115. Frame Stories

Frame stories are useful literary devices. They provide “containers” that help organise other narrative material. Many stories, sometimes several layers deep, may nest within the frame.

Think, for example, of one of the best-known frame stories in the One Thousand and One Arabian Nights.  Shaherazad prevents the Sultan executing her by telling him a new story each night. Her attempt to keep herself alive provides the frame for the tales she tells.


Some of these tales, in turn, are also frame stories for collections of others: such as the Sinbad sequence.

Uses of the frame story

The essence of all frame stories is that they offer the possibility of telling other stories. But there are many reasons a writer might want to do this.

A narrator may want a container into which they can drop smaller narratives from their preferred stock.

Or there may only be one other story inside the frame. In this case, the frame allows the writer to suggest things about the second story. For example, to signal that the narrator is unreliable, or to propose other reactions to the reader.

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas contains six stories each nested within the previous one.


Framing for accessibility

Another use of the frame story is to make a more complicated structure accessible to the reader.

I used this device in my novel The Tears of Boabdil. It uses a simple frame story about an undercover policeman investigating a terrorist cell and falling for his target. The reader could choose to engage only at this level. But embedded within this are other magical tales which come to interpenetrate the real world of the frame story. Reality becomes the story we tell about things: a fitting epitaph for a professional liar.


Frame and reprise

A reprise is a repeating element. Often, the repeat is at the beginning and end of the story. This gives a sense of returning to the start, which readers tend to find satisfying.

Such a reprise functions like a frame, without being a complete story in itself.


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