By using this literary technique the writer is able to provide a great deal of context for the main story, that which started out the novel/play/poem. It often gives the reader the information they need to understand why a character ended up where they are, such as the Creature out on the ice flow in Frankenstein. This technique also helps the writer to bring in as many different perspectives as possible, while allowing the reader to pass judgement on the person telling the story. It is all from their perspective. This can colour events subjectively in a specific direction.
Examples of Frame Stories
Example #1 Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
One of the most popular and well-known frame stories was created by writer Mary Shelley in her masterpiece, Frankenstein. The story begins with a ship captain, Robert Walton, writing a letter to his sister. It is in this letter that he relays a wonderful and terrible story of life, death, and revenge that he learns about. He tells his sister of discovering Victor Frankenstein on the ice and then learning from him the story of his creation of the Creature.
Example #2 Decameron by Boccaccio
The Italian companion to The Canterbury Tales, The Decameron is a wonderful example of a frame narrative. This work is a collection of novellas, written in the mid 13300s by the Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio. It takes place during the Black Death, which the characters of the story have sought to escape. There are 100 stories inside the larger narrative. These are told by the seven women and three men who are sheltering together. Each is interesting on its own. They tell the reader and the other people present something about the character telling the story.
Example #3 Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
The final example, Wuthering Heights, is a gothic novel published by Brontë in 1847. Unlike when it was first published, Wuthering Heights is now a wildly popular classic novel. It tells the story of Cathy and Heathcliff, two neighbours, best-friends, and lovers, and their children. The story begins with Mr. Lockwood travelling to Wuthering Heights and meeting Mr. Heathcliff, from there he comes into contact with Nelly Dean who tells him the tragic story of the family. Here are a few lines from the novel that begin Dean’s narrative:
Before I came to live here, she commenced . . . I was almost always at Wuthering Heights; because my mother had nursed Mr. Hindley Earnshaw that was Hareton’s father, and I got used to playing with the children: I ran errands too, and helped to make hay, and hung about the farm ready for anything that anybody would set me to.
She has an intimate connection to all the people she talks about in the novel. This allows her to speak clearly and accurately about them. A reader feels as though they can trust her judgment on each event.