The Private Memoirs and Confessions was published as if it were the presentation of a found document from the previous century offered to the public with a long introduction by its unnamed editor. The structure thus is of a single, self-contained publication offering a historically contextualised story, but the effect is unsettling. When taken together, the different elements create an impression of ambivalence and inconsistency, as if they were intended to present the reader with a conundrum. Because Hogg's novel appears to test concepts of internal validity, historical truth or a single rational world-view, contemporary critics sometimes regard it as an early anticipation of ideas associated with postmodernism.
The Confession (which comprises the middle section of the novel) is an autobiographical account of the life of Robert Wringhim and, passim, his statement on the crimes with which his name was associated. The document is revealed to be in part a printed document intended for publication  and in part a handwritten manuscript. The first section narrates events retrospectively. It is followed by events recounted "in real time", describing events during his last days on earth. It has been proposed that the evangelical Lady Colquhoun and her husband, James, were the models for the character of Rabina and George Colwan.
The Editor's Narrative "introduces" this memoir with "factual" descriptions "from local tradition" of events associated with Wringhim up to the murder of his estranged brother, George Colwan. This Editor's Narrative later resumes at the end of the novel as a post-script appending further details that supposedly comment on the text. This includes the transcript of an "authentic letter" published in Blackwoods Magazine "for August 1823" by a certain James Hogg. The ending finally places the novel in the present time by relating the mystery of a suicide's grave, the exhumation of its remains and (only on the very last pages) the "recovery" of the manuscript. In effect, this post-script reveals what a real "editor" may more properly have set at the beginning, and casts it as the "conclusion".
Discounting any transcendental inferences, there are two time-frames in the novel. The events of the memoir are set in a carefully identifiable period of Scottish history between the late 17th century and early 18th century. (The first date on the opening page is the year 1687.) The editor's narrative is even more concretely dated and situated in present time, external to the novel, through the device of the letter by Hogg included by the fictional editor (which was in fact published in Blackwood's Magazine as described). Hogg's brief cameo role in the final pages of the novel is effectively his "signature" appended to the otherwise anonymous original publication.