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Nested Stories


Disciplines > Storytelling > Storytelling articles > Nested Stories

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Nested stories are stories within stories. Any story can have any number of sub-plots and inner tales, and any of these can be broken down or diverted to further tales. Nested stories can be seen in books, movies, TV series, plays and so on, as well as in therapies and persuasive techniques.

The sub-stories are often related to higher-level stories, but not necessarily directly. Sub-stories can add detail about the back story, providing depth and reason for the outer, main storyline, for example through the use of flashback. For this, the nested story may be narrated by a character within the story. They may also switch into metaphor to create a subtle connection or enable difficult topics to be covered without awkwardness.

Using nested stories is useful for drawing people in, engaging them in listening and blocking intrusions from the outer, real world as they focus more and more on keeping it all connected and in mind.

It is important to complete all stories (or if this is not done, to do so with good reason). This is typically achieved by returning to the previous, higher-level story as each story finishes. It is also possible to jump back and forth between storylines, running the stories in parallel.

The length of each story can vary greatly, ranging from all being about the same length to inner ones being used to make brief points, to the outer story being a short framing container for the real story in the inner worlds.


Level 1: One day, a timid young girl was out in the woods, gathering flowers for her strict step-mother when she found a little blue box. She opened it and a pink mist swirled out around her.

Level 2: Waving away the mist, she was amazed to find that the trees had gone and she was inside a vast cavern. An eerie light came from the walls, illuminating a small gnome who stood before her. "You must help us find our lost children!" shrieked the gnome, and when she agreed, he gave her a little stick and muttered some strange words.

Level 3: Suddenly, the cave was gone and the girl was in a forest. This was dark and grim, unlike her woods at home. She felt afraid and lost, but somehow the little pointy stick felt good and seemed to be pulling her uphill...

Level 2: ...after finding the children, she confidently waved the wand to return to the gnomeland, where she was feted and crowned stranger-queen for saving the children. She promised to return one day as the brown gnome waved a tearful farewell.

Level 1: She woke up in her home woods. The box was gone, as was the wand, but the flowers she had collected were still fresh at her side. A changed person, she strode back with her head high, no longer a slave.


The outer, first story usually provides a 'real' context. Even if it is brief, it grounds the inner stories. It is usually assumed to provide context and basic truth. An example of this is in therapy, where the real-world story of clients may be explored in inner metaphoric episodes where the level of indirection allows the client to more comfortable discuss difficult topics. It has been used for centuries in storytelling, for example in Arabian Nights.

There is a whole genre of fantasy stories (such as Stephen Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant) based on the hero starting in the real world and then being transported to a world of magic and mystery. Oddly, this helps make the fantasy more realistic, by putting a 'real' person into it.

Connections may work within and between stories. When a chapter ends on a cliff-hanger and the next chapter takes up with what is happening elsewhere, the reader is forced to read on to find out what happened in the original chapter. Sets of stories may hold together in a meta-frame of an overarching narrative, such as in Sherlock Holmes and many modern TV series.

When sub-stories are narrated by characters within the story, this may be in order to teach other characters (and perhaps the reader). Inner stories may also be used for humor, irony and satire, perhaps even poking fun at the story itself. Plato, Shakespeare and many others have used this device. Sometimes sub-stories gain a life of their own and may be seen in such as TV spin-offs.

Sometimes the inner story is just an outlet for the creative drive of the author, letting them express ideas they cannot put forward in other ways. Many stories can be seen as a set of sub-stories, divided by segment, chapter, episode, series and so on. The stories in such sequences may be closely or only lightly linked.

When a story stops and a new story is taken up, a tension is set up as the listener wonders how the first story will be completed. There is also a tension in their need to remember what happened while the second story distracts them. They are hence forced to mentally rehearse the first story. These tensions, of wondering and rehearsal, add cognitive load that draws the person in, forcing them to ignore other distracting thoughts and events around them and focusing more on the story.

Nesting stories is a bit like plate-spinning or juggling, where the more plates or balls you add, the more the person has to concentrate. This drawing in can create a kind of trance state, which is why nested stories are sometimes used in hypnosis and therapy. Concentration can also be increased by adding complexity through such as convoluted story detail.

See also

Attention principle, Completion principle


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