If you’re reading a fiction book, and the main character appears to be talking directly to you, it’s likely that you’re reading metafiction.
Metafiction is a word used to refer to stories that are aware of themselves as stories. The characters may know they are in a fictional story, or the author may use techniques to remind the reader what they’re reading isn’t real.
In this article, we’ll explain what metafiction is, give you all the characteristics, and we’ll share some examples of great metafiction.
What is Metafiction?
Metafiction is a genre of fictional writing that has been around for centuries, but it’s become an increasingly popular literary form.
Let’s explore the definition of metafiction and what it means for readers and writers who are interested in the genre.
On the surface, metafiction might sound like a complicated term to understand, but it’s actually simple to define because we can break it into two parts: “meta” and “fiction.”
The definition of “meta” is something that shows it’s fully aware of its own existence. For example, a bar establishment called “The Bar” or a shoe shop called “The Shoe Shop.”
“Meta” is also used to describe something that gives information on similar topics to itself. An example would be books about other books or news about news.
The definition of “fiction” is a piece of literature the writer has imagined that isn’t true or objective. For example, novels and short stories are fictional because they originate in the minds of the writers who published them.
With the definitions of “meta” and “fiction” in mind, we can define metafiction as self-conscious fiction that references itself.
You know how to define metafiction, but you might wonder why authors write metafiction?
On a creative level, metafiction is fun and doesn’t take itself too seriously as a piece of fiction, so you can experiment with it as a writer. Lots of genres have reader expectations to adhere to, but metafiction doesn’t. There are some characteristics—which we’ll cover soon—but most readers won’t expect every one of them to be present in a piece of metafiction.
Most authors who write metafiction intend to make a point about society or to make the reader question reality. Whether that’s the reality of the fictional work or our own world is down to the writer. For example, you could write a novel about a struggling writer who criticizes the author for making them a writer, which makes the reader question the reality of the novel.
Metafiction is a product of postmodernism and the desire to create postmodern fiction that blurs the lines between reality and fiction. Postmodern literature writers include John Barth, Margaret Atwood, Anthony Burgess, and Miguel de Cervantes. Each author uses metafiction techniques to make the reader question the realism of their novels.
Characteristics of Metafiction
If you want to write metafiction, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the characteristics of the genre. There are several metafiction features you can use to ensure readers are engaged and having a postmodern experience as they read your book.
One of the most common ways for a piece of literature to make the reader question reality is by the narrator, or a fictional character, referring to the novel.
For example, in A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, the main character reads an excerpt from a manuscript called A Clockwork Orange, which is being written by another character in the novel. By referencing itself within the fictional world, the novel blurs the boundaries of reality by making the reader question if the fictional manuscript is the one they’re reading.
Another way a novel can reference itself is by the author writing about how they wrote the book or by adding their thoughts about the conventions of fiction. For example, in a romance novel, the author could write about whether every romance novel needs a meet-cute moment, and then write a meet-cute moment for the main characters.
A metafiction novel often includes experimental elements to further the question of realism and the nature of fiction.
Here are some examples of experimental elements you can find in a metafiction novel:
Nonlinear narrative structure
Unconventional plot development
Nonlinear narratives are stories that aren’t told in a traditional start to finish order. Some novels feature narratives that work backward, such as Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis. There are also novels which move forward and backward within the main character’s timeline, resulting in an interesting reading experience as you question the reality of the novel.
Unconventional plot developments are used to criticize and comment on how certain genres always follow specific conventions of development. For example, most crime novels lead to the criminal being discovered, but a metafiction novel might forgo that development in favor of a commentary about whether catching a criminal is a good thing to do.
Fragmented storytelling is a writing style that includes short stories, chapters, documents, vignettes, and plot snippets which, when read together, generate a comprehensive fictional narrative. The story is like a case file full of clues that lead the reader to some understanding of what happened.
Breaking the Fourth Wall
One of the most obvious characteristics of metafiction is fourth wall breaking. The “fourth wall” is an imaginary barrier between the characters in a piece of fiction and the reader. When a character or narrator talks directly to the reader, as though they are aware of the reader’s existence, it’s called breaking the fourth wall.
An example of fourth wall breaking is present in The Princess Bride by William Goldman, where Goldman speaks to the reader directly to say he never wrote The Princess Bride and claims S. Morgenstern actually wrote it. Goldman constantly interjects his thoughts about the story throughout the novel, making the reader question what’s fiction and what’s true.
If you would like to check out some more examples of metafictional writing before attempting to write it yourself, there are many brilliant choices of literary fiction available to you.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
Mark Haddon’s novel is about a boy called Christopher Boone and how he solves the murder of his neighbor’s dog. Christopher has Asperger’s syndrome and is the narrator of the story. The novel reads as though Christopher has written it.
The title of each chapter is a prime number because Christopher likes prime numbers and tells the reader so in chapter 19, which is actually the eighth chapter of the book.
While the first chapter of the book is where the story begins, the second chapter is written as an aside from the main storyline, revealing additional information about Christopher’s life and his outlook on the world. Christopher builds the context to the story with these chapters of insight slotted between each chapter of the story, creating a nonlinear timeline for the reader.
Haddon’s contemporary metafiction novel reads like a murder mystery and employs lots of other literary devices, such as plot twists and red herrings, to keep you wondering why Christopher is telling you the story.
Windows on the World by Frédéric Beigbeder
Windows on the World is a novel about fictional characters who visited the famous restaurant at the top of the North Tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11. The novel also features a running commentary by Beigbeder about whether he’s allowed to tell this story.
Beigbeder uses several metafictional elements, such as fourth wall breaking, multiple narratives, and self-reflexivity, to create a masterpiece that attempts to share what it might have been like in those last moments before the towers fell.
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Slaughterhouse-Five is a metafiction novel detailing the historic events of World War II from the perspective of an American soldier called Billy Pilgrim. Literary critics describe the novel as a work of historiographic metafiction, which considers whether it is possible to write objectively about historical events.
The novel features a narrator, which appears to be Vonnegut himself, as he wrote the first chapter from his perspective telling the reader that everything in the book happened, “more or less.”
By adding his own thoughts and experiences into the fictional narrative, Vonnegut blurs reality and fiction, making a point that we cannot always trust accounts of historical events because they often have biases and are not objectively accurate recollections.
How ProWritingAid Can Help You Write a Metafiction Book
If you’ve dived into the world of metafiction, and you want to write an amazing postmodern story, it’s a good idea to make sure your writing is as good as it can be before publishing your novel. You can use ProWritingAid to edit and improve your writing.
Whether you decide to edit as you write or to edit after you’ve finished your first draft, ProWritingAid has an option for you.
The Realtime checker is a report that updates in real time as you’re writing and editing. You can also use the report on passages of complete writing to make quick improvements before doing a deep analysis of your content.
After you’ve checked the Realtime suggestions, you can use any of the 20+ ProWritingAid reports to further edit your work. The Grammar, Style, and Readability reports are perfect for novel writers who want to ensure their writing is grammatically correct and engaging.
If you find any sentences that need improvement, but you’re not sure how to reword them, you can use the Rephrase feature to see several suggested ways to rewrite the sentence. Rephrase is a timesaving feature for writers who need to edit a manuscript because it reduces the time spent thinking about how to reword problem sentences.
Metafiction is certainly a fun genre of writing to get sucked into, and the possibilities of what you can write are endless. Remember to include at least one characteristic of metafiction and to use ProWritingAid to ensure your writing is error-free.