Have you ever read a story that really was a story within a story? “Two for the price of one,” you might be thinking to yourself. “That’s great!!!” Well yeah sometimes, but calm down. This type of literary device is one that has existed for way longer than you might have thought, and it may surprise you to learn that the earliest known use dates back to the ancient Egyptians. But should you use it in your story? Maybe. Let’s grab our box of crude literary dissection tools and dig in.
There are plenty of examples of fantastic stories that use this type of structure. Frankenstein for one uses the wrap-around narrative of Captain Robert Walton before it dives into the real meat of Victor Frankenstein. Another good example would be Wuthering Heights, the narrative first provided by Mr. Lockwood and then later by Nelly Dean. Sometimes you might even have one storyteller exit altogether and have the tale resolve with an entirely different person. Donald Westlake’s short story No Story might be an interesting read if you are interested, it parodies this device setting frame inside of frame until ultimately you are left with no story at all. (This turned out to be quite a difficult story to find, so if you know of a digital version I could link to, please let me know.)
I’m going to ride off into the weeds of personal opinion here, but most of the time when I encounter a story that uses this narrative device I get mildly annoyed. Unless it’s done really well authors run the risk of creating something that’s seemingly the whole point is to waste the time of the reader. The narrative at the very least should contain some kernel to the story that helps resolve the plot of the internal narrative by the time the reader gets back around to the other side of the outer one. At best it should do that and underline what the moral or theme of the story was. “But Matt doesn’t a framing narrative give something to the story?” you ask, “Doesn’t it have a place in all this?” Well yes, let's get into that.
Why would you want to use a framing narrative?
Well, the primary purpose of using a frame is usually to link together disparate pieces or fragments into one cohesive whole. You can think of it as packaging, instead of an anthology with several stories bound together without any inter-connectivity, you get one story mushing them all into one. Characters and events across time and space can suddenly be brought together and their stories told in such a way that the reader gets to experience them in a way that makes structural sense. And that’s why people buy books right, for the packaging? This is sometimes referred to as a conceit, or as I like to call it a cop-out, because if the narrative frame to heavy-handedly tells you the point of the linked stories, or if the stories recounted just seem too incredible to be presented within the frame provided suddenly you feel like the frame has wasted your time.
The second reason that you would want to use a frame is to give your reader a stepping stone down into the story. If done well it can add verisimilitude to the story and provide the reader with a narrator that they can empathize with and who can give credence to the claims that the story is about to make. You may not be a doctor for example, but let me provide you with a credible one in the narrative frame, so that when you do get to the incredible tale of the reanimated corpse you are more likely to believe it to be “true” because it came from said credible doctor. But watch the f*** out if you build in a frame for this reason, because if you fail to make the narrator someone that the reader trusts, your story’s credibility can actually do the opposite. All of a sudden you’ve built in a miniature version of the telephone game, the primary evidence now obscured through two or more layers of interpretation. If one or both of your narrators are unreliable then Hell’s bells man how can we be sure any of this stuff is real?
The third reason would be to use it to get the reader up to speed on a situation currently unfolding in the story. You may find the narrator in the frame about to do something dramatic, say storm a cathedral full of vampires. They then can explain to you through the frame what has happened up until this point in the story, bringing what would otherwise be relegated to backstory info into the foreground and forming the primary part of your tale. The reader then once caught up can see how the third act plays out, with the narrator detonating the bomb in the bell tower and diving through the stained glass guns-a-blazing.
I guess that’s all I’m really trying to say here. If you want my recommendation I would suggest only using this type of device if you go into the story knowing you want to use one. Hang a lantern on it, and infuse it with just as much value to the reader as the rest of the story if you can. If your story can survive it hitting the cutting room floor then odds are you are better off without it.