The Subtle Art of Interweaving Stories in The Arabian Nights

“If you’re going to perform inception, you need imagination. You need the simplest version of the idea in order for it to grow naturally in the subject’s mind. Subtle art.”
― Christopher Nolan, Inception

Have you ever read a story with one storyteller at the heart of the work and many characters within this work telling their own stories? If so, you’ve encountered a frame tale or a nested story.

Nested storytelling in The Arabian Nights (or the Thousand and One Nights) represents a large framework of individual stories written by unknown authors, scattered over different corners of the Middle East.

The multilayered narrative takes a story to another level, and as Norton Anthology points out: “The frame tale is an open-ended genre, in which an outer story or “frame” provides a structure within which other, shorter stories can be told.”

The overall frame centers on a good king who became a tyrant. After discovering the secret promiscuity of his wife, King Shahrayar decided that he will avoid the deception of women forever by taking a new bride every night and putting her to death in the morning. The deaths rapidly mount, the kingdom is filled with mourning parents – and to the horror and despair of the faithful royal vizier, his daughter, Shahrazad, volunteers to marry the king. He tries to dissuade her, but Shahrazad has a plan. By telling a story to the king every night, each one more marvelous and entrancing than the last, Shahrazad will continually defer the doom that awaits his bride (The Norton Anthology of World Literature, 598-599).

Concealing the true purpose of her narrative in the form of the fairy tale allows Shahrazad to talk about the issues that worry her. Nested storytelling in this case works perfectly because it doesn’t directly accuse the society of their sins, it instead allows them to judge for themselves.

The theme of all the Arabian Nights is the oppressor and the oppressed.

We see this tension play out through powerful Djinns locked in bottles, kings and their servants, parents, and children–but mostly through women’s battle for survival in a world ruled by men. This is why the women of the stories are so wily: because cunning and trickery are the first recourse of the weak. These female characters become cunning to overcome the men who oppress them. They fight to make their own choices and live according to their beliefs about freedom, sexuality, and love (Fassler).

The Arabic literary work the Thousand and One Nights involve Shahrazad narrating a series of stories to King Shahrayar for 1,001 nights, with each night ending on a cliffhanger in order to save herself from execution.

Some stories use the framing device of a dream, hence the quote from Christopher Nolan’s iconic movie Inception, because the concept of planting an idea in someone’s subconscious mind is very similar to what Shahrazad was doing every night. The classic film The Wizard of Oz uses the same framing device. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is another example of several stories joined together by a larger story.

Among the tales that Shahrazad tells her husband is The Fisherman and the Genie.

In Andrice Arp’s adaptation of the fisherman’s story, there is an interesting perspective on the way these tales are framed within one. When Andrice shifts from the frame narrative the font and squares get smaller and smaller. They get bigger as soon as we return to the main story. I would compare it to pulling smaller Russian dolls out of bigger ones. Here a smaller story nests inside a larger story, and a smaller one within that. This type of narrative is captivating and like pulling out the smallest doll – very rewarding.

The fisherman tells the genie a story involving a king, who tells a story involving a parrot, who has a little story of its own to relate.

Perhaps you’ve recognized this literary device in some of your favorite movies or books? Please leave a comment below, I’d love to hear what examples of a frame tale you know. 


Works Cited


  • InceptionDirected by Christopher Nolanperformance by Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Ken Watanabe, Warner Bros. Pictures, 2010.
  • Fassler, Joe. “The Humanist Message Hidden Amid the Violence of One Thousand and One Nights.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 25 Mar. 2020,
  • “The Frame Story.” The Arabian Nights – Home,
  • Kick, R. (2019, April 02). The Graphic Canon, Vol. 1: From the Epic of Gilgamesh to Shakespeare to Dangerous Liaisons. Retrieved November 07, 2020, from
  • The Norton Anthology of World Literature,4th edition, vol. B. W. Norton & Company, 2018. p. 598-599.