A frame tale or story within a story is a narrative technique whereby a main story is composed, at least in part, for the purpose of organizing a set of shorter stories. The frame tale acts as a convenient conceit for the organization of a set of smaller narratives which are either of the devising of the author, or taken from a previous stock of popular tales slightly altered by the author for the purpose of the longer narrative. Sometimes a story within the main narrative can be used to sum up or encapsulate some aspect of the framing story, in which case it is referred to in literary criticism by the French term mise en abyme.
Generally, frame tales are organized as a gathering of people in one place for the exchange of stories. Each character tells his or her tale, and the frame tale progresses in that manner. Sometimes only one storyteller exists, and in this case there might be different levels of distance between the reader and author. In the most distant form, the single teller is speaking to a single listener or audience which exists inside of the frame.
An early example of the frame tale is The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, in which Scheherazade narrates a set of fairy tales to the King Shahriyar over many nights. In fact, many of Scheherazade's tales are also frame tales. For example, her Tale of Sindbad The Seaman And Sindbad The Landsman is a collection of adventures related by Sindbad the Seaman to Sindbad the Landsman.
In the one storyteller mode, the frame tale can sometimes become more fuzzy. In the case of Washington Irving's Sketch Book which contains "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle" among others, the conceit is that the author of the book is not Irving, but a certain gentleman named Crayon. Here the frame includes both the world of the imagined Crayon, his stories and the possible reader who is assumed to play along and "know" who Crayon is.
As with all literary conceits, the frame tale has many variations, some clearly within the confines of the conceit, some on the border, and some pushing the boundaries of understanding. The main goal of a frame tale is as a conceit which can adequately collect otherwise disparate tales. It has been mostly replaced, in modern literature, by the short story collection or anthology absent any authorial conceit.
Texts which concretely deploy the frame tale: