Metafiction refers to stories in which the characters, author, or narrator acknowledge the fact that they’re parts of a fiction.
The word “meta” means “about” suggesting right away that anything named “metafiction” is going to be fiction about fiction. It occurs when a book acknowledges that it’s a book, the narrator that they’re just a fictional creation, or if the narrator addresses the reader directly. Other examples are listed below but include films that contain other films and books that contain other books.
Definition and Explanation of Metafiction
Metafiction is a genre that came about in the 20th century when writers started questioning the importance of what they were doing and the nature of reality. These works are self-reflexive, meaning that they analyze themselves and often encourage the reader to do the same. The fiction might sometimes appear conscious, or at least certain aspects of it. It draws attention to itself as a creation, or artifact, that has or does not have, some meaning in the world. Often the latter is up to the reader to determine.
Why Do Writers Write Metafiction?
Writers choose to write metafiction for numerous reasons. Sometimes it provides humorous elements to what might otherwise be a drab, mundane story. Imagine a story about a man’s life, waking up, going to work, going home, etc, but instead of the narrator telling the story, they ask the reader what they think about everything that’s happening and what kind of character this everyday man is. Is he interesting? What should he do next? Do you want to keep reading about him?
Alternatively, metafiction is used to analyze literature. It’s a way to parody, judge, and dissect contemporary writing and the traditional tools writers use.
Examples of Metafiction in Literature
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
This science fiction novel is a classic example of metafiction. The characters in the novel consult a book called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy throughout the story. The author is introducing the story, reminding the reader that they’re engaged in a work of fiction. In this case, the book is an artifact. The novel is also an example of a mise en abyme or a book within a book.
The Handmaid’s Tale is Atwood’s most famous novel. It tells the story of Offred, one woman among many who have been kidnapped and held in captivity by a totalitarian theocracy that’s taken over the United States. Her story is told from a first-person perceptive throughout the novel. The epilogue transforms a reader’s understanding of the novel by creating a scene in which characters discuss “The Handmaid’s Tale” an account of America’s past and the time of Gilead.
Misery by Stephen King
In this famous, terrifying novel, one of the main characters, Paul Sheldon, a famous author of a popular romance and adventure series, is “rescued” and held captive by his biggest fan, Annie Wilkes. Wilkes, upon learning that the main character of the Sheldon novels was killed off at the end of the final novel demands that Sheldon rewrites the novel to her liking.
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
A Clockwork Orange is an interesting and disturbing novel (that has since been made into a film) that features the novel within itself. Close readers will note that one of Alex’s victims is an elderly man whose working on a manuscript with the same name is as the novel.
Examples of Metafiction in Television and Film
Based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club is a popular film that includes several metafictional moments. For example, the main character addresses his fictional personality in the film and then fights it at the end.
The Cabin in the Woods
The Cabin in the Woods is often considered to be a broad realization of the theory of metafiction through the actions of the characters in the film. Engineers control the cabin, manipulating the characters into different actions like sex and violence.
The Neverending Story
A popular children’s film in which a young boy explores a fantasy world through a book. The film addresses the viewer at the end when the princess calls out to Bastian, the young boy, and asks him for help.
Types of Metafiction
Metafiction encompasses a wide range of stories and characters. Metafictional stories can include those about a reader reading a book (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce), a story that references itself (The Dark Tower by C.S. Lewis), or a story that includes another work of fiction within it (A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess). Other examples include stories where the narrator offers themselves up as the author of the story (for example, A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket), a book that tries to interact with the reader (House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski), and more.
History of Metafiction
The best examples of metafiction are from the 20th and 21st centuries. But, this type of writing can be dated back much earlier in the history of writing. Some much older examples include:
- The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (1387)
- Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (1605)
- Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (1847)
It was at the height of its popularity during the 1960s with works such as the following:
- Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
- The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles
- Willie Master’s Lonesome Wife by William H. Gass
There are also some notable examples in Latin literature. For instance:
- The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
- Her Body by Carmen Maria Machado
- The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia
Self-conscious narrative, breaking the fourth wall, conscious fiction, interactive fiction.
Related Literary Terms
- Allusion: an indirect reference to, including but not limited to, an idea, event, or person. It is used within both prose and verse writing.
- Characterization: a literary device that is used to detail and explains the aspects of a specifically crafted character in a novel, play, or poem.
- Exposition: the important background information that a writer includes in a story.
- Conflict: a plot device used by writers when two opposing sides come up against each other.
- First Person Point of View: a literary style in which the narrator tells a story about him or herself.
- Ambiguity: a word or statement that has more than one meaning. If a phrase is ambiguous, it means multiple things.
- Audience: the group for which an artist or writer makes a piece of art or writes.