If you’ve never heard the word “metafiction” before, it’s a fancy word for “stories about stories”. It can also refer to references to other stories within stories. And, one of the interesting things I’ve noticed since I got back into reading regularly a few months ago is how often it can appear in novels.
Yes, it doesn’t always appear – but I’ve seen it in sci-fi novels like Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age“, noir/horror novels like Jack O’Connell’s “Word Made Flesh” and dark fantasy novels like Clive Barker’s “Weaveworld” – and it’s something that always catches me by surprise whenever I see it.
So, I thought that I’d list two of the main reasons why writers include metafiction in their stories.
1) Influences and culture: Generally speaking, if someone is writing fiction then they’ve probably read quite a bit of it too. And, whilst this won’t teach you literally everything about writing, there is no better way to learn what does and doesn’t work in fiction than reading lots of it. Likewise, if you want to develop your own unique writing style and sensibility, then you need to read lots of different things by different writers.
As such, writers can end up including metafiction in their stories as a way of paying tribute to the writers who have influenced them and/or made them interested in writing. This is exactly the same as film-makers and game designers including references to other films/games in their work in order to both provide something for their fans and to tip their hats to their inspirations.
But, it is more than this. It’s also about culture too. Just like how films from the 1980s/90s onwards will often reference older films out of a sense of tradition and to reward those knowledgeable about the history/culture of cinema, writers also do something similar – but in a more general way.
In short, whilst novels are one of the older storytelling mediums out there, they aren’t really part of popular culture in the way that films and videogames are. Because there are so many novels out there and they aren’t usually that widely-advertised, it’s very easy to find lots of awesome novels that no-one around you has even heard of before. As such, reading can feel like a somewhat lonely activity when compared to watching films or playing games.
So, including stuff about the magic of stories, reading etc.. in stories can be a way for writers to make their readers feel like part of a culture or community. It’s kind of like how the indie computer game “Retro City Rampage” includes lots of references to other obscure indie games – these games may not be ultra-popular, but they are referenced in a way which makes them seem like they are. It’s all about creating a feeling of culture and community.
2) What books can do (that everything else can’t): Another reason why writers include metafiction in their stories is because it allows them to highlight what books can do that no-other medium can. Every medium has it’s own strengths and failings, and creative people will usually find interesting ways to highlight these strengths.
For example, a well-edited and visually-striking montage sequence in a film can’t easily be replicated in a stage play. Comic makers can use things like panel layouts and art styles in inventive ways that film-makers can only dream of. Game designers can use gameplay mechanics to create experiences that can’t appear in any other medium. I’m sure you get the idea.
And, the written word can do so much stuff that visual media can’t. It is a truly unique medium in a lot of ways. Not only is it ten times more vivid and immersive than even the most modern virtual reality games, but no two readers will imagine/interpret a story in exactly the same way as each other. Books can do things like altering the rate that time flows (where the events of a single second can take several pages, and a century might be covered in a single sentence). Books can linger in the imagination like nothing else can. I could probably go on for a while.
So, yes, writers include stuff about stories in their stories because it’s a way of showing what books can do that nothing else can. And, as I mentioned earlier, this also probably has something to do with how books are often overlooked in modern popular culture too.
Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂