Narrative Within Narrative

We’ve already looked at first-person/subjective narration that is the narrator telling the story directly to the reader but there is also the framed first-person. There are two main examples of this where the narrator is telling their story to someone else who is transcribing it, or similar, and where the first-person narration is framed within a third-person/omniscient narration.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley is a classic example of the transcribed narrative. Frankenstein tells his story to the Captain who transcribes it into letters to his sister, but this one is also slightly unusual because within Frankenstein’s narrative he also tells the story of The Creature as it was told to him, or we take it on faith that it is. This creates three layers of first-person narration from three different characters within the same story. Whether Mary Shelley intended us to wonder or not there is a school of thought that the narrative becomes more subjective and slanted within each retelling. Given Frankenstein’s animosity for The Creature do we know he is giving a true and accurate recounting of what he has been told? What are the Captain’s motivations which may lead to Frankenstein’s story being edited? Do we know that Frankenstein is recounting his own story accurately rather than deliberately skewering it in his own favour?

This is why the first-person narrator is also called the subjective narrator, because their motivations could, as if they were a real person, cloud the story. This means we can only assume a story is truthful. We may not write these layers into a story but that doesn’t mean people won’t infer them.

Another framed narrative is one where the story is introduced in third-person and then moves into a first-person narration. An example of this would be Interview With The Vampire where the scene is set for the interview in first person and the first-person narration is Louis’ mostly monologue to the journalist and a tape recorder. I’m sure you’re seeing the pattern at this point with a framed narrative where it is often set up as the character telling another character their story. In Interview With The Vampire we are constantly reminded that story is being told to the journalist firstly because it is all within speech and secondly because the journalist occasionally asks a question or Louis makes a comment to him.

An alternate version of this is having a first and final chapter, and sometimes chapters in-between, that are in third-person where the first-person narrator is introduced as telling the story to someone, or we are introduced to the character by an omniscient narrator, or a situation is introduced and then the narrator begins their story. The classic, which I know I often refer to, is the crime story where the crime happens and then we move to the detective solving the case.

In short, simply because we are telling a story from a first-person perspective doesn’t mean we have to jump straight in with ‘Call me Ishmael’ as the famous quote from Moby Dick goes.


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Published by Jesse

I'm a writer and academic specialising in fantasy fiction and creative writing theory. I'm allergic to pretentiously talking about fiction and aim to be unashamedly ‘commercial’. Surely all fiction is commercial anyway, or what’s the point in publishing it?

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