A frame story is a story or narrative within another story or narrative. The outer narrative, the first narrative that readers encounter, wraps around or frames the inner narrative(s). The various plots involved can be well developed or act as a device to unite events or ideas. Frame narratives create the situation that lets the inner stories be told; they explain why the reader encounters these other narratives. Frame narratives can also provide unity to stories or ideas that at first seem unrelated.
The outer story can frame a single narrative.
Example: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. A strange old mariner approaches a best man outside a wedding reception. The mariner says he is compelled to tell his tale for the rest of his life, which he then tells the young man.
The outer story can frame several inner stories or narratives.
There can be one over-arching frame with several short stories within it such as those in The Arabian Nights: Every night—driven by betrayal, jealousy, and pride—King Shahrayar marries the daughter of a commoner or a merchant just to have her put to death the next morning. Shahrazad delayed her execution each night by telling the king a tale and leaving him with a cliffhanger until the next night. Each night he said he would kill her the next morning, but each time she would start a new tale. Sometimes the characters in her tales would tell tales themselves, more framed narratives.
Or frame narratives can be more or less linear, using a chain of related narrators or narrative events. For example, the plot of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a succession of framed narratives. The outer frame is created by Robert Walton’s letters to his sister about a man he encountered in the polar North: Victor Frankenstein. Walton takes notes on the story Victor tells him about his childhood, studies, and creation of the creature. Within Victor’s story is the story of the creature, as well as letters and correspondences.
Bringing it back
For the most part, Frame Stories circle back after the inner narratives are complete. Let’s look at our three examples:
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: The narration ends back at the wedding where the mariner met the best man, the outer-most frame story. The mariner leaves him standing outside the wedding, stunned by what he has heard.
The Arabian Nights: After each inner-narrative is told, the overall narration of The Arabian Nights returns to the next frame story out. Shahrazad tells the king “The Story of the Merchant and the Demon,” in which two characters (the first and second old man) tell their own tale. After the first old man is finished with his tale, the narration returns to the next frame story out (The Story of the Merchant and the Demon) before we hear the second old man’s tale. “The Second Old Man’s Tale” finishes and the narration returns to “The Story of the Merchant and the Demon.” Once that tale is finished, the narration returns to Shahrazad and the King, which is the outer-most frame story before moving on to “The Story of the Fisherman and the Demon," or the next tale.
Frankenstein: Periodically, the narration returns back out to the letters that Robert Walton writes to his sister. In the end, the narration returns back to those letters and completes the frame.
It is important to note that not every frame narrative will circle back to the outer-most frame story. Whether this is intentional or not is difficult to say, but it often leads to a lively discussion as to the purpose of the frame when it is incomplete.