This is a convention that is used in oral storytelling traditions from all over the world, but especially common in the Middle East. It also shows up in some versions of flashbacks. Basically, storyline #1 is going along and a character in storyline #1 begins to tell a story (or have a dream, or read a book, etc.) Now we are in storyline #2, and the audience expects that at some point we will hop back into storyline #1. If a character in storyline #2 has a new story, that becomes storyline #3, etc. Comedic series will usually point out that this means that character #1 is telling a story that basically goes, "And then Character #2 told me that Character #3 told him that Character #4..."
The name Nested Story comes from Russian matryoshka, or "nesting" dolls; Take one doll apart, and there's another doll inside it, and another inside that, and so on and so on, just as this trope is one story inside another inside another inside another.
This trope is related to the Dream Within a Dream or Show Within a Show, but it differs in that the "inner" stories claim all of the reader's attention, and there are often many levels of them, so it becomes hard to remember which one is the "outermost".
Most Nested Story plots try to end in the original storyline, the major exceptions being All Just a Dream and Nested Story Reveal plots, which usually leap to the outer storyline only at the end of the piece. There are, however, a few stories that never return to the outer plot, perhaps, but not always due to carelessness on the part of the author: Compare "Shaggy Dog" Story.
For the more general application of this trope where there's only one nested story and it's usually not as fascinating as the main story, see Story Within a Story.
A type of Recursive Reality. The "outer" story may be a Framing Device. See also Perspective Flip and The Rashomon. Compare Soap Wheel. See also Two Lines, No Waiting and Four Lines, All Waiting. Can become a Kudzu Plot if many stories within stories are unresolved. See also Flashback Within a Flashback.
- In line with the Oral Storytelling tradition side of the trope, the "World's End" arc of The Sandman features those caught in a reality storm telling stories, sometimes about people who told them a story about a person who told them a story... Occasionally, this gets to be five-deep in stories. The arc also ends with a Nested Story Reveal.
- In Marvel Comics mythological characters like Hercules are prone to waxing at length about their past exploits, often in the middle of a fight.
- The film The Locket starts with a man about to get married being confronted by another man claiming that he used to be married to the same woman, and she ruined his life. His story then starts with the same situation, as does the next story resulting from it.
- The Polish film The Saragossa Manuscript has at least five levels of stories-within-stories, and some characters appearing in multiple levels.
- The main narrative of The Prestige involves Alfred Borden reading Robert Angier's journal—and in this journal, Angier describes his own readings from Borden's journal. Add flashbacks to the mix, and the timeline becomes as much a puzzle as Borden and Angier's stage magic.
- D-War has flashbacks on three levels, although they are recalled in different ways (a man telling a story, a character in that flashback recovering memories from a past life, and a flashback for the audience, respectively).
- The second half of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang becomes one as Caractacus Potts begins telling a story to his children and Truly Scrumptious, which is wrapped up towards the end.
- Played for Laughs in one scene of La Classe Américaine, where one character tells the story of himself writing a letter telling the time George Abitbol told him the time he met a "freaking energumen". After four fade-out in a row, the next scene is about two men in a spaceship wondering what they are doing in this film [sic], calling this an "error in the flashbacks sequence".
- The plot of The Grand Budapest Hotel goes about four levels deep: the film opens with a present-day student reading the memoirs of a late author; said author writes his memoir in 1985; said memoirs cover The Author's stay at the Grand Budapest in 1968; during the said stay, he meets hotel owner Zero Moustafa, and hears his story of how he moved from lobby boy to the proprietor in 1932.
- The Anthology Film Necronomicon has H. P. Lovecraft himself investigating an ancient book in the Framing Device, reading the stories of the three segments as they happen. In one of these stories, the protagonist finds someone's journals and begins to read them, starting an additional flashback storyline.
- Never Give a Sucker an Even Break: The absolutely crazy movie script that W.C. Fields reads to his producer, with him falling out of the airplane and onto the remote mountain house of the rich lady and her beautiful daughter, takes up the whole middle part of the film. Every so often there's a cut from the nested story back to the producer in his office expressing incredulity as the script gets crazier.
- The early Ingmar Bergman film Secrets of Women is based on flashbacks, using the Framing Device of the wives of three brothers telling each other stories about their marriages. One of the flashbacks starts out with the wife recounting how she went to the hospital after going into labor. Then, while she's in the hospital bed waiting for the doctor, she reminisces about how she met her husband, which starts a long, very elaborate secondary flashback scene filmed in Paris.
- The Indian tale of King Vikramaditya and the vetala, Vetala Panchavimshati, is about the king trying to carry the vetala on his back to an Evil Sorceror. The problem? The vetala keeps telling the king stories, and every time the king answers them the vetala flies back to where he started. This legend is suspected to be the original source of the Thousand And One Nights' story-within-a-story idea.
- The Neverending Story is a book about a boy named Bastian who is reading a book titled "The Neverending Story", which's contents makes up most of the plot in the book. Adding another layer to it, there's also The Old Man of Wandering Mountain, who is currently writing The Neverending Story, the very book The Old Man's own world is contained within.
- The Arabian Nights. The whole thing is composed of Nested Stories, and some of the "stand-alone" stories are as many as seven levels deep.
- Robert Irwin's The Arabian Nightmare is only one of a number of novels that take off on the Arabian Nights using the nested structure.
- Frankenstein: At the deepest level: The family on whom the monster is spying is telling a story, within the monster's story to Dr. Frankenstein, who is in turn recounting the story to the captain of a ship in the Arctic, who is in turn telling his sister about it in a letter.
- The dialogue "Little Harmonic Labyrinth" in Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid is one of these. It includes Lampshade Hanging and discussion of the whole concept of "push" and "pop" story. Helpfully, each level of reality is denoted by an indent in the text, but the indents are used for other things besides telling stories in stories- in one section, Achilles and the Tortoise find a magic lamp and meet a Genie. Attempting to get a wish for more wishes, the genie initially refuses saying that it can't grant "meta-wishes" (wishes about wishes) but eventually relents, but it has to ask the Meta-Genie to allow it to grant a meta-wish... and the Meta-Genie has to ask the Meta-Meta-Genie, and so on. Each genie's lines are indented one more than the previous one. Naturally, the outermost story (in which Achilles and the Tortoise get kidnapped and start reading a book while they wait for the villain) never does get resolved...
- Wuthering Heights is narrated by Mr. Lockwood, but large parts of the backstory are narrated to him by Nelly Dean, who at one point relates the things that Isabella Linton told her about her marriage to Heathcliff... There are also very few reminders of which POV you're reading at any given time.
- Jasper Fforde's Something Rotten parodies this narrative aspect of the novel Wuthering Heights, explaining it as the result of a slapdash compromise to resolve the bitter disagreement among the characters regarding who should get the narration.
- House of Leaves, a man is editing and commenting on an essay about a documentary about a man's supernatural house.
- Used in The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales: "Jack's Bean Problem". The Giant orders Jack to tell him a story, but says he'll eat Jack when the story's over anyway. Jack realizes his only hope is to stall, so he tells the story of how the Giant orders Jack to tell him a story, but says he'll eat Jack when the story's over anyway. Jack realizes his only hope is to stall, so he tells the story of how the Giant orders Jack to tell him a story, but says he'll eat Jack when the story's over anyway. Jack realizes his only hope is to stall, so he tells the story of how the Giant orders Jack to tell him a story, but says he'll eat Jack when the story's over anyway. Jack realizes his only hope is to stall, so he tells the story of how the Giant... In a later chapter, we find out that the Giant fell asleep listening to Jack's endless recursive loop, and Jack just snuck away.
- This happens a couple of times in The Count of Monte Cristo.
- From Stanisław Lem's The Cyberiad: You can see the nature of "Tale of the Three Storytelling Machines of King Genius" just from the title.
- The Blind Assassin features a story within a story within a story.
- The Canterbury Tales, though it's pretty good about having only one Story Within a Story going on at a time, still has about 25 tales that get told one after the other, and sometimes extra tales in the middle of a prologue.
- Kelly Link's "Lull" is a head-spinning example. It's a short story about six suburban men playing poker. They call a phone-sex operator and ask her to tell them a story. She tells a story about a cheerleader and The Devil fooling around in a closet. The devil asks the cheerleader to tell him a story. Which is a strange story seemingly about one of the men in the framing story and his wife. Beyond that, you have to read it yourself.
- The Book of Lost Tales is about a mariner who sails to an island and meets the Elves, who tell him tales of their history, and sometimes the characters within those tales will themselves tell stories.
- In Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Robert Maturin, the narrative is made of this trope, exposing one story of the Wanderer within one other, after an other, as prelude to an other, etc.
- In The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis, there are a few Gothic Tales peppering the main story, or making up part of some characters' backstories.
- Jostein Gaarder's The Solitaire Mystery features several layers, with the main character reading in a book about a baker who learned from another baker who learned from another baker who had been to a remote island about a backstory related by another castaway on that island. The main character at one point starts to get them confused, but then recaps, for the sake of the viewer, when he figures it out.
- Old Peter's Russian tales, by Arthur Ransome is about an old Russian peasant telling stories to his grandchildren while the huddle round the stove in the Russian winter.
- In Peter Pays Tribute, the main character is writing a novel that features a bard who tells stories.
- Several of the Sherlock Holmes stories, particularly A Study in Scarlet, and The Valley of Fear have Holmes' investigation of a crime mostly as an excuse to put a frame around the killer's why he done it story.
- Mark Twain's semi-autobiographical work Roughing It features a man who keeps segueing from story to story without finishing any of them, going as deep as five or six levels at least.
- Baltimore, or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden is an arguably very well done version of this, in that each individual story furthers the overarching plot. What prevents it from being a "Rashomon"-Style plot or Perspective Flip is that each character is merely telling the piece of the story they know: there are also plenty of other side stories slipped in, and it almost ignores the overarching plot while the stories are being told.
- The Dream Park novels have elements of this, as the fantasy story of each game-scenario is embedded within a mystery about industrial espionage, all in a sci-fi context.
- David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas consists of six nested stories with chronologically ordered settings. The innermost story is of a 19th century sailor in the Pacific and the outermost is of a Hawaiian tribesman in a distant post-apocalyptic future.
- Some of H. P. Lovecraft's stories can get four or five levels deep. For example: The Call of Cthulhu is ostensibly a document found by the reader, collated by Thurston, made of research done by his granduncle, which contains an account of a police officer, who recounts exposition detailed by a cultist.
- The Lord of the Rings: At the Council of Elrond Gandalf recounts the events of his research into the Ring, his first confrontation with Saruman, and his escape from Isengard.
- Storytelling is a major theme in The Kingkiller Chronicle. Kvothe is dictating his autobiography, which contains quite a few stories.
- The Manuscript Found In Saragossa. You have the Direct Line to the Author at the top, telling the story of the protagonist, who spends most of his time listening to stories told by others, and these stories often include nested stories of their own—to the point that the characters sometimes complain how confusing all the nested stories have become.
- Tosca Lees Demon: A Memoir moves between the main storythat of the narrators lifeand the eponymous life story of a demon, which is being narrated to the protagonist.
- In the Deon Meyer novel Trackers (known in Afrikaans as Spoor) we get three different plot threads of varying genres, partitioned into four sections. The first story is about a middle-aged Milla Strachan leaving her marriage and finding work as an analyst for a South African security agency investigating a possible terrorist attack during the 2010 Soccer World Cup. The second story is about an expert bodyguard named Lemmer who gets press-ganged into smuggling endangered rhinos across the border from Zimbabwe into South Africa. The final section involves private investigator Matt Joubert's search for a client's missing husband. Although the plots overlap at times the characters are seldom aware of each other and the connections only becomes clear in the last pages.
- In The Dark Tower Midquel, The Wind Through the Keyhole, Roland and his ka-tet are trapped by a storm. Roland amuses everyone by telling them a story of a time when he and his friend Jaime DeCurry went to investigate a murder. During the murder investigation, Roland comforted one of the witnesses, a young boy, by telling him a fairy tale about another young boy named Tim.
- Throughout the narrative of The Kingdom of Little Wounds are several short original fairy tales.
- Happen's multiple times in Anne Rice's Vampire chronicles, starting with Interview with the Vampire. The most impressive example is the second book, the Vampire Lestat. Starts with Lestat awakening in the modern times, then switched to the novel he writes about his own life. Somewhere in that story he met another vampire who told him the story of his life - inclusively the story about the origin of vampires later got told somewhen before.
- The picture book Charlie Cook's Favourite Book by Julia Donaldson does this; Charlie starts reading his book on the first page and then every two page spread is a story about a character reading a book, which is the next two page spread. The final story is about a boy named Charlie Cook.
- Assassin's Creed: The Secret Crusade an adaption of Assassin's Creed I is framed an assassin narrating the life of Altaïr. In the final pages it is revealed that this is narration is in fact a book being read by Ezio Auditore on the boat to Constantinople.
- In Isaac Asimov's George and Azazel stories, George tells his stories to the writer whenever they meet in a bar or a restaurant (the writer always has to be the one paying the bills).
- Happens a few times in How I Met Your Mother, due to its love of playing around with flashback sequences. The deepest nested story would be the episode "The Platinum Rule". To prove why Ted shouldn't date his doctor in 2008, Robin tells a story of dating a co-worker in 2007, and then within that story Marshall and Lily flash back to their awkward relationship with their neighbors in 2006, and within that flashback Barney tells the story of how he dated Wendy the waitress in 2005. Keeping in mind that the whole show is a flashback of Ted telling the story set in 2008 to his kids in 2030.
- Done with the concept of video game streaming in the [adult swim] one-shot Final Deployment 4: Queen Battle Walkthrough. It opens with what seems to be a gamer streaming a video game called "Final Deployment 4", but later reveals that he is a character in a game being streamed by another gamer. The focus eventually returns to the "original" streamer only to reveal that his game features a section where the character streams a Minecraft-like game. Several layers down the nesting actually wraps back around to the top layer again, making the recursion an infinite loop. Then it gets really weird.
- The Community episode "Paradigms of Human Memory" — a fake Bottle Episode involving the study group having flashbacks to adventures the audience hasn't seen them having — eventually ends with Abed triggering a series of flashbacks about him having a flashback to a moment where he had a flashback about having a flashback... and so on. It results in a Psychic Nosebleed and near-breakdown from Troy as he tries to process the multiple levels of flashbacks, and a calling out from Jeff to Abed about both this incident and his tendency to needlessly complicate their lives by constantly obsessing over being "meta":
Jeff: Abed! Stop being 'meta'! Why do you always have to take what happens to us and shove it up it's own ass?!
- The Twilight Zone (1985): In "The Storyteller", the elderly Dorothy Livingston sees a man with a prominent scar on his right cheek while visiting her niece Heather in 1986. She tells Heather that she believes this man to be Micah Frost, whom she taught at the beginning of her long career in 1933. Micah claimed that he was able to keep his 141-year-old great-great-great-grandfather alive by telling him serialized stories every night. After following the adult Micah to a hotel room, Dorothy opens the door to see if the old man is still alive at almost 200. It turns out that this is a story that Dorothy is recounting for her mother, whom she has managed to keep alive in the same way. As such, it is not clear whether Dorothy's encounter with the adult Micah really happened or whether is something that she made up for her mother's benefit.
- A ghost story told in one episode of John Finnemore's Souvenir Programme takes this form, being a man telling a story about meeting a man who read a letter from a man who stayed with a woman who met a man who saw a ghost (the story told by the man himself being in its entirety "I went for a walk, and I saw a ghost." Further subverted when it turns out he actually said he saw a goat.
- Magic: The Gathering has a card that starts a game of Magic within the current one, named as a Shout-Out to Arabian Nights. Of course, you could have four of these cards in your deck, resulting in games lasting roughly five times longer than normal. The card has since been banned at official tournaments.
- The play Rehearsal for Murder features a play within a play within a play within the play.
- Shakespeare uses this device in Hamlet when "The Murder of Gonzago" is used to ferret out Claudius's guilt.
- Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead shows the Tragedians playing "The Murder of Gonzago" (which mirrors the outer play of Hamlet) which, in turn, contains the Tragedians playing "The Murder of Gonzago".
- Eternal Darkness begins with Edward Roivas posthumously narrating the beginning of his granddaughter Alex's chapter in the Tome of Eternal Darkness. In her story, she reads (and experiences) the stories of other previous Tome bearers, including that of Edward himself.
- The Assassin's Creed series is basically one long string of these, as present-day protagonist Desmond Miles is experiencing the memories and histories of his ancestors Altair, Ezio Auditore and Connor Kenway. Revelations takes this Up to Eleven when Desmond-as-Ezio finds the Masyaf Keys, which allow Ezio to see Altair's memories as well.
- This is possible in Jake Hunter Detective Story: Memories of the Past if you opt to play the final case first, as Ken Krause collects and reads Jake's previous case files, which are then played through. "As Time Goes By" also has Jake and Yulia recounting a case from a year ago to Detective Kingsley.
- It's possible at one point in Die Reise ins All to let one of the main characters read Treasure Island, which ends in playing the story itself.
- In What Remains of Edith Finch, you're reading Edith's account of her exploration of her family's old house, narrated by her. The trip is mostly uneventful for Edith, but as she goes along she finds and reads documents about each of her family members, which pull you into more flashbacks narrated by whoever wrote the document (though since Sam's is a series of photos, it instead has dialogue between him and Dawn), each of which tells the story about how that family member died. The story itself is Edith's own death narrative; she is pregnant while exploring the house, and dies in childbirth. The real player character, the person reading her journal, is her son Christopher, who the player only directly controls in the epilogue.
- In Opplopolis a race of aliens are briefly introduced as a fantasy of Marvin's. Later, the same aliens suddenly return and discuss the characters and events of the comic, making it ambiguous whether the Opplopolis story is nesting the aliens or vice versa.
- In xkcd, Tabletop Roleplaying (which uses a concept similar to one in an old PvP strip), and less traditionally Hypotheticals.
- The webcomic Grim Tales from Down Below has this, using a series of flashbacks within flashbacks. Starting with Jr. relating to Spawn how he got to be the Reaper, 3 days ago in Halloween, where he met a group of kids and told them the story of how his father Grim married his mother Mandy, during which Grim told the story of a particularly nasty event that happened during Billy and Mandy's childhood.
- Played for laughs in this page of Unwinder's Tall Comics, with five layers of webcomic authors demanding that someone read their webcomic.
- Defied in a strip in Dan and Mab's Furry Adventures. Dan stops Aliyka from telling a story in order to prevent one of these.
- Captain SNES: The Game Masta has quite a few of these, being that the entire story is being told in flashback form. This trope gets invoked whenever anybody in-story has a flashback, and at least once somebody in a flashback gets a flashback, and so on.
- Happens in Queen of Wands: As Kestrel is telling Angela how she met Shannon, she segues mid-flashback into an earlier story of her affair with Felix. Somewhat justified in that Felix and Shannon are now married and Angela was asking how Kestrel came to live with them. Subverted towards the end of the comic when Angela shares a story from her own past with Kestrel: it's over in a page and a half.
Kestrel: ''But... that's it? I mean... where's the point in that?
Angela: Geez, Kestrel - not everything has to be an epic story. Sometimes, shit just happens.
- Voldemort's Children. The Rant even features the line "You know you're reading an Eli Dupree comic when you enter two nested narrative frames on the same page."
- Sunstone: The outermost story focuses on Lisa writing her book detailing the events of her relationship with Ally, the main meat of the story takes place some years prior and shows us these events in which characters often elaborate on their backstory through another level of flash backs and in a different direction when we see into the fiction written by Lisa in the fiction written by Lisa.
- The B-Movie Comic shows us Professor Dr. recalling his first contact with Admiral Watanabe, who recalls his arrival on the island, where he recalled his childhood....
- The Thrilling Adventure Hour episode "The Devil You Know" opens with Sadie telling the story of why she and Frank are traveling though the depths of the New Jersey hell. That turns into a story of their friend and fellow Occult Detective, Pterodactyl Jones, and his encounter with a woman who claims she can reunite him with his pterodactyl ghost buddy, Harvey. She tells the story of how she fell in love with a ghost only to have her pastor father write to the Vatican about help exorcising ghosts. The Vatican begins telling the story of how they got the tool they're sending the father before Sadie steps in and puts an end to this, declaring the story has become a "narrative nesting doll".
- Pictured above is The Simpsons episode "The Seemingly Never-Ending Story". The episode begins with the Simpsons exploring a cave, during which Lisa tells a story about Mr. Burns and a goat, during which Mr. Burns tells a story about himself, Rich Texan and Moe, during which he reads a letter telling a story about Moe, Snake, and Mrs. Krabappel, during which Mrs. Krabappel tells a story about herself and Bart. This segues back into the previous story, which segues back into the, which segued into the previous one, which faded into the higher story, which then led to the goat's story. This faded back into the previous story, which segued back into the cave story, which led to Homer telling a story about buried treasure. This story ends, leaving them back in the cave, and the plot is resolved — and the story then fades into Bart claiming that this sequence of events is why he didn't do his homework.
- The Ed, Edd n Eddy episode "Every Which Way But Ed" involves Eddy telling his fellow Eds a story, but Johnny starts telling a story in which Nazz starts telling a story, and eventually the Eds get hopelessly lost in all the flashbacks.
- Adventure Time:
- In "Memory of a Memory", Finn goes inside Marceline's memories and is tricked into helping destroy her memory of an important event. To fix this, Finn brings Marceline inside his memories, and shows her his memory of seeing her memory.
- "Five Short Tables" takes this to ridiculous levels when Fionna the Human and Cake the Cat (who are based on Ice King's in-universe Rule 63 fan fiction) are subjected to a story by the Ice Queen about Flynn the Human Being and Jacques the Raccoon, who are being subjected to a story by Ice President about Lynn the Person and Janet the Fox.
- The episode "The Saddle Row Review" from My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic works like this, where the top layer has Rarity reading the review, and then the action cuts between the middle layer where the characters are being interviewed about the main plot and the bottom layer of the main plot itself.
- The Amazing World of Gumball episode "The Transformation" features Penny's family wanting Gumball to decide whether or not they should stay in their shells. Gumball bides time by telling a story about someone that tells a family a story about their daughter who in turn tells a story about another family and so on and so on.