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Metafiction: The Forgotten Transformer

OR: Fiction in which the author self-consciously alludes to the artificiality or literariness of a work by parodying or departing from novelistic conventions (esp. naturalism) and traditional narrative techniques.

Great definition - let's put it in layman's terms. A piece of metafiction is written with the intent of making the reader aware he is reading fiction.


It's an advanced technique, because writers are first taught to create the contract. You know the one - the contract between you and the reader which states that you are writing lies and the reader knows she is reading lies but we're all going to ignore the lies and remain happily ignorant. (Really, we all believe Hogwarts exists somewhere out there, yes? Yes.)

And it doesn't matter if your story is realist or surrealist or magical realist or if it takes place 300 years from now or in an alternate reality dimension of the Great Depression. Your job is to write in a way that makes it easy for the reader to believe it's all real.

Except when you don't.

Metafictional Devices

Writing metafiction, or fiction that "alludes to its artificiality," can be done through a variety of devices. As with most literary devices, it's easier to understand these with examples – and children's literature has plenty.

Narrative footnotes

One common metafictional device is narrative footnotes which comment on or add to the story. When done poorly, these footnotes can distract from the story and break the contract. When done effectively, you end up with works like An Abundance of Katherines, by John Green.

Book about itself

A book that is mentioned in itself, that even plays a vital role in the story it tells, is an example of metafiction, which Cornelia Funke did with her Inkheart series.

Book within a book

A story about another story might sound dull, but it is an example of metafiction. And it doesn't have to be dull – in fact, it can be filled with cliffs of insanity, fencing, and true love, like William Goldman's The Princess Bride.

Book about a book

Likewise, reading about a character reading a book doesn't seem all too interesting. But Michael Ende pulled it off nicely in The Neverending Story. ATREYUUUU!

Story about a story

Which sounds a whole lot like the previous device, and is. (Really, many of these examples use more than one metafictional device.) In this case, I'm referring to a story about one event unfolding – even being "written" – within the main story. Taylor in Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta knows what I'm talking about.

The narrator/author

No matter which person we choose to write in, our job as writers is to give voice to the narrator(s) of our story. This is even more challenging when the narrator "reveals himself" as the author, as Daniel Handler kindly lets Lemony Snicket do in A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Characters who know they're characters

Most often used in parodies, another metafictional device is to present a story in which the characters are aware that it is, in fact, a story. Like Henry Potty and his poor friends in Valerie Frankel's series.

The more I read about metafictional devices, the more YA/MG examples come to mind. Can you think of more? I'd love to hear them in the comments!
Michelle Schusterman

Michelle writes books for kids, screenplays for a tv/film production company, and music for anyone who'd buy a "groove matters" bumper sticker. She lives in New York City with her husband (and band mate) and their chocolate lab (who is more of a vocalist). She is the author of middle grade series I Heart Band - 2014, and The Kat Sinclair Files - 2015 (both from Grosset).

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  1. Sophies World by Jostein Gaarder.

  2. I actually had no idea what metafiction was :/ but i have a feeling I should read more of it because I love pretty much all the books mentioned!

  3. Not YA, but I highly recommend Life Without Giamotti by Sean Munger. Sf/f metafiction. So so so good.

  4. The Bartimaeus Trilogy has some seriously legit footnotes. :] Sometimes said footnotes are ironic commentary on the story's events, sometimes they're more like a wizarding history lesson. But they're given by Bartimaeus directly to the reader. I'm not entirely sure whether that's a comment on the artificiality of the story so much as simply breaking the narrative fourth wall - but in any case, it's freakin' hysterical 99% of the time. XD

  5. Oooh, I love Inkheart. And the Princess Bride. :D

  6. The Dark Tower Series by: Stephan King

  7. The television show Community does this brilliantly.

  8. And Scrubs! And maybe That 70s Show.

  9. Totally reading the Princess Bride book right now :) I wondered if the book within a book thing would work, but it definitely is with this one.

  10. I don't know about YA exactly, but I know in the X-Men comics, the character Deadpool is painfully aware that he is just a character in a comic book.

    Also, in a sort of graphic novel, Page, by Page many of the pages in the book are pages Paige has drawn in the story of the book. Essentially, the story is made out of things she's drawn in the story.

  11. Like Deadpool! (Although he may be a little too graphic and dark for this blog.) Guy goes crazy enough to realize he lives inside a comic, and then has a Q&A for readers in the back of each issue.

  12. Sorry Becca, just read your comment. I have a bad habit of posting my thoughts way too early! :)

  13. I am new to this blog and I found it because of this post! I enjoy a good YA book and had been hearing how prevalent metafiction was becoming in the genre. Since I blog about metafiction, I will definitely be checking out the books you mention as well as those brought up in the comments. Thanks!

  14. I love the examples you've given. I'm not sure if this is really metafiction, but my favourite similar example is a little quote from "The Longest Journey" by E.M. Forster. This is the best device I've seen for the character telling his history in an unassuming way:

    He said abruptly—

    "I think I want to talk."

    "I think you do," replied Ansell.
    "I can't see why I shouldn't tell you most things about my birth and parentage and education."

    "Talk away. If you bore us, we have books."

    With this invitation Rickie began to relate his history. The reader who has no book will be obliged to listen to it.

    I remember the jolt of being addressed so directly by the narrator, the first time I read this. I re-read it over and over - the conundrum of holding a book, reading, and being invited to think "If only I had a book to read, I wouldn't have to listen!"... made me laugh aloud! Lovely.


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Item Reviewed: Metafiction: The Forgotten Transformer Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Michelle Schusterman