Story within a story
A story within a story is a literary device in which one character within a narrative narrates. Mise en abyme is the French term for a similar literary device (also referring to the practice in heraldry of placing the image of a small shield on a larger shield). A story within a story can be used in all types of narration: novels, short stories, plays, television programs, films, poems, songs, and philosophical essays.
- 1 Types of nested story
- 2 Deeply nested fiction
- 3 From story within a story to separate story
- 4 Examples of stories within stories
- 5 Fictional artists
- 6 Frame stories
- 7 See also
- 8 References
Types of nested story
Story within a story
The inner stories are told either simply to entertain or more usually to act as an example to the other characters. In either case the story often has symbolic and psychological significance for the characters in the outer story. There is often some parallel between the two stories, and the fiction of the inner story is used to reveal the truth in the outer story.
The literary device of stories within a story dates back to a device known as a frame story, when the outer story does not have much matter, and most of the bulk of the work consists of one or more complete stories told by one or more storytellers. This concept can be found in ancient Indian literature, such as the epics Mahabharata and Ramayana, Vishnu Sarma's Panchatantra, Syntipas' Seven Wise Masters, the Hitopadesha, and Vikram and the Vampire. Another early example of stories within a story can be found in the One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights), which can be traced back to Arabic, Persian, and Indian storytelling traditions. Homer's Odyssey too makes use of this device; Odysseus' adventures at sea are all narrated by Odysseus to the court of king Alcinous in Scheria. Other shorter tales, many of them false, account for much of the Odyssey.
Often the stories within a story are used to satirize views, not only in the outer story but also in the real world. The Itchy & Scratchy Show from The Simpsons and Terrance & Phillip from South Park both comment on the levels of violence and acceptable behaviour in the media and allow criticism of the outer cartoon to be addressed in the cartoon itself.
Stories-within-a-story may disclose the background of characters or events, tell of myths and legends that influence the plot, or even seem to be extraneous diversions from the plot. In his 1895 historical novel Pharaoh, Bolesław Prus introduces a number of stories-within-the-story, ranging in length from vignette to full-blown story, many of them drawn from ancient Egyptian texts, that further the plot, illuminate characters, and even inspire the fashioning of individual characters.
The provenance of the story is sometimes explained internally, as in The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, which depicts the Red Book of Westmarch (a story-internal version of the book itself) as a history compiled by several of the characters. The subtitle of The Hobbit (There and Back Again) is depicted as part of a rejected title of this book-within-a-book, and The Lord of the Rings is a part of the final title.
When a story is told within another, rather than being told as part of the plot, it allows the author to play on the reader's perceptions of the characters—the motives and the reliability of the storyteller are automatically in question. In Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, the characters tell tales suited to their personalities and tell them in ways that highlight their personalities. The noble knight tells a noble story, the boring character tells a very dull tale and the rude miller tells a smutty tale.
In some cases, the story within a story is involved in the action of the plot of the outer story. An example is "The Mad Trist" in Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher, where through somewhat mystical means the narrator's reading of the story-within-a-story influences the reality of the story he has been telling, so that what happens in "the Mad Trist" begins happening in "The Fall of the House of Usher". Also, in Don Quixote by Cervantes, there are many stories within the story that influence the hero's actions (there are others that even the author himself admits are purely digressive).
An inner story is often independent so that it can either be skipped over or read separately, although many subtle connections may be lost. A commonly anthologised story is The Grand Inquisitor by Dostoevsky from his long psychological novel The Brothers Karamazov and is told by one brother to another to explain, in part, his view on religion and morality. It also, in a succinct way, dramatizes many of Dostoevsky's interior conflicts.
Sometimes, the inner story serves as an outlet for discarded ideas that the author deemed to be of too much merit to leave out completely, something that is somewhat analogous to the inclusion of deleted scenes with DVD releases of films. An example of this is the chapter The Town Ho's Story in Herman Melville's novel Moby-Dick; that chapter tells a fully formed story of an exciting mutiny and contains many plot ideas that Melville had conceived during the early stages of writing Moby Dick, ideas originally intended to be used later on in the novel, but as writing progressed these plot ideas eventually proved impossible to fit around the characters that Melville went on to create and develop. Instead of discarding these ideas altogether, Melville instead wove them into a coherent short story and had the character Ishmael demonstrate his eloquence and intelligence by telling the story to his impressed friends. Arthur Ransome uses the device to let his young characters in the Swallows and Amazons series of children's books, plotted in the recognisable everyday world, take part in fantastic adventures of piracy in distant lands: two books from the twelve: Peter Duck and Missee Lee (and some would include Great Northern? as a third) are adventures supposedly made up by the characters.
With the rise of literary modernism, writers experimented with ways in which multiple narratives might nest imperfectly within each other. A particularly ingenious example of nested narratives is James Merrill's 1974 modernist poem "Lost in Translation".
Other prime examples of experimental modernist literature that incorporate multiple narratives into one story are various novels written by American author Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut includes the recurring character Kilgore Trout in many of his novels. Trout acts as the mysterious science fiction writer who enhances the moral of the novel through plot descriptions of his stories. Books such as Breakfast of Champions and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater are sprinkled with these plot descriptions.
Robert A. Heinlein's later books (The Number of the Beast, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls and To Sail Beyond the Sunset) propose the idea that every real universe is a fiction in another universe. This hypothesis enables many writers who are characters in the books to interact with their own creations.
The Amory Wars, the story told through the music of Coheed and Cambria, tells a story for the first two albums but reveals that the story is being actively written by a character called the Writer in the third. During the album, the Writer delves into his own story and kills one of the characters, much to the dismay of the main character.
Several Star Trek tales are stories or events within stories, such as Gene Roddenberry's novelization of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, J. A. Lawrence's Mudd's Angels, John M. Ford's The Final Reflection, Margaret Wander Bonanno's Strangers from the Sky (which adopts the conceit that it is book from the future by an author called Gen Jaramet-Sauner), and J.R. Rasmussen's "Research" in the anthology Star Trek: Strange New Worlds II. Steven Barnes's novelization of "Far Beyond the Stars" partners with Greg Cox's The Eugenics Wars: The Rise and Fall of Khan Noonien Singh (Volume Two) to tell us that the story "Far Beyond the Stars" — and, by extension, all of Star Trek itself — is the creation of 1950s writer Benny Russell.
The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon has several characters seeing a play called 'The Courier's Tragedy' by the fictitious Jacobean playwright Richard Wharfinger. The events of the play broadly mirror those of the novel and give the main character, Oedipa, a greater context with which to consider her predicament; the play concerns a feud between two rival mail distribution companies, which appears to be on-going to the present day, and in which, if this is the case, Oedipa has found herself involved. As in Hamlet, the director makes changes to the original script; in this instance, a couplet that was added, possibly by religious zealots intent on giving the play extra moral gravity, are said only on the night that Oedipa sees the play. From what Pynchon tells us, this is the only mention in the play of Thurn and Taxis' rivals' name - Trystero - and it is the seed for the conspiracy that unfurls.
A variant of this device is a flashback within a flashback, which was notably used by the Japanese film Rashomon (1950), based on the Japanese short story "In a Grove" (1921). The story unfolds in flashback as the four witnesses in the story—the bandit, the murdered samurai, his wife, and the nameless woodcutter—recount the events of one afternoon in a grove. But it is also a flashback within a flashback, because the accounts of the witnesses are being retold by a woodcutter and a priest to a ribald commoner as they wait out a rainstorm in a ruined gatehouse.
Some stories may include within themselves a story within a story, or even more than two layers.
This literary device also dates back to ancient Sanskrit literature. In Vishnu Sarma's Panchatantra, an inter-woven series of colorful animal tales are told with one narrative opening within another, sometimes three or four layers deep, and then unexpectedly snapping shut in irregular rhythms to sustain attention. In Ugrasrava's epic Mahabharata, the Kurukshetra War is narrated by a character in Vyasa's Jaya, which itself is narrated by a character in Vaisampayana's Bharata, which itself is narrated by a character in Ugrasrava's Mahabharata.
Another early example is the One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights), where the general story is narrated by an unknown narrator, and in this narration the stories are told by Scheherazade. In many of Scheherazade's narrations there are also stories narrated, and even in some of these, there are some other stories. An example of this includes the "Sinbad the Sailor" story narrated by Scheherazade. Within the story itself, the protagonist Sinbad the Sailor narrates the stories of his seven voyages to Sinbad the Porter. Another example is "The Three Apples", a murder mystery narrated by Scheherazade. Within the story itself, after the murderer reveals himself, he narrates his reasons for the murder as a flashback of events leading up to the murder. Within this flashback, an unreliable narrator tells a story to mislead the would-be murderer, who later discovers that he was misled after another character narrates the truth to him. As the story concludes, the "Tale of Núr al-Dín Alí and his Son" is narrated within it. In yet another tale Scheherazade narrates, "The Fisherman and the Jinni", the "Tale of the Wazir and the Sage Duban" is narrated within it, and within that there are three more tales narrated.
Plays such as I Hate Hamlet or movies such as A Midwinter's Tale are about a production of Hamlet, which in turn includes a production of The Murder of Gonzago (or The Mouse-trap), so we have a story (The Murder of Gonzago) within a story (Hamlet) within a story (A Midwinter's Tale).
At least one line in the C. S. Lewis book The Last Battle implies that Lewis learned of Narnia's events - and thus wrote the Narnia books - after the Railway Accident in 1949, when Susan told him the stories in the belief that she was relating mere childhood make-believe. Further still, The Silver Chair states that a Narnian author wrote a book called The Horse and His Boy after the events related in the novel.
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein at one point features the narration of an Arctic explorer, who records the narration of Victor Frankenstein, who recounts the narration of his creation, who narrates the story of a cabin dwelling family he secretly observes.
Margaret Atwood's novel The Blind Assassin also uses this technique. The novel's expository narration is interspersed with excerpts from a novel written by one of the main characters; the novel-within-a-novel itself contains a science fiction story written by one of that novel's characters.
House of Leaves, the tale of a man who finds a manuscript telling the story of a documentary that may or may not have ever existed, contains multiple layers of plot. The book even includes footnotes and letters that tell their own stories only vaguely related to the events in the main narrative of the book, and even includes footnotes for fake books. In addition, the fact that portions of the book were released through the internet and purported to be true added an even higher level to the cult following surrounding this book.
Neil Gaiman's influential graphic novel series The Sandman includes several examples of this device. Worlds' End, volume 8 of the series, contains several instances of multiple storytelling levels, including Cerements (issue #55) where one of the inmost levels actually corresponds to one of the outer levels, turning the story-within-a-story structure into an infinite regression.
Roald Dahl's story The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is about a rich bachelor who finds an essay written by someone who learnt to "see" playing cards from the reverse side. The full text of this essay is included in the story, and itself includes a lengthy sub-story told as a true experience by one of the essay's protagonists, Imhrat Khan.
The music video for the Björk song "Bachelorette" features a musical that is about, in part, the creation of that musical. A mini-theater and small audience appear on stage to watch the musical-within-a-musical, and at some point, within that second musical a yet-smaller theater and audience appear.
Episode 14 of the anime series Martian Successor Nadesico causes a rather confusing link between the world of the show itself and that of Gekigangar III, a popular anime that exists within its universe and that many characters are fans of; the episode is essentially a clip show, but has several newly animated segments based on Gekigangar that involves the characters of that show watching Nadesico (many of them being big fans of it themselves). The episode ends with the crew of the Nadesico watching the very same episode of Gekigangar, causing a bizarre paradox of sorts.
Since Nadesico, other anime series have featured shows-within-a-show; the most famous examples are Densha Otoko, which had the series Getsumento Heiki Mina and Genshiken, which had Kujibiki Unbalance. Both sub-shows have since become actual series in their own right, though three episodes of Kujibiki Unbalance were created as OVAs to coincide with the release of Genshiken. The episodes were styled as if they were part of a serial, though they were actually one-offs. There is also a Kujibiki Unbalance manga, being translated and published by Del Rey/Tanoshimi.
Jostein Gaarder's books often feature this device. Examples are The Solitaire Mystery, where the protagonist receives a small book from a baker, in which the baker tells the story of a sailor who tells the story of another sailor, and Sophie's World about a girl who is actually a character in a book that is being read by Hilde, a girl in another dimension. Later on in the book Sophie questions this idea, and realizes that Hilde too could be a character in a story that in turn is being read by another.
The popular graphic novel Watchmen features a story within a story called Tales of the Black Freighter, which details that man's insanity comes from fear of losing something. The story parallels that of one of the characters in the main story, hinting at his actions. The panels of the Tales... comic are drawn grainy and with dulled colors, to give it a pulp feel, while in the film adaptation the story is presented as a cartoon within the movie.
Daniel Handler's introduction in Lemony Snicket's Unauthorized Autobiography continually introduces a new story about a page into the previous one, thus creating a confusing and inconsequential (but not incorrect or self-contradictory) storyline that is never finished, always dealing with the questions he is asked but never answering them. He drops a hint in one of the layers that this is simply a technique to distract the reader from the fact that he never answers these questions.
Catheryne Valente's duology, The Orphan's Tales featured strong influences from 1001 Arabian Nights, with stories nestled within stories - sometimes up to more than seven layers.
The film '"Chariots of Fire" shows three levels of narration; starting in 1978 at Harold Abraham's funeral, attended by Lindsay and Montague, it then flashes back to 1924, and the Olympic teams training camp at Broadstairs. In a scene there showing Montague writing a letter, it flashes back again to his and Abraham's arrival at Cambridge, and tells their story, interspersed with that of Eric Liddell, up to being selected for the Games. Halfway through the film the narrative arrives at the 1924 camp, and continues into the story of the Games. At the end of the film the scene returns to the “present” as Lindsay and Montague leave the funeral.
The film "Grand Budapest Hotel" has four layers of narration; starting with a young girl at the Author's memorial reading his book, it cuts to the old author in 1985 telling of an incident in 1968 when he, as a young author, stayed at the hotel and met the owner, old Zero. He was then told the story of young Zero and M Gustave, from 1932, which makes up most of the narrative. There are brief epilogues from the young author in 1968, and the old author in 1985, before ending with the girl finishing her book in the cemetery.
Play within a play
This dramatic device was probably first used by Thomas Kyd in The Spanish Tragedy around 1587, where the play is presented before an audience of two of the characters, who comment upon the action. From references in other contemporary works, Kyd is also assumed to have been the writer of an early, lost version of Hamlet (the so-called Ur-Hamlet), with a play-within-a-play interlude.
In Francis Beaumont's Knight of the Burning Pestle (ca. 1608) a supposed common citizen from the audience, actually a "planted" actor, condemns the play that has just started and "persuades" the players to present something about a shopkeeper. The citizen's "apprentice" then acts, pretending to extemporise, in the rest of the play. This is a satirical tilt at Beaumont's playwright contemporaries and their current fashion for offering plays about London life.
William Shakespeare used this device in many of his plays, including A Midsummer Night's Dream, Love's Labours Lost, and Hamlet. In Hamlet the prince, Hamlet himself, asks some strolling players to perform the Murder of Gonzago. The action and characters in The Murder mirror the murder of Hamlet's father in the main action, and Prince Hamlet writes additional material to emphasize this. Hamlet wishes to provoke the murderer, his uncle, and sums this up by saying "the play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king." Hamlet calls this new play The Mouse-trap (a title that Agatha Christie later took for the long-running play The Mousetrap). In the Hamlet-based film Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead the players even feature a third-level puppet theatre version within their play. Almost the whole of The Taming of the Shrew is a play-within-a-play, presented to convince Christopher Sly, a drunken tinker, that he is a nobleman watching a private performance, but the device has no relevance to the plot (unless Katharina's subservience to her "lord" in the last scene is intended to strengthen the deception against the tinker) and is often dropped in modern productions. Pericles draws in part on the 14th century Confessio Amantis (itself a frame story) by John Gower and Shakespeare has the ghost of Gower "assume man's infirmities" to introduce his work to the contemporary audience and comment on the action of the play.
In Anton Chekhov's The Seagull there are specific allusions to Hamlet: in the first act a son stages a play to impress his mother, a professional actress, and her new lover; the mother responds by comparing her son to Hamlet. Later he tries to come between them, as Hamlet had done with his mother and her new husband. The tragic developments in the plot follow in part from the scorn the mother shows for her son's play.
The opera Pagliacci is about a troupe of actors who perform a play about marital infidelity that mirrors their own lives, and composer Richard Rodney Bennett and playwright-librettist Beverley Cross's The Mines of Sulphur features a ghostly troupe of actors who perform a play about murder that similarly mirrors the lives of their hosts, from whom they depart, leaving them with the plague as nemesis. And John Adams' Nixon in China (1985-7) features a surreal version of Madam Mao's Red Detachment of Women to extraordinary effect, illuminating the ascendence of human values over the disillusionment of high politics in the meeting.
In Bertolt Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle, a play is staged as a parable to villagers in the Soviet Union to justify the re-allocation of their farmland: the tale describes how a child is awarded to a servant-girl rather than its natural mother, an aristocrat, as the woman most likely to care for it well. This kind of play-within-a-play, which appears at the beginning of the main play and acts as a 'frame' for it, is called an 'induction'. Brecht's one-act play The Elephant Calf (1926) is a play-within-a-play performed in the foyer of the theatre during his Man Equals Man.
In Jean Giraudoux's play Ondine, all of act two is a series of scenes within scenes, sometimes two levels deep. This increases the dramatic tension and also makes more poignant the inevitable failure of the relationship between the mortal Hans and water sprite Ondine.
The Two-Character Play by Tennessee Williams has a concurrent double plot with the convention of a play within a play. Felice and Clare are siblings and are both actor/producers touring ‘The Two-Character Play.’ They have supposedly been abandoned by their crew and have been left to put on the play by themselves. The characters in the play are also brother and sister and are also named Clare and Felice.
The Mysteries, a modern reworking of the mediaeval mystery plays, remains faithful to its roots by having the modern actors play the sincere, naïve tradesmen and women as they take part in the original performances.
The musical Kiss Me, Kate is about the production of a fictitious musical, The Taming of the Shrew, based on the Shakespeare play of the same name, and features several scenes from it. Alternatively, a play might be about the production of a play, and include the performance of all or part of the play, as in Noises Off, A Chorus of Disapproval, Lilies or The Producers.
In most stagings of the musical Cats, which include the song "Growltiger's Last Stand" — a recollection of an old play by Gus the Theatre Cat — the character of Lady Griddlebone sings "The Ballad of Billy McCaw". (However, many productions of the show omit "Growltiger's Last Stand", and "The Ballad of Billy McCaw" has at times been replaced with a mock aria, so this metastory isn't always seen.) Depending on the production, there is another musical scene called The Awful Battle of the Pekes and the Pollices where the Jellicles put on a show for their leader. In Lestat: The Musical, there are three play within a plays. First, when Lestat visits his childhood friend, Nicolas, who works in a theater, where he discovers his love for theater; and two more when the Theater of the Vampires perform. One is used as a plot mechanism to explain the vampire god, Marius, which sparks an interest in Lestat to find him.
A play within a play also occurs in the musical The King and I, where Princess Tuptim and the royal dancers give a performance of Small House of Uncle Thomas (or Uncle Tom's Cabin) to their English guests. The play mirrors Tuptim's situation, as she wishes to run away from slavery to be with her lover, Lun Tha.
Joseph Heller's 1967 play We Bombed in New Haven is about actors engaged in a play about military airmen; the actors themselves become at times unsure whether they are actors or actual airmen.
Play within a film
Director Charlie Kaufman uses this concept often in his films. It can be seen most in the 2008 film Synecdoche, New York. The main character Caden Cotard is a skilled director of plays and he receives a grant to make a remarkable theater piece. He ends up creating a carbon copy of the outside world. The 2001 film Moulin Rouge! features a fictitious musical within a film, called "Spectacular Spectacular", which itself may have been based on an ancient Sanskrit play, The Little Clay Cart. The 1942 Ernst Lubitsch comedy To Be or Not to Be confuses the audience in the opening scenes with a play about Adolf Hitler appearing to be taking place within the actual plot of the film. Thereafter, the acting company players serve as the protagonists of the film and frequently use acting/costumes to deceive various characters in the film. Hamlet also serves as an important throughline in the film, as suggested by the title. Laurence Olivier sets the opening scene of his 1944 film of Henry V in the tiring room of the old Globe Theatre as the actors prepare for their roles on stage. The early part of the film follows the actors in these "stage" performances and only later does the action almost imperceptibly expand to the full realism of the Battle of Agincourt. By way of increasingly more artificial sets (based on mediaeval paintings) the film finally returns to The Globe.
The main plot device in Repo! The Genetic Opera is an opera which is going to be held the night of the events of the movie. All of the principal characters of the film play a role in the opera, though the audience watching the opera is unaware that some of the events portrayed are more than drama. At the film To Be or Not to Be, the play "The Naughty Nazis" is forbidden for the Gestapo at the beginning of the film. In Diary of a Wimpy Kid, the middle-schoolers put on a play of The Wizard of Oz.
Film within a film
TV Tropes maintains a list of feature films that feature this plot device. Singin' in the Rain (1952) is frequently listed as the earliest example, although there are antecedents in silent cinema such as Mabel's Dramatic Career (1913).
The François Truffaut film Day for Night is about the making of a fictitious movie called Meet Pamela (Je vous présente Pamela) and shows the interactions of the actors as they are making this movie about a woman who falls for her husband's father. The story of Pamela involves lust, betrayal, death, sorrow, and change, events that are mirrored in the experiences of the actors portrayed in Day for Night.
In 12 Angry Men, a juror is asked what films he saw in the preceding few days, in order to demonstrate the fallibility of peoples' memories. The juror identifies "The Scarlet Circle" and "The Remarkable Mrs. Bainbridge" (which another juror corrects to be "The Amazing Mrs. Bainbridge"). "The Scarlet Circle" is a Whodunit written by Patrick Quentin, but it has yet to be adapted into a film.
The script to Karel Reisz's movie The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981), written by Harold Pinter, is a film-within-a-film adaptation of John Fowles's book. In addition to the Victorian love story of the book, Pinter creates a present-day background story that shows a love affair between the main actors.
The 2002 Pedro Almodóvar film Talk to Her (Hable con ella) has the chief character Benigno tell a story called The Shrinking Lover to Alicia, a long-term comatose patient whom Benigno, a male nurse, is assigned to care for. The film presents The Shrinking Lover in the form of a black-and-white silent melodrama. To prove his love to a scientist girlfriend, the The Shrinking Lover protagonist drinks a potion that makes him progressively smaller. The resulting seven-minute scene, which is readily intelligible and enjoyable as a stand-alone short subject, is considerably more overtly comic than the rest of Talk to Her—the protagonist climbs giant breasts as if they were rock formations and even ventures his way inside a (compared to him) gigantic vagina. Critics have noted that The Shrinking Lover essentially is a sex metaphor. Later in Talk to Her, the comatose Alicia is discovered to be pregnant and Benigno is sentenced to jail for rape. The Shrinking Lover was named Best Scene of 2002 in the Skandies, an annual survey of online cinephiles and critics invited each year by critic Mike D'Angelo.
In the 2006 Tarsem film The Fall, an injured silent-movie stuntman tells heroic fantasy stories to a little girl with a broken arm to pass time in the hospital, which the film visualizes and presents with the stuntman's voice becoming voiceover narration. The fantasy tale bleeds back into and comments on the film's "present-tense" story. There are often incongruities based on the fact that the stuntman is an American and the girl Persian—the stuntman's voiceover refers to "Indians," “a squaw” and “a teepee,” but the visuals show a Bollywood-style devi and a Taj Mahal-like castle.
The 1973 film adaptation of Peter Nichols's 1969 play, The National Health features a send-up of a typical American hospital soap-opera being shown on a television situated in an underfunded, unmistakably British NHS hospital.
Mel Brooks's 1974 comedy Blazing Saddles leaves its Western setting when the climactic fight scene breaks out, revealing the setting to have been a set in the Warner Bros. studio lot; the fight spills out onto an adjacent musical set, then into the studio canteen, and finally onto the streets. The two protagonists arrive at Grauman's Chinese Theater, which is showing the "premiere" of Blazing Saddles; they enter the cinema to watch the conclusion of their own film.
The concept of a film within a television series is employed in the Macross universe. The Super Dimension Fortress Macross: Do You Remember Love? (1984) was originally intended as an alternative theatrical re-telling of the television series The Super Dimension Fortress Macross (1982), but was later "retconned" into the Macross canon as a popular movie within the television series Macross 7 (1994).
In the latter two films of the Scream horror trilogy, a film-within-a-film format is used when the events of the first film spawn their own horror trilogy within the films themselves. In Scream 2, characters get killed while watching a film version of the events in the first Scream film, while in Scream 3 the actors playing the trilogy's characters end up getting killed, much in the same way as the characters they are playing on screen. In the latest Scream movie, Scream 4, in the opening sequence, two characters are watching Stab 7 before they get killed. Also, the characters of Stab 7 are watching Stab 6. There's also a party in which all seven Stab movies were going to be shown. References are also made to Stab 5 involving time travel as a plot device.
Austin Powers in Goldmember begins with an action film opening, which turns out to be a sequence being filmed by Steven Spielberg. Near the ending, the events of the film itself are revealed to be a movie being enjoyed by the characters. Parts of director Spike Jonze's Adaptation. follows a fictionalized version of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman as he struggles to adapt a book into a script, while the movie features scenes about the making of Being John Malkovich, previously written by Kaufman and directed by Jonze.
Tropic Thunder (2008) is a comedy film revolving around a group of prima donna actors making a Vietnam War film (itself also named "Tropic Thunder") when their fed-up writer and director decide to abandon them in the middle of the jungle, forcing them to fight their way out.
The first episode of the anime series The Melancholy Of Haruhi Suzumiya consists almost entirely of a poorly made film that the protagonists created, complete with Kyon's typical, sarcastic commentary.
Chuck Jones's 1953 cartoon Duck Amuck shows Daffy Duck trapped in a cartoon that an unseen animator repeatedly manipulates. At the end, it is revealed that the whole cartoon was being controlled by Bugs Bunny. The Duck Amuck plot was essentially replicated in one of Jones' later cartoons, Rabbit Rampage (1955), in which Bugs Bunny turns out to be the victim of the sadistic animator (Elmer Fudd). A similar plot was also included in an episode of Baby Looney Tunes, in which Bugs was the victim, Daffy was the animator, and it was made on a computer instead of a pencil and paper. In 2007, the Duck Amuck sequence was parodied on Drawn Together ("Nipple Ring-Ring Goes to Foster Care").
All feature-length films by Jörg Buttgereit except Schramm feature a film within the film. In Nekromantik, the protagonist goes to the cinema to see the fictional slasher film Vera. In Der Todesking one of the character watches a video of the fictional Nazi exploitation film Vera - Todesengel der Gestapo and in Nekromantik 2, the characters go to see a movie called Mon dejeuner avec Vera which is a parody of Louis Malle's My Dinner with André.
Joe Dante's Matinee depicts Mant, an early-'60s sci-fi/horror movie about a man who turns into an ant. In one scene, the protagonists see a Disney-style family movie called The Shook-Up Shopping Cart.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail appears to begin in 932 A.D. with King Arthur yet ends in the modern day with the arrest of King Arthur and his knights. The police cover the camera and the film breaks in the projector and runs out of the gate, putting an abrupt end to the film while also breaking the fourth wall.
Video game within a video game
The Bandai franchise .hack features a narrative in which internet advancements has created an MMORPG franchise called The World. Protagonists Kite and Haseo try to uncover the mysteries of the events surrounding The World. Characters in .hack are self-aware that they are video game characters.
In many video games, for instance the GTA series, mini-games exist that are non-plot oriented, and optional to the completion of the game. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas features several arcade-like games, including They Crawled from Uranus (A Space Invaders parody). Grand Theft Auto IV has another arcade game called Cub3d. Also, while not "playable" video games within video games, the main games in the Pokémon series generally include a television and game console in the player character's room. The specific type of console portrayed depends on which one was most recently released by Nintendo when the specific game was released, e.g. a Wii in Pokémon Black and White versions. The Nintendo 64 video game Donkey Kong 64 also had this system, at one part of the game when playing as Donkey Kong, the player can play the original Donkey Kong game, and in another, the player can play an arcade with Rare's ZX Spectrum game Jetpac.
In the Sega franchises of Yakuza and Shenmue, there are several instances of games within the main game. Within these games, there are several Sega arcade games playable in different locations. In both Sega franchises, there are playable arcade machines featuring other Sega titles that are scattered throughout the respective game world.
In Final Fantasy VII there are several video-games that can be played in an arcade in the Gold Saucer theme park, consisting of a beat-em-up, a snowboarding game, an RPG and a submarine game. In Animal Crossing, the player can acquire individual NES emulations through various means and place them within their house, where they are playable in their entirety. When placed in the house, the games take the form of a Nintendo Entertainment System.
It is implied in Assassin's Creed Rogue and Assassin's Creed Unity (and directly stated in Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag) that a player is controlling an employee of Abstergo Entertainment, who looks inside the memories of Desmond Miles.
In Fallout 4, the protagonist can find several cartridges throughout the wasteland that can be played on their pip-boy or any terminal computer.
TV show within a video game
In the Remedy video game title Max Payne players can chance upon a number of ongoing television shows when activating or happening upon various television sets within the game environs, depending on where / when they are within the unfolding game narrative will dictate which episode of what show is found. Among them are Lords & Ladies, Captain Baseball Bat Boy, Dick Justice and the pinnacle television serial Address Unknown -heavily inspired by David Lynch style film narrative, particularly Twin Peaks, Address Unknown sometimes prophesies events or character motives yet to occur in the Max Payne narrative.
Deeply nested fiction
There are several cases where an author has nested his fiction more deeply than just two layers.
The earliest examples are in Ugrasrava's epic Mahabharata and Vishnu Sarma's Panchatantra. Some of the stories narrated in the Panchatantra often had stories within them. In the epic Mahabharata, the Kurukshetra War is narrated by a character in Krishna Dwaipayana Vyasa's Jaya, which itself is narrated by a character in Vaisampayana's Bharata, which itself is narrated by a character in Ugrasrava's Mahabharata.
Another early example is The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, where the general story is narrated by an unknown narrator, and in this narration the stories are told by Scheherazade. In most of Scheherazade's narrations there are also stories narrated, and even in some of these, there are some other stories.
In Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach, there is a narrative between Achilles and the Tortoise (characters borrowed from Lewis Carroll, who in turn borrowed them from Zeno), and within this story they find a book entitled "Provocative Adventures of Achilles and the Tortoise Taking Place in Sundry Spots of the Globe", which they begin to read, the Tortoise taking the part of the Tortoise, and Achilles taking the part of Achilles. Within this narrative, which itself is somewhat self-referential, the two characters find a book entitled "Provocative Adventures of Achilles and the Tortoise Taking Place in Sundry Spots of the Globe", which they begin to read, the Tortoise taking the part of Achilles, and Achilles taking the part of the Tortoise.
In The Sandman by Neil Gaiman, the necropolis apprentice Petrefax tells a story that includes a storytelling session about Destruction telling a story. It is later shown that this – along with all the other stories in World's End – are being related to a bar girl by one of the characters present at Petrefax's original storytelling session.
In Sue Townsend's Adrian Mole: The Wilderness Years, Adrian writes a book entitled Lo! The Flat Hills Of My Homeland, in which the main character, Jake Westmorland, writes a book called Sparg of Kronk, whose eponymous character, Sparg, writes a book with no language.
In Philip K. Dick's novel The Man in the High Castle, each character comes into interaction with a book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which was written by the Man in the High Castle. As Dick's novel details a world in which the Axis Powers of World War II had succeeded in dominating the known world, the novel within the novel details an alternative to this history in which the Allies overcome the Axis and bring stability to the world – a victory which itself is quite different from our history.
In Red Orc's Rage by Philip J. Farmer a doubly recursive method is used to interwine its fictional layers. This novel is part of a science-fiction series, the World of Tiers. Farmer collaborated in the writing of this novel with an American psychiatrist, Dr. A. James Giannini. Dr. Giannini had previously used the World of Tiers series in treating patients in group therapy. During these therapeutic sessions, the content and process of the text and novelist was discussed rather than the lives of the patients. In this way subconscious defenses could be circumvented. Farmer took the real life case-studies and melded these with adventures of his characters in the series.
In Rabih Alameddine's novel The Hakawati, or The Storyteller, the protagonist describes coming home to the funeral of his father, one of a long line of tradition Arabic storytellers. Throughout the narrative, the author becomes hakawati (an Arabic word for a teller of traditional tales) himself, weaving the tale of the story of his own life and that of his family with folkloric versions of tales from Qur'an, the Old Testament, Ovid, and One Thousand and One Nights. Both the tales he tells of his family (going back to his grandfather) and the emebedded folk tales, themselves embed other tales, often 2 or more layers deep.
The book Cloud Atlas (later adapted into a film by The Wachowkis and Tom Tykwer) consisted of six interlinked stories nested inside each other in a Russian doll fashion. The first story (that of Adam Ewing in the 1850s befriending an escaped slave) is interrupted halfway through and revealed to be part of a journal being read by composer Robert Frobisher in 1930s Belgium. His own story of working for a more famous composer is told in a series of letters to his lover Rufus Sixsmith, which are interrupted halfway through and revealed to be in the possession of an investigative journalist named Luisa Rey and so on. Each of the first five tales are interrupt in the middle, with the sixth tale being told in full, before the preceding five tales are finished in reverse order. Each layer of the story either challenges the veracity of the previous layer, or is challenged by the succeeding layer. Presuming each layer to be a true telling within the overall story, a chain of events is created linking Adam Ewing's embrace of the abolitionist movement in the 1850s to the religious redemption of a post apocalyptic tribal man over a century after the fall of modern civilization. The characters in each nested layer take inspiration or lessons from the stories of their predecessors in a manner that validates a belief stated in the sixth tale that "Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present and by each crime, and every kindness, we birth our future."
From story within a story to separate story
Occasionally a story within a story becomes such a popular element that the producer(s) decide to develop it autonomonously (completing it if in the real world it is incomplete) as a separate and distinct work. This is an example of a "spin-off".
In the fictional world of the Toy Story movies, Buzz Lightyear is an animated toy action figure, which was based on a fictitious cartoon series, Buzz Lightyear of Star Command, which did not exist in the real world except for snippets seen within Toy Story. Later, Buzz Lightyear of Star Command was produced in full in the real world, perhaps prompted by people who thought that the brief showing of Buzz Lightyear of Star Command in Toy Story was an embedded real-world advertisement.
Another notable example is the relationship between Genshiken, a manga series about popular culture, and Kujibiki Unbalance, a series in the Genshiken universe, which has spawned merchandise of its own, and is being remade into a series on its own.
On other occasions such spin-offs may be produced as a way of providing additional information on the fictional world for fans. A well-known example of this comes in the Harry Potter series of J. K. Rowling, where three such supplemental books have been produced, with the profits going to charity. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a textbook used by the main character, and Quidditch Through the Ages is a book from the library at his school. The Tales of Beedle the Bard provides an additional layer of fiction, the 'tales' being instructional stories told to children in the characters' world.
Perhaps the most unusual example of this was the fictitious author Kilgore Trout, who appears in the works of Kurt Vonnegut. In the world of those stories, Kilgore Trout has written a novel called Venus on the Half-Shell. In 1975 real-world author Philip José Farmer wrote a science-fiction novel called Venus on the Half-Shell, which he published under the name Kilgore Trout.
Sometimes such spin-offs are produced against the original creator's wishes. One example is that the Calvin & Hobbes comic strip (written by Bill Waterson) includes in its scenario a children's book Hamster Huey & The Gooey Kablooie, and Bill Waterson stated in The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book that he believed that Hamster Huey & The Gooey Kablooie should remain an undefined story, left to the reader's imagination; but someone not associated with the strip published Hamster Huey & The Gooey Kablooie in the real world.
At least one complete Captain Proton story has been written in the real world:  Captain Proton: Defender of the Earth, a text story, by Dean Wesley Smith, who presumed that in the Star Trek universe, the holonovel Captain Proton was adapted from a supposed 1930's comic; and he set out to write and publish that comic in the real world, but as a text story. (Other fan fiction described as Captain Proton stories are Star Trek: Voyager stories whose action happens partly in Voyager's holodeck where the Captain Proton program is running.)
Examples of stories within stories
- One Thousand and One Nights
- A Midsummer Night's Dream
- Love's Labour's Lost
Like S. Morgenstern, Peter Schikele's P.D.Q. Bach can be considered a "fictional artist", who supposedly created the works actually created by the artist's own creator. P.D.Q.'s life thus becomes something of a "frame story" (albeit indirectly) for such works as his opera The Abduction of Figaro.
Mystery author Ellery Queen can also be considered a "fictional artist" of sorts, though the proverbial line between his "true-life" and "fictional" exploits are generally very blurred.
In this case the "frame story"—that is, the fictional creator's life—can be considered metafictional, since each story (or other work) supposedly created by that character adds a little to his or her own (fictional) story.
Sometimes a song or a poem or an image in a fiction work, which was actually composed by the author, is attributed by the author to one of his characters, for example the song "Namarie" in The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, which Tolkien attributes to the character Galadriel.
An early phenomenon related to the "story within a story" is the "framing device" or "frame story", where a supplemental story is used to help tell the main story. In the supplemental story, or "frame", one or more characters tell the main story to one or more other characters.
The earliest examples of "frame stories" and "stories within stories" were in ancient Indian literature, such as the Mahabharata, Ramayana, Fables of Bidpai, Hitopadesha and Vikram and the Vampire. Both The Golden Ass by Apuleius and Metamorphoses by Ovid extend the depths of framing to several degrees. Another early example is the famous Arabian Nights, in which Sheherazade narrates stories within stories, and even within some of these, more stories are narrated. Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales and Boccacio's Decameron are also classic frame stories.
A well-known modern example of this is The Princess Bride, both the book and the movie. In the movie, a grandfather is reading the story of "The Princess Bride" to his grandson. In the book, a more detailed frame story has a father editing a (nonexistent) much longer work for his son, creating his own "Good Parts Version" (as the book called it) by leaving out all the parts that would bore a young boy. Both the book and the movie assert that the central story is from a book called "The Princess Bride" by a nonexistent author named S. Morgenstern.
Sometimes a frame story exists in the same setting as the main story. On the television series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, each episode was framed as though it were being told by Indy when he was older (usually acted by George Hall, but once by Harrison Ford).
- List of fictional plays
- List of fictional books
- List of fictional musicals
- List of fictional television shows
- Frame story
- Herman, David; Jahn, Manfred; Ryan, Marie-Laure (13 May 2013). Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory. Routledge. p. 134. ISBN 978-1-134-45840-0. Retrieved 30 July 2013.
- Tolkien, J. R. R. (1955), The Return of the King, The Lord of the Rings, Boston: Houghton Mifflin (published 1987), "The Grey Havens", ISBN 0-395-08256-0
- Hardyment, Christina (1988). Arthur Ransome and Captain Flint's Trunk. London: Jonathan Cape. ISBN 0-224-02590-2.
- Burton, Richard (September 2003). The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, Volume 1. Project Gutenberg.
- Pinault, David (1992). Story-Telling Techniques in the Arabian Nights. Brill Publishers. p. 94. ISBN 90-04-09530-6.
- Bevington, David (ed.) (1996). The Spanish Tragedy, Revels Student Edition. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press. p. 5. ISBN 0-7190-4344-1.
Andrea and Revenge...‘sit and see’...the play proper is staged for them; in this sense, The Spanish Tragedy is itself a play within a play.
- Erne, Lukas (2001). Beyond The Spanish tragedy: a study of the works of Thomas Kyd. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press. p. 96. ISBN 0-7190-6093-1.
the first play-within-a-play
- Barton, Anne (1980). The New Penguin Shakespeare Hamlet. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books. p. 15. ISBN 0-14-070734-4.
- Gurr, Andrew (1968). "Critical introduction". The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd. pp. 2–6. ISBN 0050015710.
- Aspinall, Dana (2001). "The play and the critics". The Taming of the Shrew. London: Routledge. p. 19. ISBN 978-0-8153-3515-3.
- Buchanan, Judith (2001). Shakespeare—Four late plays. Ware, England: Wordsworth Editions. pp. 5–8. ISBN 1-84022-104-6.
- Pearce, Richard (1993). "Chekhov into English: the case of 'The Seagull'". In Miles, Patrick. Chekhov on the British stage. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. p. 220.
A dominant motif in the play is the recurrent Hamlet theme
- Normington, Katie (October 2007). Modern mysteries: contemporary productions of medieval English cycle dramas. Melton, Suffolk, England: Boydell and Brewer. p. 86. ISBN 978-1-84384-128-9.
- The National Health (film)
- The National Health (play)
- Grand Theft Auto IV Shifts Into Media Overdrive.
- Giannini, A. J. (2001). "Use of fiction in therapy". Psychiatric Times. 18 (7): 56–57.