What’s the only thing better than one good story? Two. And that’s what you get with frame stories, two intertwined tales for the price of one. When we learned about frame stories in school, we were taught to think of One Thousand and One Nights, The Canterbury Tales, and The Odyssey. But frame stories are far more than these classic, but ancient, tales of storytelling with one narrative nested neatly inside the other. Here, an updated list of modern stories within stories.
Sage Singer works in a bakery, a fitting profession for the protagonist of a story that’s as multi-layered as a wedding cake. In typical Jodi Picoult fashion, Sage is faced with the unthinkable. Josef Weber, her town’s beloved retired German teacher, asks her to help him kill himself. His reason? He served as a Nazi SS guard. Though Sage never experienced the horror of the Holocaust herself, her grandmother Minka did. Sage struggles with ideas of forgiveness and retribution as both Josef and Minka begin telling her their stories.
No one ever said coming home was easy. Neil Gaiman’s unnamed narrator returns to his hometown for a funeral and the sight of his childhood house sparks memories of a friend named Lettie he had nearly forgotten. From there, the story travels back to the narrator’s youth when he sought help from his neighbor Lettie after his mother disappears and leaves him in the care of an evil and supernatural woman named Ursula.
Hindsight is 20/20, so they say. It’s certainly true for John Wheelwright, the protagonist in John Irving’s seventh novel. John’s an English teacher in 1987 and he’s struggling with both his faith and America’s political landscape. In search of answers, or perhaps just longing for a time when the questions were simpler, John begins recalling his childhood adventures with his best friend Owen Meany, a small boy convinced that he’s destined to do God’s work.
An interview is a cool framing device in fiction, because it sets up the expectation that, when the protagonist answers the questions, the reader is going to get the scoop straight from the horse’s mouth. This is the case in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, where a fictional history teacher asks Miss Jane Pittman a series of questions that add up to a powerful story that’s nothing short of incredible. When the book opens, Pittman is enslaved, but this tale follows her escape and eventual ascent to a leader in the civil rights movement.
5. Q & A
You may know this book better as the inspiration for the Oscar-winning 2008 blockbuster Slumdog Millionaire. The frame story here is a sobering one: The book opens in a cell in Mumbai where Ram, an Indian boy who has grown up in extreme poverty, is being detained under suspicion of having cheated on a popular Indian game show. After all, how could a boy with no access to education have answered all of those questions correctly? Ram’s attempt to explain is the heart of this now-beloved novel.
For those of us who read Joseph Conrad’s most famous work years ago, it can be easy to forget that there’s a frame story at work in its pages. When the story opens, the reader isn’t looking for Kurtz in the Congo just yet. Instead, Marlow is telling his story to an unnamed narrator aboard the Nellie. Conrad’s approach is pretty effective: The reader becomes aware not only of the horrors that Marlow has seen, but also his struggle to describe and make sense of it.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is told largely in flashbacks, as 80-year-old Lily recalls her friendship with Snow Flower. The two were first paired together as children in rural China, and as one another’s “laotong,” they were meant to be friends for life. Across decades, Snow Flower and Lily encounter marriage, family life, and the painful practice of foot-binding. The friendship isn’t without its difficulties, but its impact is lasting for both women.