A framed narrative is a story or set of stories included within the framework of a larger story. Typically, the larger framework involves someone relating the main story to another character, showing both the power of the original narrative and how it affects characters in the present. Point of view is also a crucial concept, as many characters tell the embedded narrative retrospectively and relate it to current events in their lives. Knowing the definition of a framed narrative can help you recognize examples as you read and give you ideas for writing your own stories using this technique.
Framed narratives, according to author Peter Brooks, are about "the desire, power, and danger of storytelling." Brooks writes that when we tell stories, they become a part of our larger experience and culture, acting as bandages for deep wounds and cautionary tales. A prime example of this effect occurs in Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," in which an unnamed narrator shares Marlow's story about his encounter in the Congo with the inner darkness of humanity. His story about Mr. Kurtz's moral unraveling serves as a warning and revelation about the tragedy that can result when this darkness goes unchecked.
Early Literature Examples
In the main narrative of "Arabian Nights," Scheherazade becomes the most recent wife of the ruler Shahryar, who has been marrying virgins and killing them before they can be unfaithful. To forestall her own execution, Scheherazade tells a series of unending stories. Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales" follows a similar linked storyline; while going on a pilgrimage, the characters pass the time by telling various tales. While their purpose are slightly different than the more thematic approach of "Heart of Darkness," these early frame narratives demonstrate how the characters' present circumstances provide an opening for a series of embedded stories.
Modern Literature Examples
The main story of Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita" is convicted murderer Humbert Humbert writing his memoirs in prison of his obsession with 12-year-old Dolores Haze and how it led to his undoing. In F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," narrator Nick Carraway tells Gatsby's story retrospectively to show readers how Nick became disenchanted with the American dream. David Mitchell's novel "Cloud Atlas" is a series of interconnected narratives that range from the distant past to a dystopian future, in which each character is reading a story, set of letters or oral history composed by another character in the book.
Film and TV Examples
In "Adaptation," Nicolas Cage plays a screenwriter whose life is overtaken by his adaptation of Susan Orlean's "The Orchid Thief," until the line between screenplay and reality becomes dangerously blurred. Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby" is told from the perspective of Scrap, who is writing a letter to his friend's estranged daughter to tell her a story that shows a side of her father she doesn't know. The TV show "How I Met Your Mother" is narrated by its protagonist in the year 2030, and each episode is a story shared with his children about his relationship with his wife.