Metafiction, also known as Romantic irony in the context of Romantic works of literature, is a type of fiction that self-consciously addresses the devices of fiction, exposing the fictional illusion. Metafiction uses techniques to draw attention to itself as a work of art, while exposing the "truth" of a story.

Exposing the truth does not require facts and actual events in order to reveal the truth of pain and impact that a situation may have caused. Truth is about the experience and concluded perceptions of an event or story. It is the literary term describing fictional writing that self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in posing questions about the relationship between fiction and reality, usually using irony and self-reflection. It can be compared to presentational theatre, which does not let the audience forget it is viewing a play; metafiction does not let the reader forget he or she is reading a fictional work.

Metafiction is primarily associated with Modernist literature and Postmodernist literature, but is found at least as early as Homer´s Odyssey and Chaucer's 14th century Canterbury Tales. Cervantes' Don Quixote is a metafictional novel published in the 17th century, and so is James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner published in 1824. In the 1950s several French novelists published works whose styles were collectively dubbed "nouveau roman". These "new novels" were characterized by the bending of genre and style and often included elements of metafiction. It became prominent in the 1960s, with authors and works such as John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse, Robert Coover's The Babysitter and The Magic Poker, Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 and William H. Gass's Willie Master's Lonesome Wife. William H. Gass coined the term “metafiction” in a 1970 essay entitled “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction”. Unlike the antinovel, or anti-fiction, metafiction is specifically fiction about fiction, i.e. fiction which self-consciously reflects upon itself.[1]


Various devices of metafiction

Some common metafictive devices in literature include:

Films which use metafictive devices include Adaptation, which wraps metafictively around the real-world non-fiction book The Orchid Thief, and Barton Fink, as well as the thrillers The Usual Suspects, Memento and Inception. Examples of other media which take part in metafictiveness are Al Capp's Fearless Fosdick in Li'l Abner, the Tales of the Black Freighter in Watchmen, or the Itchy and Scratchy Show within The Simpsons, as well as the computer game Myst in which the player represents a person who has found a book named Myst and been transported inside it.

The theme of metafiction may be central to the work, as in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759) or as in Herman Melville's The Confidence Man, Chapter XIV, in which the narrator talks about the literary devices used in the other chapters. But as a literary device, metafiction has become a frequent feature of postmodernist literature. Examples such as If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino, "a novel about a person reading a novel" is an exercise in metafiction. Contemporary author Paul Auster has made metafiction the central focus of his writing and is probably the best known active novelist specialising in the genre. Often metafiction figures for only a moment in a story, as when "Roger" makes a brief appearance in Roger Zelazny's The Chronicles of Amber.

It can be used in multiple ways within one work. For example, novelist Tim O'Brien, a Vietnam War veteran, writes in his short story collection The Things They Carried about a character named "Tim O'Brien" and his war experiences in Vietnam. Tim O'Brien, as the narrator, comments on the fictionality of some of the war stories, commenting on the "truth" behind the story, though all of it is characterized as fiction. In the story chapter How to Tell a True War Story, O'Brien comments on the difficulty of capturing the truth while telling a war story. In Stephen King's The Dark Tower series, King himself appears as a pivotal character set with the task of writing The Dark Tower books so that the main characters can continue their quest. Other Stephen King books, and characters from them, are mentioned in the narrative. In an afterword to the series finale, (The Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower), King details why he chose to include himself in his novel. And in James Patterson's Alex Cross series, Along Came a Spider is both the book written by Patterson and a book written by Cross about the events depicted in the book.

One of the most sophisticated treatments of the concept of the novel in a novel occurs in Muriel Spark's debut, The Comforters. Spark imbues Caroline, her central character, with voices in her head which constitutes the narration Spark has just set down on the page. In the story Caroline is writing a critical work on the form of the novel when she begins to hear a tapping typewriter (accompanied by voices) through the wall of her house. The voices dictate a novel to her, in which she believes herself to be a character. The reader is thereby continually drawn to the narrative structure, which in turn is the story, i.e. a story about storytelling which itself disrupts the conventions of storytelling. At no point does Spark as author enter the narrative however, remaining omniscient throughout and adhering to the conventions of third-person narration.

According to Patricia Waugh "all fiction is . . . implicitly metafictional," since all works of literature are concerned with language and literature itself.[2] Some elements of metafiction are similar to devices used in metafilm techniques.

Film and television

  • Charlie Kaufman is a screenwriter who often uses this narrative technique. In the film Adaptation., his character Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) tortuously attempts to write a screenplay adapted from the book The Orchid Thief, only to come to understand that such an adaptation is impossible. Many plot devices used throughout the film are uttered by Kaufman as he develops a screenplay, and the screenplay, which eventually results in Adaptation itself. A similar device is used in Kaufman's film Synecdoche, New York. In the film, stage director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) endeavors to create a vast theatrical project about the world around him, with actors playing himself and everyone in his life. Thus the film Synecdoche, New York, a portrayal of the narrative of Caden's life, tells the story of a portrayal of the narrative of Caden's life.
  • Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is a 2006 British comedy directed by Michael Winterbottom. It is a film-within-a-film based on a book-within-a-book, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. It features actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon playing themselves as egotistical actors during the making in a screen adaptation of Laurence Sterne's 18th century novel Tristram Shandy, which is a fictional account of the narrator's attempt at writing an autobiography. Gillian Anderson and Keeley Hawes also play themselves in addition to their Tristram Shandy roles.
  • A film in which a character reads a fictional story (e.g. The Princess Bride, Disney Channel's Life is Ruff, Bedtime Stories).
  • A film or television show in which a character begins humming, whistling, or listening to (on a radio, etc.), the show or film's theme song (e.g. the final scene of "Homer's Triple Bypass", from The Simpsons; when Sam Carter hums the theme from Stargate SG-1 during the episode "Chimera"; the second Collector from Demon Knight; when Mr. Incredible whistles theme music from The Incredibles; when all the characters in the film Magnolia begin to sing the background music - "Wise Up" by Aimee Mann; in Almost Famous, when one character begins to sing the background music - "Tiny Dancer" by Elton John - and all of the other characters around him immediately pick it up and sing along as well; the moments when Sam Lowry of Brazil hums/listens to/sings the film's self-titled theme song; when Daryl Van Horne whistles theme music from The Witches of Eastwick; in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone when Rubeus Hagrid is briefly heard playing the main theme on a recorder); when Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson (as B.A. Baracus) hums the A-Team theme in the trailer for the A-Team movie (2010).
  • Directly referencing another work that internally references the first work. (e.g. "Weird Al" Yankovic appearing on The Simpsons, when he himself sings songs that reference The Simpsons).
  • Characters who do things because those actions are what they would expect from characters in a story. (e.g. Scream, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Last Unicorn, "The Long Goodbye").
  • Characters who express awareness that they are in a work of fiction (e.g. Stranger Than Fiction, "The Great Good Thing", Puckoon, Spaceballs, the Marvel Comics character Deadpool, Illuminatus!, Uso Justo, 1/0. "Bob and George"), the play and movie Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead .
  • Characters in a film or a television series who mention and/or refer to the actors or actresses that portray themselves (e.g. Beatrice "Betty" Pengson from I Love Betty La Fea; Bea Alonzo, who played the role of the protagonist, also played herself as a Ecomoda model; coincidentally in the show, Betty wants to meet Bea Alonzo in person, an act of self-reference. Julia Roberts from "Oceans Twelve" who played the role of Tess disguises herself to look like Julia Roberts. The other characters ironically realize that she is in disguise.)
  • A real pre-existing piece of fiction X, being used within a new piece of fiction Y, to lend an air of authenticity to fiction Y, e.g. A Nightmare on Elm Street is discussed extensively in Wes Craven's New Nightmare, while actors from the former star as "themselves"; likewise are The 1001 Nights put to use within If on a winter's night a traveler.
  • A story where the author is not a character, but interacts with the characters. (e.g. She-Hulk, Animal Man, Betty Boop, Daffy Duck in Duck Amuck, Breakfast of Champions, Excel Saga television shows).
  • A story within which that story (or a story based on it) is a work of fiction (e.g. Stargate SG-1's "Wormhole X-Treme!" or Supernatural's Supernatural novels.)
  • Acknowledging the tropes of the Horror genre Funny Games (2008 film).
  • The acclaimed TV sitcom Arrested Development is widely recognised as a seminal work of televised metafiction - it not only is framed like a reality television show (when in fact it is anything but), but also is highly self-reflexive and intertextual. Examples of this include the series' tendencies to refer to its own struggle for ratings, its competition from Sex and the City and the fact that the second season was cut from 22 to 18 episodes.

See also


  1. ^ Engler, Burnd (17 December 2004). "Metafiction". The Literary Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2010-04-27. 
  2. ^ Waugh, Patricia (1988). Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-conscious Fiction. New York: Routledge. p. 148. ISBN 0-415-03006-4. 

Further reading

  • Hutcheon, Linda, Narcissistic Narrative. The Metafictional Paradox, Routledge 1984, ISBN 0-415-06567-4
  • Levinson, Julie, “Adaptation, Metafiction, Self-Creation,” Genre: Forms of Discourse and

Culture. Spring 2007, vol. 40: 1.

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