Starting with the table of contents, Pale Fire looks like the publication of a 999-line poem in four cantos ("Pale Fire") by the fictional John Shade with a Foreword, extensive Commentary, and Index by his self-appointed editor, Charles Kinbote. Kinbote's Commentary takes the form of notes to various numbered lines of the poem. Here and in the rest of his critical apparatus, Kinbote explicates the poem surprisingly little. Focusing instead on his own concerns, he divulges what proves to be the plot piece by piece, some of which can be connected by following the many cross-references. Espen Aarseth noted that Pale Fire "can be read either unicursally, straight through, or multicursally, jumping between the comments and the poem." Thus although the narration is non-linear and multidimensional, the reader can still choose to read the novel in a linear manner without risking misinterpretation.
The novel's unusual structure has attracted much attention, and it is often cited as an important example of metafiction; it has also been called a poioumenon. The connection between Pale Fire and hypertext was stated soon after its publication; in 1969, the information-technology researcher Ted Nelson obtained permission from the novel's publishers to use it for a hypertext demonstration at Brown University. A 2009 paper also compares Pale Fire to hypertext.
The interaction between Kinbote and Shade takes place in the fictitious small college town of New Wye, Appalachia, where they live across a lane from each other, from February to July 1959. Kinbote writes his commentary from then to October 1959 in a tourist cabin in the equally fictitious western town of Cedarn, Utana. Both authors recount many earlier events, Shade mostly in New Wye and Kinbote in New Wye and in Europe, especially the "distant northern land" of Zembla.