Story within a story  

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painting within a painting, digression

A story within a story is a literary device or conceit in which one story is told during the action of another story. Mise en abyme is the French term for the same literary device (and also refers 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 novels, short stories, plays, television, films, poems, music, and even philosophy.


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 are one or more complete inner stories told by one or more fictional 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 the hero himself 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 which 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.

If a story is told within another, rather than being told as part of the plot, the motives and the reliability of the storyteller are automatically in question. The original author is often regarded as truthful even if he is telling fiction whereas an internal teller may alter or disguise details to make himself appear better. This flexibility allows the author to play on the reader's perceptions of the characters. 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 which influence the hero's actions (there are others which 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 from Herman Melville's famous novel Moby-Dick, which tells a fully formed story of an exciting mutiny. This inner story contains many plot ideas that Melville had conceived during the early stages of writing Moby Dick, ideas which were 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 weaved 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 allow his young characters in the Swallows and Amazons series of children's books, plotted in the recognisable, everyday world, to 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 themselves.

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 in a poetic context is James Merrill's 1974 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 is known to include the recurring character Kilgore Trout within many of his novels. In each of these 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 fictional writers to interact with their own (doubly) fictional characters.

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 (relating a future book with that title by the fictional author Gen Jaramet-Sauner), and J.R. Rasmussen's "Research" in the anthology Star Trek: Strange New Worlds II. Steve 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 Quantum Leap novel Knights Of The Morningstar also features a character who writes a book by that name.

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon has several characters seeing a play called 'The Courier's Tragedy' by the fictional 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 is on a feud between two rival mail distribution companies, a feud which appears to be ongoing to the present day and which, if this is the case, Oedipa has found herself involved with. 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 introduced by the Japanese film Rashomon (1950), based on the Japanese novel 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.

The story "The Three Brothers" were in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. It was later included in the book The Tales of Beedle the Bard

Story within a story within a story

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.

The structure of The Symposium, attributed to Plato, is of a story within a story within a story.

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.

Jan Potocki's The Manuscript Found in Saragossa (1797-1805) has extremely rich interlocking structure with stories-within-stories reaching several levels of depth.

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). (For some, this example does not count as metametafiction, as the play Hamlet exists in full in the real world; however, it is one of the most familiar illustrations of the phenomenon.)

At least one line in the C. S. Lewis book The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader 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.

Stanisław Lem's Tale of the Three Storytelling Machines of King Genius from The Cyberiad has several levels of storytelling. Interestingly, all levels tell stories of the same person, Trurl.

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 of metafiction to the cult following surrounding this book.

The Simpsons parodied this structure with numerous 'layers' of sub-stories in the Season 17 episode "The Seemingly Never-Ending Story".

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.

In the beginning of the music video for the Michael Jackson song "Thriller", the heroine is terrorized by her monster boyfriend in what turns out to be a movie within a dream.

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 which 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 which 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 Getsumen To 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.

watchmen features a story within a story called tales of the back freighter

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.

Best New Horror, a short story from the book 20th Century Ghosts, has the main character reading a horror tale called Button Boy.

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.

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.

William Shakespeare used this device notably in 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 which 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 theater 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.

When characters in a play perform on stage the action of another play, often with other characters forming an "audience", the audience in the theatre sometimes loses its privileged, omniscient position because it is suddenly not clear who is in the play and who is in the play within. The device, then, can also be an ironic comment on drama itself, with inversions and reversals of its basic elements: actors become authors. This form is exploited in Bertolt Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle, where a play is shown as a parable to villagers in the Soviet Union to justify the reallocation 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.

The musical Kiss Me, Kate is about the production of a fictional 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, Les feluettes or The Producers.

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 ‘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.

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.

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 play within a film, called "Spectacular Spectacular", which itself may have been based on an ancient Sanskrit play, The Little Clay Cart. 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.

Film within a film


The François Truffaut film Day for Night is a fictional movie about the making of a fictional 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 fictional story "Pamela" within "Day for Night" involves lust, betrayal, death, sorrow, and change, while the characters performing in the actual film that Day for night represents experience the same things.

Similar to Truffaut, the script to Karel Reisz's movie The French Lieutenant's Woman (1980), 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 which shows a love affair between the main actors.

In Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr, Keaton's protagonist actually enters the film-within-a-film (also named Sherlock Jr).

Mel Brooks's 1974 comedy Blazing Saddles leaves its fictional Western setting when the climactic fight scene breaks out into the Warner Bros studio lot, onto an adjacent musical set, then into the studio commissary, 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 theater to watch the conclusion of the 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 retelling 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.

Austin Powers in Goldmember begins with an action film-esque opening which turns out to be a filming sequence. Near the ending, the events of the film itself are revealed to be shown to be a movie in a theater enjoyed by the characters.

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 is comprised almost entirely of a poorly-made film that the protagonists created, complete with Kyon's typical, sarcastic commentary.

The television shows 30 Rock, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and Sonny with a Chance feature a sketch show within the TV show.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Story within a story" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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