Nested Story Reveal
Nested Story where the audience thinks they are witnessing "real" events (real within the fictional universe, that is), but later on these events are revealed to be a piece of fiction within an outer story that frames the inner nested story. Usually this is done by starting the plot with the inner story and not revealing the Framing Device until later on. The inner story doesn't have to be a literal story, it can also be a computer simulation, a role-playing game, a Show Within a Show, etc. What makes it a Nested Story Reveal is that the audience is lead to believe the events are "real", but the character(s) in the outer story know they are fiction, and this is revealed to the audience when the plot moves from the inner story to the outer one. For a work to qualify as an example of Nested Story Reveal, it needs to tell a full story, or at least a large chunk of it, before switching to the Framing Device. If the switch comes after only one scene, it's a Fake-Out Opening. If the reveal doesn't happen in the work itself, but in one of its sequels, or in another work set in the same universe, we're dealing with Recursive Canon. If the plot starts with a framing device where a character is telling a supposedly true story, but later on the story is revealed to be (at least partially) fictional, it's a case of an Unreliable Narrator. What makes this trope different from All Just a Dream is that in the latter a character undergoes a transition between the unreal and real world that comes as a surprise to both her and the audience. With Nested Story Reveal, only the audience is surprised, and characters in the inner story and the outer story never experience any transition. To the characters in the inner story, their fictional universe remains real (except in some Breaking the Fourth Wall type of plots), wheras the characters in the outer story always knew it isn't real. Sometimes, after the inner story has been revealed to be fictional, the framing story may hint that there was some truth to it after all. Perhaps the inner story was an embellished version of something that really happened? Like with All Just a Dream, a Nested Story Reveal can make the audience feel cheated, when the story they've been following turns out not to be "real". A metafictionally oriented work may point out that the nested story is no less real than the framing story: they're both still fiction, only on different levels of the overall plot. Compare Proscenium Reveal. Since this is typically done as a Plot Twist, just mentioning the name of a particular work as an example of this trope can spoil it. Expect the examples section to contain spoilers.
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Anime and Manga
- At some point in The Invisibles we find out that a future version of Dane, the main character, is recounting the events of the comic to his dying friend. One possible interpretation of this is that it's all just a story made up by Dane to cheer up the friend before his death. Later on, the series also suggests that its story might be a case of self-insert fanfic written by Ragged Robin, or a massive virtual reality video game where various characters are roles the players can choose. Let's just say The Invisibles is fond of this trope.
- In Tank Girl, several stories turn out to be the characters spinning tales to each other.
- The Adventures of Baron Munchausen does this, though it also suggests the Nested Story might've been real after all.
- A common interpretation of The Fountain is that the "Conquistador" subplot actually comes from a book written by the protagonist's wife. It's also possible the "Astronaut" subplot is something the protagonist added to the book later on. But since the movie is very much a Mind Screw, it's hard to tell.
- The second half of Next is this, being revealed to be a precognition of what would have happened has the protagonist taken a different action.
- Inception falls somewhere between this trope and All Just a Dream. The events of the first story (and possibly the whole movie) are revealed to be a dream, but unlike with a typical All Just a Dream scenario, most of the characters know they're within a fictional story, since they're the ones who created it.
- The first scene of Desperado is a story being told in a bar by Steve Buscemi. The viewer knows that at the time, but what they don't know (until it's revealed moments later) is that the story is fictitious.
- The last scene of the goofy drug comedy The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916) reveals the story to be an idea that star Douglas Fairbanks is pitching to a writer at the studio. The writer tells him to "go back to acting".
- After his Heroic Sacrifice, Emmet and the audience learn that the events of The Lego Movie up to that point have been a game played by a young boy using his father's Lego set, with the central conflict mirroring his relationship with the father. Played With in that Emmet remains aware in the real world, and with great effort is able to move to get the boy's attention, inspiring him to return him to the story.
- The ending of The Housemaid reveals that the whole film, a dark tale of adultery and murder centering around a man who sleeps with his maid, is actually a hypothetical story that the man tells his wife. She is not amused.
- Twixt starts with Baltimore Hall deciding to write a book about the murders in the small town he stopped in. After many alternating dream scenes and fantastic events that reflect the dream and involving vampires, the film cuts to his agent saying that he loves the story, implying that the events of the story were merely the plot of a fictional book.
- Cloud Atlas. Each story cuts off halfway through to jump to another. All the stories are "real" but the protagonist of each story only has access to half of the previous story. After the final story this is reversed, with the second half of each story being presented in reverse order as each protagonist finds the rest of the previous story.
- The Hildegunst von Mythemetz/Optimus Yarnspinner novels by Walter Moers can be a bit confusing to keep track of. In the opening, the author Walter Moers claims to be a translator who is also called Walter Moers, who had made this translation of a book by the Zamonian author Hildegunst von Mythemetz. The author Hildegunst is also the narrator of the story he is telling in his novels, while often mentioning and referencing his own life as a Zamonian author during breaks in the story. To make things worse, the City of Dreaming Books novels are also autobiographical, which makes Hildegunst also the main character. And being a series about writing and storytelling, characters in the story are also telling each other stories, extending the nesting to five levels, if one includes the real world author Walter Moers as the first one, and still four levels if not.
- Sophie's World
- Atonement was supposedly completely truthful and written by Briony, but she gave it a happy ending instead of writing down what actually happened: that is, that her sister and Robbie both died before they could reunite. Then you start to wonder how much else she made up, and whether she could really have known the whole truth anyway.
- In Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, the dialogue "Contrafactus" involves a "Subjunc-TV", which is a television that can tune into channels that show events under various hypothetical circumstances (illustrated by the characters watching a football game and seeing "subjunctive instant replays" showing how a play would have gone if, say, footballs were round, or if it were baseball instead of football). The Crab mentions that he got the Subjunc-TV in a contest, but eventually reveals that he didn't actually win; the whole story is then revealed to be a Subjunc-TV broadcast of what would have happened if he had won.
- In the season 2 finale of Roseanne, Dan builds Roseanne an office in which she can realize her dream of becoming a writer. In the final episode, it's revealed that the entire series has been based on a semi-autobiographical story she's been writing in the office. In the story, she's changed a number of details about her life that she didn't like, while in reality, Dan actually died from his heart attack during Darlene's wedding; Darlene actually married Mark, while Becky married David; her sister, rather than her mother, was a lesbian; and Roseanne didn't win the lottery.
- In one episode of Frasier, the eponymous doctor is seriously doubting whether he should help strangers in need. While driving his car, he sees a woman standing in the rain, and decides to give her a ride. The woman turns out to be a transgender prostitute, and Frasier soon gets arrested by the police, who mistakenly think he's soliciting for her services. The whole event ends up being publicized in the media, making Frasier a laughing stock. Just before the episode ends, it cuts back to the scene with Frasier in the car and the woman standing in the rain. Turns out everything that happened was just a worst-case scenario Frasier had been considering in his head. He gives the woman a ride anyway.
- One episode of the The Dead Zone had Johnny bump into a woman in a bar. He sees various visions which snap back to him bumping into her in the bar. He avoids all the visions by calling his friend the sheriff and asking him to wait outside for the woman's future murderers.
- The third episode of the 2014 Cosmos shows an elderly man watching William Herschel walking along the beach, teaching his son John about astronomy. At the end, it's revealed that the old man is John, and the scenes were his memories.
- Frequency used as a Cold Open on Star Trek: events up to and including fatalities are revealed to be a holodeck simulation just before the opening credits.
- In the play A Madhouse in Goa by Martin Sherman, the second act reveals that the first act was a fictionalized account of events written by a character in the second act; in the second act a Corrupt Corporate Executive wants to make the story into a movie musical. (Production notes say that the first act may be performed separately, under a different name).
- The ending of Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge is usually interpreted as this, though The Curse of Monkey Island retcons it so that everything was real after all.
- The Interactive Fiction game Photopia switches back and forth between two plots; the first is a slice-of-life story centered around a teen girl named Alley, and the second starts with an astronaut exploring Mars and gets stranger from there. The latter turns out to be a story that Alley is telling to Wendy, who she's babysitting.
- Super Mario Galaxy 2 is either this, or a Cosmic Retcon of the First game.
- The ending of Mass Effect 3 reveals that an old man was retelling the events of the whole trilogy to his grandchild under an Alien Sky; the child then asks for another story about "the Shepard".
- The ending to Umineko no Naku Koro ni reveals that the repeating time loop is actually Toya Hachijo's attempt to recreate and speculate on the events of Rokkenjima 1986 by writing mystery novels based on the two original message bottles (Legend and Turn of the Golden Witch).
- In Opplopolis a brief sequence about an alien race is apparently revealed to be a fantasy of Marvin's. Later, the same aliens reappear and discuss future events of the comic, in the process implying that Opplopolis is actually the nested story (one told to the aliens by something called "the marvedyne").
- This strip of Drawing Board is a rather extreme example of this trope.
- There's that episode of Family Guy where Stewie apparently kills Lois and goes onto be President Evil, but at the end of the second episode it turns out that Stewie was just running a virtual reality simulation to see what would happen if he killed Lois. The use of this trope is Lampshaded by Brian, who comments that anyone who were "watching" the simulation and found out at the end it didn't happen would feel like they'd been given a "giant middle finger".
- In the later episode "Forget Me Not", the entire plot is revealed to be an experiment by Stewie to test Brian and Peter's relationship.
- The South Park episode "Woodland Critter Christmas" is revealed to be a story narrated by Cartman near the end when Kyle objects to "Kyle" agreeing to host the Antichrist.
- On Adventure Time, the most hyped episode yet, a Gender Flip episode called "Adventure Time with Fionna and Cake", turns out to have been just a fanfiction by the Ice King.
- Exagerated in the Simpsons. One episode has Lisa tell a story while the family is trapped in a cave, which turns into a series of stories within stories. As she finishes all the events from her story come together to have Burns, the rich Texan, Moe, and Snake all trying to steal gold hidden near by. When the story concludes it turns out the whole thing was Bart explaining to the principal why he hadn't been able to do his homework.
- In the first "Anthology of Interest" episode of Futurama, the Professor invents a Fing-Longer (a glove with an extended index finger), which leads the crew to discover his What-If machine. The rest of the episode is a series of shorts played out on the What-If machine based on questions that the others ask it. At the very end of the episode there's a cut to the Professor watching the What-If machine alone, and he says "So that's what things would be like if I'd invented the Fing-Longer."