In literature, a story within a story is a technique used to present a story that is told within the action or plot of another story. This technique is sometimes known as a frame story, and it serves to help give context to one or more of the stories or characters being presented. The story within a story is common in novels, short stories, and memoirs, and the technique is not necessarily limited to written books; many movies and television shows also employ the use of the frame story technique.
Two of the most famous examples of a story within a story are Washington Irving's "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Both of these stories are told by a narrator who is outside of the events of the inner story, or story within a story. The narrator, in other words, lives outside of the action of the tale, but does engage the reader in an initial tale of his own time and place. Once the narrative is underway, the narrator takes the reader into the second story, that of Rip Van Winkle or of the events that take place in Sleepy Hollow.
The technique can be overlapped many times within one single novel. The writer can, for example, present a narrator who lives in one time and place. That narrator can then begin telling a tale of another time and place. The characters within that story can in turn tell another story in yet another time and place. This can get confusing for the reader, but if done correctly, the story within a story that is overlapped many times can add depth to a particular plot line, novel, or other medium.
Writers may employ the use of this technique for several reasons: to provide context, to develop an intricate history, or even to cast doubt on a narrator's reliability. The narrator who tells tales can distort the truth of events, and the reader must then make a determination as to whether this narrator should be trusted as a reliable source of information in other parts of the tale. A writer may also use the story within a story to provide expository information that will give the reader a better sense of why events take place in the story, and what motivated characters to act in certain ways when faced with specific adversity.