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Writing

What Is a Story Within a Story? 7 Examples of Nested Stories

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jan 22, 2020 • 3 min read

Have you ever read a novel, novella, or short story and realized that the characters within the narrative were reading or watching a story of their own? If so, you have experienced a literary device known as a story within a story.

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What Is a Story Within a Story?

A story within a story occurs when some sort of tale is told to characters who exist within the main narrative of a work of fiction. Also found in live theater, TV shows, and film along with written books, this literary technique implants a nested narrative within the main story. Sometimes, the nested story contains its own story within a story. This creates a multi-story set where multiple narratives exist within the framework of a larger plot, thus forming the literary equivalent of a Russian doll.

A popular variation on this embedded narrative is a technique known as a frame story. In a frame story, the main narrative itself is a story within a story. A classic frame story execution can be found in the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. The main narrative of the novel, involving Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, is told via a series of letters written by a man named Robert Walton.

7 Examples of Story Within a Story

If you have ever read the “Mad Trist” narrative embedded within Edgar Allan Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher or “The Grand Inquisitor” story in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brother Karamazov, you have read classic examples of a story within a story. Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, Count Jan Potocki’s The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, and Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales use frame stories to bracket their main narrative. In film, The Princess Bride features a frame narrative told by Peter Falk to Fred Savage. Here are some additional examples of an inner story appearing somewhere within the first story presented to a reader.

  1. The Odyssey by Homer: One of the most fundamental examples of frame storytelling is Homer’s The Odyssey. The entire narrative is recited by Odysseus himself within the royal court of King Alcinous in Scheria.
  2. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski: In this novel, the main character finds a manuscript that itself refers to a documentary retelling a real-life event in the world of the book. Dense and layered, the book contains multiple stories within a story. Other science fiction novels with embedded stories include Cloud Atlas, Red Orc's Rage, and The Man in the High Castle.
  3. The Sandman by Neil Gaiman: Some books feature the narration of their characters’ real-world dreams, and these narrations are stories within the main plot. The Arabian Nightmare by Robert Irwin and The Sandman series by Neil Gaiman each employ this plot device. The film Inception itself contains many layers of dreams, each serving as a different story within the larger narrative.
  4. William Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Hamlet features a play within the play. The embedded play’s storyline is too similar to events occurring in Hamlet’s own life, and he brazenly interrupts.
  5. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad: This novella is partly a conventional story within a story and partly a nest story within a frame story. Its main character, Charles Marlow, tells his fellow sailors of a haunting episode from his own life story. The main plot unfolds as a flashback within Marlow’s own life and is told in first-person voice.
  6. One Thousand and One Nights: Commonly known as Arabian Nights, this written work features an unnamed narrator telling of stories that themselves are told by the character Scheherazade. What’s more, many of Scheherazade’s stories have their own inner story, so the Russian nesting doll effect applies here as well.
  7. The Neverending Story by Michael Ende: Embedded stories are quite popular in the fantasy genre, including The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, and Michael Ende's The Neverending Story (which itself features a book of the same title).
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