What Is Metafiction?

Sara from New Jersey contacted me with this simple question: What is metafiction?

If anyone reading this is pressed for time, let me first say this: If you are writing a first novel, forget about metafiction. If you have more experience under your belt and are on your third or fourth book, still forget about it.

Still here? Okay, then I guess I'd better explain...

You have probably seen me use the phrase the willing suspension of disbelief elsewhere at Novel Writing Help. It is one of the core principles of fiction writing, and it is a kind of informal contract between writer and reader. It goes something like this:

"You know this book you are holding in your hands? Sorry to break it to you, dear reader, but it's a work of fiction. The characters, the events - I made it all up, right out of thin air. But here's the deal. I realize that pretending that this is a real account of something that actually happened makes the reading more pleasurable. So to help you do that, I will do everything in my power as the creator of this fiction to conceal the fact that not a word of it is true."

All readers of novels know that they are reading fiction, and all writers of novels do everything they can to conceal the fact that it's all make-believe. Writers are liars and readers know they are being lied to, but the lie is ignored by both parties and everyone is happy.

And then there is metafiction.

It takes the willing suspension of disbelief and throws it back in the readers' faces. And the readers - or at least the ones who are fans of metafictional techniques - love them for it.

Still confused? Then I'll try to make it clearer. Metafiction is fiction about fiction. It is a novel or short story (or film or play) in which the author knowingly draws attention to the fact that it is being made up.

In stage plays - particularly comic ones - it is relatively normal to use the metafictional device of an actor speaking directly to the audience (or breaking down the "invisible fourth wall"). The actor making the aside is deliberately acknowledging the fact that the story being told is a fiction being watched on a stage by an audience.

In novels, the deliberate calling to attention of the fact that the people and events are not real is rare. Here are some (exaggerated) examples:

  • The author appears as a character in his (or her) novel, using his real name. Not only that, but he will say to other characters things like: "Hey, don't get cheeky with me, sonny. I created you and I can just as easily kill you off."
  • The author, in the midst of describing a character, for example, talks directly to the reader about character description itself, saying something like: "Charles was far more handsome, in fact, that this description suggests. He was movie star handsome, the kind of man only a camera could do justice to. But writers, alas, do not have cameras in their toolbox, and so these words will have to suffice."

In case you think I am mocking metafictional writing, I am truly not. I love novels like Tristram Shandy and Slaughterhouse Five. I simply have no desire to write one. And if someone is clever enough to write one successfully themselves, they probably don't need me as a teacher because they'll know it all anyway.

Metafiction is ultimately a rejection of traditional storytelling. If it has all been done already, some writers say, then to write a traditional novel is mere repetition. So let's rip up the rule book! Let's write a novel about ourselves writing a novel!

If any of you want to try that, fine - though you had better be pretty damn sure of what you are doing. But don't think for a moment that there is anything wrong with good old-fashioned storytelling. After all, 99.9% of new novels published every year still use it.


P. S. Wait a sec, I almost forgot. Whenever anyone asks a "what is" question, I like to quote from the dictionary. Here is what the O.E.D. has to say:

Metafiction, noun: Fiction in which the author self-consciously alludes to the artificiality or literariness of a work by parodying or departing from novelistic conventions and traditional narrative techniques.

Couldn't have said it better myself!