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

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.

Image of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
Author: Dave Eggers
Price: $9.73
Publisher: Vintage (2001)
Binding: Paperback, 437 pages
Image of Don Quixote
Author: Miguel De Cervantes
Price: $10.36
Publisher: Harper Perennial (2005)
Binding: Paperback, 992 pages
Taylor Houston

Column by Taylor Houston

Taylor Houston is a genuine Word Nerd living in Portland, OR where she works as a technical writer and volunteers on the marketing committee for Wordstock, a local organization dedicated to writing education. She has a BA in Creative Writing and Spanish from Hamilton College and attended Penn State's MFA program in Creative Nonfiction. She has taught writing at all levels from middle school to college to adult, and she is the creator of Writer’s Cramp, a class for adults who just want to write!

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Comments

David Lay's picture
David Lay from Sidney, Ohio is reading Infinite Jest December 20, 2011 - 12:57pm

Makes me think of "House Of Leaves"

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words December 20, 2011 - 1:23pm

thanks Taylor - metafiction is some of my favourites - John Gardner refers to it as a commentary on writing as opposed to pure fiction.

Some of my favourites include:

Albert Angelo by BS Johnson (1964)

there are a number of devices used in this particular story - the most noteworthy examples being two physical holes cut into the pages to create a type of physical foreshadowing. The section entitled "Disintergration" in which the author (as opposed to the narrator) breaks down the fiction, reveals the substitions he's made between his life and the character he has based on himself.


Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut (1973)

1) the legal disclaimer regarding the title is used on the disclaimer page, and within the text of the novel

2) it's a story about a writer, Kilgore Trout, who writes Sci-Fi short stories which are used as filler in cheap pornography

3) the author appears in the text, behind a pair of sunglasses.

 

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words December 20, 2011 - 1:26pm

At Swim-Two-Birds by Flan O'Brien (1939)

A story with three beginnings about a student turned writer whose characters drug him to release themselves from his tyrrany. It's three different narrative levels that wind together. It never quite finds itself out of the third chapter.

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. December 20, 2011 - 2:07pm

Tim O'Brien's short story "How to Tell a True War Story" from The Things They Carried is my favorite example.  It's not only a great story, it's also a great writing lesson.

Matt Ramsden's picture
Matt Ramsden from Wakefield, MA is reading The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath December 20, 2011 - 3:04pm

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer is another great examle of metafiction. 

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Portland, Oregon is reading 'Alexander Hamilton' by Ron Chernow December 20, 2011 - 3:08pm

Great examples everyone! Makes me want to go read immediately. Matt, Foer's book is amazing--in so many ways--I totally agree it's a great, modern example of metafiction.

This is one of those topics that I could have written 1000 words on, and I'm glad you all seem to like it too. Thanks for sharing! This gives me lots of ideas!

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words December 20, 2011 - 3:28pm

Plays:

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1966) by Tom Stoppard

2 characters from Hamlet try slowly figure out that there's more to their existence than meets the eye, as they wander in and out of the Hamlet play itself.

the Real Inspector Hound (1968) by Tom Stoppard

the audience (i.e. us) watch a play on stage, which is a presentation of a play, on the other side of which is an audience, watching.

Film:

Stranger than Fiction (2006)

An accountant hears a voice narrating his actions, and seeks a literature professor to help him figure it out.

The Last Action Hero (1993)

Movie characters enter our world, and we enter theirs - Arnold Schwarteneggar was the absolute best choice for this, since the man is more fiction than person anyway..

Adaptation (2002)

Charlie Kaufman (the film's writer, played by Nicholas Cage) is trying to write an adaptation of a non-fiction book about orchids, and is having difficulty. His twin brother decides he also wants to write a film, and decides on packing every cliche possible into it. The discussions between the two brothers about film and its nature end up bleeding through into their lives.

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Portland, Oregon is reading 'Alexander Hamilton' by Ron Chernow December 20, 2011 - 3:55pm

Yes, postpomo, I was thinking of those exactly! Adapation is a GREAT example, especially since the author of the real nonfiction book, Susan Orlean, appears as character in the fictionalized movie about the process of turning the book to a film. There are some many layers here. I loved this movie.

Another AWESOME example of metafiction in film in Synechdoche, NY (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0383028/). The title alone is metafictional is that "synechodoche" means a part of something which can refer to the the whole and vice versa.  The title is also a play on Schenectady, NY, a small city in upstate New York. As for the plot of the movie, I won't even attempt to encapsulate it here, but it fits the meta genre perfectly.

Chester Pane's picture
Chester Pane from Portland, Oregon is reading The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz December 20, 2011 - 5:40pm

I love Synecdoche, NY. (I always misspell that one, had to go check it)

That also really ties into what you said Taylor, about Art and perception. Two characters heading in symbolically different directions like lovers frequently do. Caden Cotard's art grows to overwhelming dimensions while Adele Lack's (name-play) shrinks so special magnifying spectacles glasses are required to be able to view them.

Great article. The best of both worlds indeed.

 

Matt Ramsden's picture
Matt Ramsden from Wakefield, MA is reading The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath December 21, 2011 - 9:53am

Such amazing films and plays. Stranger Than Fiction is easily one of my favorite films. Such an brilliant article. I truly love metafiction and want to try even though I imagine it must extemely hard to write.

Jason Van Horn's picture
Jason Van Horn from North Carolina is reading A Feast For Crows December 21, 2011 - 11:15am

I hate myself for reading all these articles. I always read about a story think, "Oh, that sounds interesting," and the next thing I know I'm adding it to my Amazon Wishlist so I can remember it. It's bad enough it's like 200 books long already. Blah!

Tyler Jones's picture
Tyler Jones from Portland, Oregon is reading Black Swan Green by David Mitchell December 21, 2011 - 11:18am

I'm surprised that no one has mentioned Paul Auster, the most meta of all meta-writers. Almost every single one of his novels involves test within text, and stories within stories.

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Portland, Oregon is reading 'Alexander Hamilton' by Ron Chernow December 21, 2011 - 4:42pm

Haha, Jason, sounds like you are becoming "The Man Who Loved Books Too Much." :)

TWJones--good call. I've never read any of Paul Auster, but I have heard of him. Any recommendations on which of his works I should read first?

Jason Van Horn's picture
Jason Van Horn from North Carolina is reading A Feast For Crows December 22, 2011 - 9:37am

Thanks for reminding me Taylor. I really needed to change that. I finished reading that. :) But it's crazy - I have a ton of books I haven't read yet, but I'll still buy new ones. I figure by the time I die I'll have a library within a library of books that never got read.

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words December 23, 2011 - 2:09pm

@TW Jones - I haven't read Paul Auster, but will definitely check him out. Until I do, I contend that BS Johnson is the metafictional master. House Mother Normal and The Unnamable are good examples (although the latter isn't all that great a read). It's a box that contains chapters in no discernible order. Read them however you like.

I don't know if this qualifies or not, but Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch has 2 reading sequences. The first takes us from chapter 1 to chapter 56. The second begins with chapter 1 but starts bouncing around the entire 155 chapters out of numerical order (hence the title). It's hard not to remember you're reading a book when you are constantly flipping back and forth from chapter to chapter.

I recall when we studied Doris Lessing's Briefing for a Descent into Hell, that she fashioned it in part after a Sufi teaching tale. The idea is to disrupt the surface narrative, so that the reader cannot immerse themselves in it, and as such, they must seek out the deeper meanings of the text. I'm not sure if that qualifies as metafiction, but it certainly was jarring to move from a man recovering his memory in hospital to a castaway story to a sci-fi story and like so.

MarchHare's picture
MarchHare from Netherlands is reading White Fang, East of Eden, Oscar Wilde, etc etc December 24, 2011 - 7:20pm

Reminded me of Orson Scott Card's, Enders Game. Pretty old book, one of the few books I really enjoyed in my youth. Not sure if the book was in first person perspective. But the book has a very big meta ending. I'm not sure if I should spoil the story here. So spoiler alert: The character discovers he has not beening training for war, but the actually training was the big war... The story is very self aware in nature, but unfortunately the character misses this meta frame above himself. Not exactly sure why this was put in place, but I suppose it has something to do with fatalism, not being able to control everything (training), becoming an adult. So symbolic in nature...

Don't have the book on hand at the moment...

Tyler Jones's picture
Tyler Jones from Portland, Oregon is reading Black Swan Green by David Mitchell January 1, 2012 - 9:10am

Taylor -

I think that "The Book of Illusions" is a great place to start. You get the stories within stories, the twists and turns of a good mystery, and all of the strangeness of being alive. "Leviathan" and "Moon Palace" are also to incredible books by Auster. His wife, Siri Hustvedt is a novelist as well, just as meta, just as intellectual. Her novel "What I Loved" is an amazing work of fiction.

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Portland, Oregon is reading 'Alexander Hamilton' by Ron Chernow January 2, 2012 - 12:38pm

Thanks TWJones, I will have to check those out!

Boone Spaulding's picture
Boone Spaulding from Coldwater, Michigan, U.S.A. is reading Solarcide Presents: Nova Parade January 26, 2012 - 2:36pm

Favorite metafictional-prone author is Mr. Thomas Ligotti, and best (favorite) example from Mr. Ligotti is his Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story...

Elio2357's picture
Elio2357 from California May 26, 2012 - 4:42pm

I believe The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson had some meta elements.  The characters were at times self-aware of a story being written about them.  And by the 3rd act in the submarine it's pretty much turned upside down on it's head when their decisions factor in the  purpose of a fitting end to the story.  Also interesting to note RAW and the co-author concocted this story out of all the insane 'letters to the editor" while they worked at Playboy magazine, on the premise of 'what if they were right.'

 

Oh and that Marvel character Deadpool is known for constantly breaking the fourth wall.  Considering there are so many characters and storylines in the Marvel universe, it's absurd that only one of them is aware of an audience, and that the rest are confused at his interactions with it. 

M. Ylikangas's picture
M. Ylikangas from Finland is reading The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock May 27, 2012 - 2:51am

Funny Games (1997 and 2008 [remake])

The antagonist of the film constantly breaks the fourth wall. His accomplice gets shot and, understanding he can control the world he's in because it's not real, he rewinds the events with a remote control (!!!) to a time right before his friend gets shot, preventing the killing from happening.

The movie was kind of mediocre but playing around with meta and breaking the fourth wall was cool!

Christopher Hantman's picture
Christopher Hantman March 13, 2014 - 6:59am

Taylor,

I am writing a metaficitional story now and this article, as well as all the examples, were extremely helpful. It is tough for me though to tell the difference from metafictional technique and cliche. I want to include a twist in my story, but how can I do it without seeming like I pulled a cheap shot to my reader?

 

 

Thanks again for the great article,

Christopher

Lauren Wills's picture
Lauren Wills August 13, 2015 - 1:31am

‘Chiliad’ by Simon Otius, at unhappened dot com, is metafiction, but an immensely difficult yet rewarding read, requiring great patience.