What Is a Frame Narrative?

A frame narrative refers to a type of storytelling in which one or more stories take place within an overall story. Specific types of frame narratives include cyclical frame stories and stories in which the plot of the smaller stories are important to the larger frame story.

Because frame narratives contain multiple stories within a plot, frame narratives are useful for presenting various ideas in one storytelling technique. Each of the smaller stories are typically told by different characters, so that each character's motive is not immediately apparent. Frame narratives are also used to unify numerous stories that are set as examples for an idea or an event, as in Giovanni Boccacio's "Decameron." Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" is an example of a frame narrative in which the smaller stories have plots that support the overall theme of the frame story.

In a story using a frame narrative, the smaller plots, or embedded narratives, allow readers to become familiarized with major and minor characters. This form of narration also mimics the way the human mind works through the formation of relationships between minor narratives that at first may appear unrelated. "The Thousand and One Arabian Nights" is another frame narrative that creates suspense and drama by offering embedded narratives that create a sense of urgency in readers through the use of cliffhangers.