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I’m looking for the name of a certain way of structuring a story. It often takes the form of “prologue – story – epilogue” where the prologue is a conversation which sets up the story and sometimes there is an epilogue which continues the conversation from the prologue and wraps it up.

It was used a great deal in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and Somerset Maugham used it frequently in his short stories. James Hilton also used it to structure his novel Lost Horizon.

In general two or more people who may or may not know each other end up at the same table at a bar, café or their club and begin reminiscing, discussing current events or catching each other up. At some point a character, location or some similar element they have in common is introduced into the conversation and one of them tells a related story.

The closest name for this style I can find is “anecdotal story” but those are usually short, often very short as in fables or parables. I’m wondering if the form has another name when it is used in a longer story, such as the novel Lost Horizon.

If you want an example you can see it shaping up in the very first few paragraphs of Lost Horizon.

https://gutenberg.ca/ebooks/hiltonj-losthorizon/hiltonj-losthorizon-00-h.html

I’m retired and have been writing stories for a few years now and plan on writing a series of hard science fiction stories based on this format. I can do so intuitively but if it is a defined literary form I would like to research it a bit more.

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Story within a story

I am not sure if that's the name of the story, or way of structuring the story as you call it, but the closest thing that I was able to find from Googling is this article:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Story_within_a_story

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Metafictional_techniques

You could also refer to metafictional techniques, but I don't see anything else that comes close to what you're describing.

Looking on Google, I found several entries:

https://www.google.com/search?client=firefox-b-d&q=+Somerset+Maugham+%22story+within+a+story%22

"The Criminal" is one of the first pieces of the author's fiction to use the story-within-a-story narrative technique. (40) Maugham used this literary device.

Another one:

A story within a story, “A String of Beads” draws much of its thematic complexity from the counterpoints it provides between the two levels

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    Thank you for taking the time to do a bit of digging and post your results. Following up on your "story-within-a-story" tip it leads to the terms "nested narrative" and "frame story" with the latter being dominant. I should be good from here and thanks again.
    – NetCentric
    Jan 13, 2023 at 1:13

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