Nested Story Reveal
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. Usually 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. If the switch comes after only one scene, it's a Fake-Out Opening. 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.
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 to 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.
Since this is typically done as a Plot Twist, just mentioning the name of a particular work as an example of this trope can spoil it. Expect the examples section to contain spoilers.
- 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.
- 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.
- An interpretation of the events at the end of Matrix Reloaded where Neo stops Sentinels in the real world implies the "real world" is an outer level of the Matrix.
- The Princess Bride movie is a well done example of this, where the real world framing device lets the director suddenly skip the "boring parts." Since it is being read to a young boy (who is at the Girls Have Cooties stage), it mostly skips any explicit kissing as well.
- The second half of Next is this.
- eXistenZ is full of nested video game stories, essentially the fundamental trope of the film. The very end is finally the real world... Maybe...
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Sophie's World
- 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.
- 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 transgendered 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 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).
- The ending of Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge is usually interpreted as this, though the next game in the series retcons it so that everything was real 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.
- Super Mario Galaxy 2 is either this, or a Cosmic Retcon of the First game.
- 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 to Umineko no Naku Koro ni 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).
- There's that episode of Family Guy where Stewie apparently kills Lois and goes onto be President Evil, 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 killed 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".
- 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.
- On Adventure Time, the most hyped episode yet, a Gender Flip episode called "Adventure Time with Fionna and Cake", turns out to have been just a fanfiction by the Ice King.
- Exagerated in the Simpsons. One episode has Lisa tell 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 ricc Texan, Moe, and Snake all trying to steal gold hidden near by. When the story concludes it turns out the whole thing was Bart explaining to the principle why he hadn't been able to do his homework.