Columns > Published on December 20th, 2011

That’s So Meta: Writing A Story About Writing A Story

Header images via pexels: 1, 2

Back to the Parks

If you remember a few posts back, I offered you the short story “A Continuity of Parks” by Julio Córtazar as an example of the nonlinear narrative structure.

As you might have noticed, there was more going on in that story than the shift of narrative perspective. In case you forgot, the story starts with a man coming home and sitting down to read a book. The story he reads is about two lovers who plot to kill the woman’s husband. As the narrative shifts from the reading man into the story he reads, the point of view also shifts from the man’s house and the park it overlooks, to the lovers. The narrative then follows the male lover across the same park and into the same house. The narrative shows the lover sneak up behind the reading man with a knife ready to attack. You then realize that you and the reading man are both reading the story of his imminent murder by the lover. This overlap technique which calls attention to the story within the story (the man reading the story of his own murder as it is happening) is called metafiction.

Metafiction

Metafiction (a.k.a. Romantic irony) is fiction that is self-conscious. The narrative voice steps out of the action in various ways to remind the reader that they are reading a book, watching a movie, or attending a play. Classic examples come from as far back as Canterbury Tales, Don Quixote and Homer’s Odyssey, while contemporary examples include The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, Shoplifting from American Apparel by Tao Lin, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated. Metafiction can appear in a variety of ways. Here are a few:

  • A narrator reads a story to the reader, sometimes taking breaks to make comments on the story or to introduce characters who are also taking part in listening to the story.
  • A character realizes that he or she is fictional and can influence the arc of the story by avoiding or embracing certain fictional devices.
  • The story is about a writer creating, finding, or writing a story.
  • The story contains another piece of fiction within it.
  • The narrator intentionally appears in the story either as a character or as a divine entity telling the reader what he or she is going to do next.
  • A story written by a character in the story.

The meta device can be applied to nonfiction as well. Take one look at the back cover of Dave Egger’s memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and you’ll understand what I mean. The cover is replete with notes and comments about the book, about the process of writing the book, the banalities of publishing the book, etc. Read the copyright page. You can flip through it virtually on Amazon.com. This hyperconscious rhetoric is considered meta in that it is self-referential and calls attention to itself as a piece of written work. In Mr. Egger's case, the text that covers the outside and front and back matter of his book draw attention to the minute processes of writing and being an author.

A great visual representation of the “meta” device comes from surrealist artist M.C. Escher. Maybe you’ve seen it? I referenced it briefly in the nonlinear narrative article. The drawing is of two hands, each of which appears to be coming out of the page to draw the other hand. The viewer sees the two hands while being simultaneously reminded of the act of drawing the hands. The artist is actually absent (long gone, in fact), but the viewer can experience the continuous creation of the hands being drawn.

Personally, I love this particular device. As a writer and the daughter of an artist, the act of creating the art is, to me, as fascinating as the finished product. Plus, the more you study a particular art, the more trained you become at identifying certain tropes or techniques used by the artist to arrive at a particular message or image. Art that respects and reveals its own processes and literature that both presents an amazing story while being aware that it is, in fact, literature, is in my opinion, the best of the best.

Wikipedia offers more information about this device and great examples of metafiction.

A Master at Work

The following is from Don Quixote de la Mancha, Part I, Chap. 28. You can find it a variety of places, but here’s where I found this particular translation:

Happy and fortunate were the times when that most daring knight Don Quixote of La Mancha was sent into the world; for by reason of his having formed a resolution so honourable as that of seeking to revive and restore to the world the long-lost and almost defunct order of knight-errantry, we now enjoy in this age of ours, so poor in light entertainment, not only the charm of his veracious history, but also of the tales and episodes contained in it which are, in a measure, no less pleasing, ingenious, and truthful, than the history itself; which, resuming its thread, carded, spun, and wound, relates that just as the curate was going to offer consolation to Cardenio, he was interrupted by a voice that fell upon his ear saying in plaintive tones:

"O God!...”

Don Quixote is so layered with meta devices, it’d be almost impossible to list them all, but what’s notable about this passage is that it reminds the reader of something revealed earlier in the novel. The narrator claims that the original story of Don Quixote was written by a Cide Hamete Benegeli who supposedly first recorded the deeds of Quixote and his sidekick Sancho Panza in Arabic. It was then translated into Spanish by an anonymous Moor and finally edited by Cervantes. Of course, there’s no evidence at all that any writer except Miguel de Cervantes wrote the novel in it's entirety, but the layering of authors allows for some freedom, perhaps, on the part of Cervantes to step away from the story and make comments while posing as just an editor. In my opinion, it’s likely Cervantes also did this to deflect culpability. If any of the material was objectionable (which it certainly was), it could be excused that he only edited the text and did not write it.

If you’d like to read more about the narrative voice in the book, you can go HERE.

In the passage quoted above, the narrator compliments the story (and by extension, the author) by claiming that the story stands out as "pleasing, ingenious, and truthful" in an era of shoddy story-telling, a time that is "poor in light entertainment." He calls attention not only to himself as the provider of this story in cahoots with the reader (“we now enjoy”), but he also mentions the various internal stories (one of which is about to be presented in Chapter 28) that the book also contains. The main action, he calls “the history itself” while the internal stories are “tales and episodes.” This ever-so-subtle phrasing tells the reader that while the narrator compliments the “history” of “that most daring knight Don Quixote of La Mancha” and the stories implanted within, he does not take credit. Of course, knowing that Cervantes is likely the only and real author, he's really complimenting himself.

Then, almost imperceptibly, the narrator eases the reader back into the action of the story by adding that the “history itself” is now "resuming its thread." Then he moves the narrative point of view from himself as editor and fellow reader of the novel to the next scene in the novel itself, that of the curate who is, at the moment, on the verge of doing something when he hears the voice saying "Oh God..." and he is moved to the next scene of the novel. Note, also, the deft metaphor of the “thread” of the story which is being manipulated--"carded, spun, and wound"--while you, the reader, look on, as if you were watching a weaver create yarn from wool. It's a smooth transition and great example of the meta device used to create complexity in a story.

Get Meta

Now that you are starting to get the idea, let’s do a little research. Think of a movie, story, song, play, or poem that you have read that uses the metafictional device and answer the following questions:

  1. What is the title, author/director, and date of publication/release of the work?
  2. How specifically is the device used—is it a story within a story? A self-aware narrator? A character that searches for his or her own story?
  3. Offer some examples from the text or explain a scene and explain how the meta device is used in the examples.

If you want to try it yourself, I’d suggest taking a well-known story (fairy tale or similar), or your own, and rewrite a section in a way that reveals the process of creation itself.  To go back to my Little Red Riding Hood example, you could write the story from the point of view of the wolf who knows, somehow, that he is affecting his own fate with each action that he takes. If you are stuck, think back to some typical parodies…even something like Scary Movie could serve as an example of metafiction in which the characters make fun of the scary movie genre while simultaneously taking part in an actual scary movie which is a parody of another actual scary movie that address the genre also--Scream. Parody is a great way to ease into metafiction.

Have fun with this, and discussion is most certainly encouraged. I have a whole LIST of metafictions, but I’m waiting to see what you all come up with first. Post below or send me an email: taylor@litreactor.com.

Get A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius at Bookshop or Amazon

Get Don Quixote at Bookshop or Amazon

About the author

Taylor Houston is a genuine Word Nerd living in Portland, OR where she works as a technical writer for an engineering firm and volunteers on the planning committee for Wordstock, a local organization dedicated to writing education.

She holds a degree in Creative Writing and Spanish from Hamilton College in Clinton, NY. In the English graduate program at Penn State, she taught college composition courses and hosted a poetry club for a group of high school writers.

While living in Seattle, Taylor started and taught a free writing class called Writer’s Cramp (see the website). She has also taught middle school Language Arts & Spanish, tutored college students, and mentored at several Seattle writing establishments such as Richard Hugo House. She’s presented on panels at Associated Writing Programs Conference and the Pennsylvania College English Conference and led writing groups in New York, Pennsylvania, and Colorado for writers of all ages & abilities. She loves to read, write, teach & debate the Oxford Comma with anyone who will stand still long enough.

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