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Metafiction: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 Definition of Metafiction
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Instructor: J.R. Hudspeth

Jackie has taught college English and Critical Thinking and has a Master's degree in English Rhetoric and Composition

The entertainment landscape is littered with examples of metafiction. Read on to learn a definition of metafiction and to go over a few examples of how writers use this device in their works.

Definition of Metafiction

If you have ever read a fictional story in which the characters suddenly notice things about the very book they are in -- for example, they notice the different fonts for yelling or whispering, or they talk about the end of the story coming up as they get closer to it -- you have read an example of metafiction.

Metafiction occurs in fictional stories when the story examines the elements of fiction itself. For example, a story that explores how stories are made by commenting on character types, how plots are formed, or other aspects of storytelling is engaged in an example of metafiction. Metafiction can be playful or dramatic, but it always forces the reader to think about the nature of storytelling itself and how fictional stories are made.

Examples of Metafiction in Books

If you ever read The Monster at the End of this Book as a child, you likely encountered metafiction without even knowing it. In this book, the character of Grover reads the title of the book himself and becomes terrified to meet the monster that will be at the end of the book. As you turn the pages, Grover becomes even more scared, pleading for the reader to stop turning the pages and even trying to build a barrier that keeps the pages nailed together. Once the reader gets to the end of the book, Grover figures out that the monster at the end of the book was him!

In The Monster at the End of this Book, Grover is aware of some of the elements of metafiction, which drives the plot. For instance:

1. He knows that the fictional work has a title, like most fictional work does, and reading it causes him to freak out.

2. He is aware that when the reader turns the page, that takes the book closer to the end, and he begs, pleads, and builds barriers to try and keep the reader from turning the pages and moving along the fictional story.

In both cases, Grover's ability to see these elements that are part of fictional stories are metafictional examples. Normally, characters cannot tell they are in a story or comment upon how stories are told and organized, so when metafiction is added to a piece of writing, it can be quite striking and, in this example, funny.

The series Thursday Next, written by Jasper Fforde, is about a woman who can travel into the fictional world. In that world, stories are constructed physically like one might construct a building, so there is quite a bit of opportunity to make metafictional jokes. For example, the books are typed in Times New Roman font, but some characters speak in a different font, Courier Bold, and to the rest of the characters, their different font is like a foreign language; no one can understand it.

In one Thursday Next book, The Well of Lost Plots, a virus that causes words to be misspelled gets loose and causes problems. In the book, leather-bound books become feathery birds; a patterned carpet becomes a pit full of tar; a glass apparatus becomes grass asparagus; a horse is turned into a house due to a misspelling error; and finally, a carrot is turning into a parrot due to a bad misspelling.

The metafictional ability for the characters to notice spelling errors and for the errors to have an effect on the story itself even leads to a sad moment; the spelling error has killed the character of Mathias the horse by turning him into a house, and there is a funeral for him later on in the book. Most of the time, a spelling error in a fictional story is just a mistake to be glossed over or thought of as a misprint, but in this story, the metafictional ability for the characters to notice and be affected by spelling errors leads to the death of a character!

Examples of Metafiction on the Screen

Metafiction is not limited to books; any work of fiction can use metafiction, no matter the format. Movies and TV shows also use metafiction in order to engage the audience.

A good example of metafiction in movies is the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, Last Action Hero. In this movie, Arnold plays a fictional cop that is brought into the real world, and his kid sidekick also joins him in the movie world. The movie is based on metafictional elements; Arnold's character assumes that the good guys always win in real life since that's how it works in the movies, and he learns differently once he joins the real world. Many of the jokes are also metafictional since Arnold's kid sidekick realizes how movie stories and characters are often portrayed.

At one point, the kid is riding a bicycle through heavy traffic. He thinks that he will be safe because he is the hero, but he thinks about it and realizes that he is not the character of the hero, but of the comic relief sidekick. As soon as he realizes that, he takes a comical tumble! The kid's recognition of the character he is meant to play ties into his comical bicycle crash.

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