Barney: I understand.
Ted: What, you're not gonna try and stop me?
Barney: And how would I try and stop you?
Ted: I don't know, by telling me life is short and if you ever come across a beautiful, exciting, crazy moment in it you gotta seize it while you can before that moment's gone?
Barney: Ted, this moment already is gone. The whole Minnesota Tidal Wave thing happened five years ago. It's just a memory. And the rest of this? Never happened. Right now, Lily and Marshall are upstairs, trying to get Marvin to go back to sleep. Robin and I are trying to decide on a caterer. And you've been sitting here all night, staring at a single ticket to Robots vs. Wrestlers because the rest of us couldn't come out. Look around, Ted. You're all alone.
For the last two hours we've been following the adventures of the brave Princess Alice in the magical kingdom of Marvellonia, but then the story suddenly cuts to a living room in a modern house... And we find out Alice is just a regular kid living in the suburbs, while the movie we just saw is actually a story told by Alice to her friends to spice up a boring Saturday evening.
Nested Story Reveal is a subtrope of 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. Normally 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. Fake-Out Opening is a subtrope where the switch comes after only one scene. 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. A Proscenium Reveal is sometimes used to reveal the nested story.
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.
Note: This is a Spoilered Rotten trope, which means that every single example on this list is a spoiler by default. The details of the actual Nested Story Reveal may be hidden with spoiler tags, but since the reveal is often used as an ending trope, merely seeing a work's name mentioned here can spoil its plot.
- Level E: Episode four, up to The Reveal in the last two minutes, is the plot of a script Prince Baka is trying to sell to television.
- Love Live! has a Cold Open in season 2 with a scene that's half this and half All Just a Dream - the girls are around the computer, waiting for the results of the recent preliminary competition. The results come in, and after a few "almost"s ("Mi...Mi... Midnight Cats! Mi... Myu... Myu... Mutant Girls!"), they aren't on the list of teams that made it. Cut to Honoka saying, "And that was the dream I had!", to which the rest of the team reacts along with the audience.
- 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 Audio Play version of Daughter of Discord, (the sequel to Bride of Discord) reveals that the story was being told by Twilight to a now slightly older Zany and Applespike, as well as her daughter Twinkle and Rarity's youngest daughter Jewel, the latter having not even appeared in the fan fics, until stories later in continuity.
- In Ultra Fast Pony, the episode "The Butts Family" has an abrupt and depressing shaggy dog ending... then the scene cuts to the other ponies telling Pinkie Pie that her "scary story" was terrible.
- 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 named Finn 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 Finn's attention, inspiring him to return him to the story.
- 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 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.
- 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. Also the events in the dream are in the same continuity, with the characters' interactions carrying over.
- In Little Women (2019), there is an ambiguous example of this trope. It is revealed that the scenes showing Jo and Friedrich's romantic happy ending are fictitious and are part of Jo's novel. But they may be real; it is up for interpretation.
- 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".
- 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.
- 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.
- A particularly famous (and famously mind-screwy) example happens in Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. In Chapter Four, Tweedledee and Tweedledum take Alice to meet the Red King, who is fast asleep on the chess-square/plot of land next to them (the book takes place in Looking-Glass World, a country that looks like a giant chess board). Tweedledee claims that the Red King is dreaming now—and specifically, he's dreaming about Alice herself, who is "only a sort of thing in his dream." Alice protests that this isn't the case, but the Tweedles refuse to listen to her. Later, Alice indeed wakes up, having dozed off and dreamed up her adventures in Looking-Glass World—but then faces a philosophical dilemma when faced with the memory of the Red King. Did she dream him into existence, or is the entire story—including the portion of Alice "waking up"—merely another aspect of his dream, which hasn't ended yet? In other words, we're not sure which of the stories is the "real" story, which is the dream, and which "reveal" we should trust. Author Lewis Carroll seemed deliberately ambiguous about this puzzle: the final chapter is titled "Which Dreamed It?", and the last line of the book—"Which do you think it was?"—challenges the readers to devise a solution for themselves.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- A Pack of Lies by Geraldine McCaughrean is a collection of short stories with a frame story in which a young man starts working at a secondhand shop and sells objects to unlikely buyers by telling intriguing tales about their origins. The final scene of the book reveals that the frame story is itself another story the young man is telling.
- Happens to the protagonist in Nikolai Gogol's short story The Portrait.
- The Handmaid's Tale ends with one of these, in the form of a transcript of a speech given at the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies, held at the University of Denay in 2195. The speaker is...skeptical about much of the preceding 300-odd pages.
- The Dragonlance short story The Storyteller is about a popular tavern tale-teller who the people love, especially since the Dragonarmy occupied their city. They love him so much in fact, that he's arrested and sentenced to death for inspiring rebellion. But the people aren't going to take this lying down; his friends at the tavern organize and break him out, starting a revolution in the process. Except not. That was just one last story he told to his cellmate. No one was brave enough to try to rescue him and he's hanged at dawn.
- 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.
- Doctor Who: The majority of "Extremis" takes place in the latest of many computer simulations created by the Prophets of Truth in preparation for their invasion of Earth. The Doctor, Bill and Nardole that we see for most of the episode are simulacrums in this virtual reality. This time, however, the simulated Doctor manages to send the real one an email with his memory-print of the last several hours, alerting him to what's going on. Most of the episode is just that — the Doctor watching the recording.
- 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.
- 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.
- Becomes a nested story within a nested story after the revival. The epilogue from the season 9 finale is actually part of the story that she is writing, and in reality Dan is alive, David and Mark are with Darlene and Becky respectively, they didn't win the lottery, Bev is gay, and Jackie is straight.
- In The Big Bang Theory Season 5 episode The Recombination Hypothesis, Leonard considers asking Penny out again and their dates go horribly, although there are frequent bedroom encounters after the fact. Leonard gets more and more confused and it is eventually revealed that he is still in the original scene contemplating asking her out. Having "thought it through", he decides to ask her out and in later episodes they eventually get back together.
- Happens twice in the Star Trek: Voyager episode "Living Witness". First events are presented on-screen as if they are actually taking place, despite their representing what would be very uncharacteristic behavior for the Voyager crew. This proves to be a "re-creation" of historical events, presented to a tour group by guide and historian Quarren. The rest of the episode focuses on Quarren's interaction with a reactivated holographic Doctor. Until the final scene, where we see another guide and historian has been presenting the entire story to a tour group, some 700 years after it took place.
- 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.
- In Seven Keys to Slaughter Peak, the protagonist, a novelist who has bet that he can write a story in 24 hours, finds himself trapped in a nightmare scenario...only to learn that the entire thing was an act set up by the guy he was betting against to distract him. And then it turns out that the entire play was actually the story the novelist was writing.
- The final ending of the Repentance DLC for The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth reveals the entire story isn't Isaac's dying dream as originally shown, but a bedtime story that Isaac's father, as the narrator, is telling him based on his son's vivid if dark imagination. Clearly concerned about the grim nature of the story and its conclusion, Isaac's father suggests a happier ending and Isaac agrees. When his dad begins telling the story again instead of it being about "Isaac and his mother" it's about "Isaac and his parents", removing anything to suggest this is just another loop of Isaac's dying imagination.
- The interactive fiction game Broken Legs is about a Villain Protagonist named Lottie who sabotages all her rivals to get selected for a prestigious singing job. Until you learn at the end that it's a story made up by Mary, one of Lottie's rivals, to convince the school board to fire Lottie so that she can get the coveted job instead. This is cleverly foreshadowed by Mary being the only character portrayed in a flattering light in Lottie's narrative.
- 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 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.
- However, series creator Ron Gilbert had no involvement in the series after LeChuck's Revenge (aside from minor, early story advice on Tales of Monkey Island, which was still part of the continuity created by the third game), having left LucasArts a year after it was released, and he said that the reveal in Curse wasn't what he had in plan for the story, so it might be a nested story 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.
- In the penultimate mission of Saints Row: The Third, you have to choose between going after Killbane, the game's Big Bad (who is about to escape on a plane) or save your teammate on the other side of the city. If you let Killbane escape, the final mission is a climactic showdown between you and him on Mars... which is actually just a movie the Saints are making after becoming a massive cultural icon.
- The Stinger of Sonic and the Black Knight shows Sonic narrating the events of the plot to Amy and denying that he's just making excuses for standing her up. Whether he's telling the truth or not is left unclear.
- Completing Sonic Mania in the unlockable & Knuckles mode while playing as Knuckles reveals that the events of the mode are actually a story called Sonic Mania & Knuckles that Knuckles reads to some animal buddies.
- Super Mario Bros.:
- Over thirty years after the release of Super Mario Bros. 3, Shigeru Miyamoto confirmed that the events of the game were all just a play Mario and friends were performing. This is heavily hinted at in-game, though, with the game beginning with a curtain opening and the blocks being bolted to the background, for instance.
- Super Mario Galaxy 2 is either this, or a Cosmic Retcon of the first game.
- Another short interactive fiction game, The Tale of the Kissing Bandit, is about a bandit whose ambition it is to kiss every woman in the land. It's actually the internal monologue of a boy trying to kiss every girl at recess.
- The ending to Umineko: When They Cry 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).
- The entire premise to the Kinetic Novel One Thousand Lies reveals is that the prologue and conclusion were in fact, what actually happened, while the entire main story, the "One Thousand Lies," was actually a story penned by the main character, Ciaran.
- The freeware Otome Game Ristorante Amore is presented as a Dating Sim in which the player takes the role of a young woman working in the eponymous restaurant. When the prologue ends, however, the role of the game's viewpoint character changes to Pierre, whereupon it's revealed that all of the characters are actors on a planet called Erewhon fueled by feelings of love from the inhabitants of Earth, and they're staging a visual novel in order to encourage those feelings. Pierre isn't even really named Pierre; his name is actually Josh.
- 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, showing a guy imagining what he would say to a girl on a train and then going through multiple nested story reveals.
- This video by Cyanide & Happiness.
- Adventure Time:
- "Adventure Time with Fionna and Cake" seems to be a pure Gender Flip Alternate Reality Episode, then makes a sudden right-turn at the end to reveal everything was Ice King's fanfiction read to a frozen Finn and Jake. Later "Fionna and Cake" episodes establish that Ice King, Marceline, or some other character are the ones telling the story.
- "Five Short Tables" takes this up to a whole new level; Ice King reads a Fionna and Cake fan-fiction that, at one point, has the Ice Queen sharing her fanfiction, in which her stand-in character Ice President is sharing his fan-fiction. At the end, the story is revealed to be a series of themed vignettes just like in the "Graybles" episodes, and then it shows the whole thing was Cuber watching one of his graybles.
- There's that two-part episode of Family Guy called Stewie Kills Lois and Lois Kills Stewie where Stewie tries to kill Lois, then tries to take over the world when he realizes she survived, then she tries to stop him by any means necessary, 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 finally tried to kill 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.
- 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."
- Exaggerated in The Simpsons's episode "The Seemingly Never-Ending Story": Lisa tells 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 nearby. 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.
- 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.