Frame Narratives and Interrelated Stories

 

Authors of nineteenth century short fiction often wrote interconnected tales. This method lent itself to the periodical market, where individual stories could stand on their own in weekly or monthly issues, and they could also entice readers back to hear more adventures or tales of familiar characters. If the stories were particularly successful, they could then be republished in a book-length collection.

Such was the case for Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, originally a series of stories published at irregular intervals in Charles Dickens’ Household Words from 1851-53. Later the stories were published in one volume, and now the collection is often referred to as a novel. Such slippage in terminology was not uncommon. Anthony Trollope was one of the masters of marketing and re-marketing his short fiction. Take, for example, his collection titled An Editor’s Tales (1861), a volume of stories that originally had been published in St. Paul’s Magazine while he was serving as its editor. Trollope marketed and re-marketed nearly all of his short fiction.

At times editors of journals would solicit authors to write short fiction for a coordinated special issue of the journal, often at the end of the year as a supernumary Christmas issue. One writer would compose a frame narrative, such as a group of guests gathered around a public house fire on a cold evening, telling stories to one another. Each writer, then, would contribute their tale to fill out the frame narrative. Their stories, then, could function both as stand-alone tales and as parts of a longer narrative.

The twentieth century developed a term for collections of closely-related short fiction—the short story cycle. Though the nineteenth century did not have a corresponding term, it is clear that authors used the technique of writing intertwined stories to cultivate an audience for their work and build their texts incrementally from a length suitable for a journal article to the typical length and form of a book. These techniques allowed them to span the two main publishing formats for fictional prose.

Significant Terms

Selected Examples