Story within a story within a story within....
April 1, 2014 11:27 AM   Subscribe

Is there a term for when readers/watchers are pushed into trying to figure out which is the "true" version of something fictional? For example, in Life of Pi when it's up to the reader to figure out which version of the story is "true" when we know that none of it is true at all because... it's fiction. Bonus: What are some other examples of this?
posted by Enchanting Grasshopper to Media & Arts (43 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Total Recall
posted by jozxyqk at 11:30 AM on April 1, 2014

Unreliable narrator is maybe not quite what you're after, but it so close that I'm having a hard time thinking of stories that fit what you're looking for and don't have unreliable narrators.
posted by kagredon at 11:32 AM on April 1, 2014 [11 favorites]

Last Year at Marienbad
posted by goethean at 11:32 AM on April 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Diagesis is not precisely the term you're looking for, but I think it is related.
posted by enn at 11:33 AM on April 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

An example of this is the trope of the unreliable narrator. There are approximately one million examples of the trope at that link.
posted by Rock Steady at 11:34 AM on April 1, 2014

How about Doubt? Or maybe Picnic at Hanging Rock?
posted by bcwinters at 11:38 AM on April 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

Rashomon effect has expanded in use a bit, but was originally used to mean figuring out the "true" interpretation of a story.
posted by nakedmolerats at 11:38 AM on April 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Also related: Nested stories.

Perhaps "The Turn of the Screw" might be up your alley?
posted by MonkeyToes at 11:38 AM on April 1, 2014

Rashomon Effect? Named for the film.
posted by rtha at 11:39 AM on April 1, 2014

There's also the story of the blind men and the elephant, and, similarly, Rashomon and its antecedents and imitators.
posted by cjelli at 11:39 AM on April 1, 2014

It's a mixture of "multiple perspectives" plus "unreliable narrator", especially in film when the multiple perspectives are not latched directly to characters.

Rashomon sets a huge precedent. The Fountain is perhaps a decent parallel in terms of the relationship between the film's three narrative strands.

In literature, you can head off into the territory of Pale Fire.
posted by holgate at 11:40 AM on April 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

This happens all the time in a good sci-fi flick.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:40 AM on April 1, 2014

If On a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino approaches this.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 11:41 AM on April 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Although, actually, one exception to my earlier comment (depending on how narrowly you define "unreliable" and "narrator") would be the much-discussed ending to Inception. (Chris Nolan seems to like this: Memento also leaves several questions about what "really" happened up to interpretation.)

Y: The Last Man might also sort of count--there are several explanations proposed for the disaster that kicks off the story, and while the author has stated that one of them is true, it's never made explicit which one it is.
posted by kagredon at 11:49 AM on April 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Yeah, it's definitely a sort of sub-genre of the unreliable narrator, the main difference being that sometimes with unreliable narrators the reader does end up finding the 'truth' (in something like Gone Girl, for example), where other times it's more ambiguous (like in Life of Pi or Roshomon or Wittgenstein's Mistress).

Here's some good previous threads: 1, 2, 3.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:50 AM on April 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Liar is a very good example of this, where the unreliable narrator is always rubbing it in your face that she's an unreliable narrator to boot.
posted by foxfirefey at 11:57 AM on April 1, 2014

From Amy Bloom's short story collection A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, "The Story."

Paul Auster's City of Glass.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:59 AM on April 1, 2014

True Detective
posted by rhizome at 12:00 PM on April 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

There's an episode of Doctor Who called "Amy's Choice" which plays with this idea without there being an unreliable narrator (well, arguably).
posted by bettafish at 12:24 PM on April 1, 2014

Clue (the movie)
posted by kochenta at 12:29 PM on April 1, 2014

The Usual Suspects
posted by The World Famous at 12:29 PM on April 1, 2014

The Things They Carried
posted by dawkins_7 at 12:29 PM on April 1, 2014

Eric Kraft's stories do this a fair bit, especially in Little Follies, where the stories all have prefaces where the narrative voice talks about all of the points he's changed to make the tales work better.

While reading each story the "falsities" tripped me up, and I'd have to remind myself it was All fiction, so why did the narrator "fabricating" things bother me?
posted by ldthomps at 1:08 PM on April 1, 2014

I may be a little off here, but it seems to me that there is an element of metafiction in what you identify as well. That is, the story is drawing attention to itself as a story and foregrounding certain features of its narrative structure to communicate their arbitrary and essentially fictional nature.
posted by kaspen at 1:19 PM on April 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Can't go into much detail because of spoiler avoidance, but check out Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth.
posted by COBRA! at 1:24 PM on April 1, 2014

There is a comic series called The Unwritten that features the son of a man who wrote a wildly popular fantasy series. The main character has same name as the son. Is the son actually the same Tommy from the books?
posted by soelo at 1:29 PM on April 1, 2014

See also Buffy:TVS, Season 6, Episode 17, "Normal Again."
posted by musofire at 1:53 PM on April 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also, ST: DS9, "Far Beyond the Stars."

And the St. Elsewhere finale.
posted by musofire at 1:59 PM on April 1, 2014

Favorite nineteenth-century example: Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book. A real seventeenth-century Italian murder case imagined from every (frequently conflicting) POV, including the victim's and the murderer's.

I keep wanting to teach this, and I keep realizing that there's no way. You'd have to dedicate the whole course to it.
posted by thomas j wise at 2:58 PM on April 1, 2014

posted by misozaki at 4:51 PM on April 1, 2014

Shutter Island is maybe a more specific version of this, similar to Inception, in that there are worlds within worlds.
posted by batter_my_heart at 5:42 PM on April 1, 2014

American Psycho is arguably like this. The ending of Limbo is pretty much designed to leave you reinterpreting the past events to try to figure out what the ambiguous ending means.
posted by jessamyn at 6:01 PM on April 1, 2014

In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O'Brien. I believe there is a movie but I don't know how they dealt with the ambiguity in that.
posted by Trivia Newton John at 6:33 PM on April 1, 2014

What are some other examples of this?

... I'm having a hard time thinking of stories that fit what you're looking for and don't have unreliable narrators.

The narrator in The French Lieutenant's Woman gives several possible endings to his story. When I read it, I thought of the narrator as the author's voice rather than a character in the novel. (Although reading wikipedia's entry, it reminded me that the narrator does play a minor, but pivotal role, near the end of the book.)

All during the novel, the narrator is often stopping the story to explain how the events, developments and cultural attitudes of the Victorian era influenced how the characters behaved. And contrasted that period with modern times ("modern" being the 1960s when the book was written).

The different endings are discussed in terms of how Victorians expected novels to end and how our expectations and motivations differ from theirs and why.

Because of these asides and because the narrator plays much more of the storyteller role than a character in the story, I think The French Lieutenant's Woman falls into the category of metafiction, rather than unreliable narrator.
posted by marsha56 at 6:39 PM on April 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

The books The Tiger's Wife and Of Bees and Mist. It's not a total coincidence that both of these books are considered magical realism - you know that it's fiction so some of the things can't exactly be happening, but maybe they could if they are actually allegory or fable, or if you interpret things a certain way....

Like the unreliable narrator, I'm not sure that magical realism is *exactly* what you're looking for, but I think as a genre it will get you some of what you want.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 8:20 PM on April 1, 2014

The Rules of Attraction
posted by SisterHavana at 8:59 PM on April 1, 2014

Am wondering if this is almost too obvious, but one of the canonical examples of the unreliable narrator as well as layers of frame narratives in Western lit is Heart of Darkness. I know many people who found it frustrating and hard to get through (and, of course, it's problematic in terms of colonial/racial dynamics), but in terms of the development of this technique, it's pretty essential. (Full disclosure: I love it.)
posted by bookgirl18 at 9:06 AM on April 2, 2014

If you're looking for examples that craft stories within stories (within stories) and use it for more humorous/satirical effect, like I often am, you can go all the way back to Don Quixote. When I finally had to read it for school, I was shocked to realize that, rather than a sappy Man of La Mancha musical, the original text is a playful layering of different narratives where it's almost difficult to sort out what's really happening - like a postmodern novel waaayyy before there was such a thing as postmodernism (or really, the novel). It's neat.

Another funny one is Virginia Woolf's Orlando, which I've written about a lot. Orlando is an entirely goofy, subversive parody of the act of writing and the relationship between art and "truth" that I absolutely adore. There's no way any of it can be "true" in the conventional sense, so it's up to the reader to figure out what's really happening and how to read it.

... Boy, now that I have an advanced degree in literature, it's good to know I can put it to use somehow! Haha ... (*sobs*)
posted by bookgirl18 at 9:16 AM on April 2, 2014

The Usual Suspects (movie)
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 10:48 AM on April 2, 2014

Oh! The movie Sleuth. The original, with Olivier and Caine. Not linking because if you haven't seen it go without any preconceived notions. It's lots of fun, too.
posted by Room 641-A at 11:49 AM on April 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thanks for all the responses!
posted by Enchanting Grasshopper at 3:38 PM on April 2, 2014

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