Two Reasons Why Writers Include Metafiction In Their Stories

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.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

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Short Story: “Demo” By C. A. Brown

Note: This story is a stand-alone companion piece to this story.

If there was one thing that Kirsty missed, it was demo discs. Back in the day, videogame magazines used to come with discs filled with the first levels of seven or eight different games. Sure, it was meant as a promotional thing. But, she thought, there was something democratic about it. It was like catching an episode of a drama on TV, rather than only being able to see it in an online boxset. It was democratic.

She was about to mention this to James, but he just sat back on the sofa and pulled out his phone. He tapped it a couple of times and stared at the tiny screen, absorbed in something. Probably some trendy article about “de-cluttering” or whatever.

So, she read a book. It was an old paperback horror novel from the ’80s that she’d picked up in a charity shop for 50p. The cover read “SCYTHE MANIAC!” in dripping red letters and showed some dude with glowing red eyes standing in front of a midnight sky and swinging a scythe at the reader. Within a few seconds, she’d lost herself in the story….

Above the roar of the combine harvester, Farmer Green focused his attention on the spinning blades in front of the windscreeen. Rage roiled inside him. The sheer cheek of that supercilious little man from DEFRA insisting that.. he… went on a safety course! He’d been working the harvester since he was a lad and had not suffered so much as a scratch from the efficient, slicing blades.

Grumbling to himself, Farmer Green heaved the steering wheel. His gnarled fingers nearly slipped on the hasty gaffer tape repair to one segment of it. No doubt that the silly bureaucrat would probably moan about that too. But, the trendy people at the harvester company had stopped making spares. Even though, he thought, this venerable old machine would probably outlive any of the fancy bleeping gadgets that those slick salesmen kept pushing on poor farmers like him.

And then Farmer Green saw it. Behind the yellow haze of chaff, the shadow of a man stood in the field. The farmer’s face went beetroot red and he stamped on the brake as hard as his old legs would allow. If it was that stupid lad from Wilson’s farm again, then there would be harsh words spoken. Balling his fists, he waited for the harvester to judder to a halt. But, when the clouds of chaff fell to the ground – there was no-one there.

He rubbed his sweaty brow and blinked twice. Maybe it was all just a trick of the eye? Maybe he was imagining things in his old age? Letting out a sigh, he started the engine again. But, before he could even put foot to pedal, the window beside him exploded in a shearing shower of sharp shards. The tip of a scythe shot through the hole like the beak of a hawk swooping in for the kill. The razor point slashed…

Kirsty was interrupted mid-sentence by James shouting ‘Alita! Is the internet down? Alita! Dammit!

The silent smart speaker sat on the table next to the TV. A green light stared back at him. He tapped his phone frantically. He walked over to the router and poked it a few times.

Finally, he turned to Kirsty and let out an exasperated sigh: ‘Typical. We get one bloody peaceful afternoon and they decide to repair the internet or whatever. What the hell are we going to watch, read or play?

Short Story: “Trance” By C. A. Brown

The secret to going into a trance is the music. Sure, people might try to sell you speed-reader guff about reading every other line or only reading books that use New Standard Narration. But, the secret to becoming one with your paperback (and, yes, hardbacks are for poseurs) is choosing the right music. Of course, as the oldies keep telling us, this used to be much easier before the Great Flare of ’75 fried every piece of silicon to a crisp.

But, if you can dig up a good X-Ray plate roentgenizdat record from one of the old 20th Century Soviet Republics, then you can squeeze in an extra hundred words a minute. The trick is choosing something fast enough and listening to it often enough that your conscious mind blocks it out as background noise. Once this happens, your subconscious mind treats the music as a metronome. You start reading in time with it and it’s like souping up your brain with nitro fuel.

And, talking of souping up your brain, don’t let the powder peddlers fool you. You’ll find at least one of them in any library and they’ve got their sales patter down to a fine art. Don’t fall for it.

Best case scenario, you’ll end up with a pouch of vintage spine dust culled from the parts of the library no-one visits. Worst case scenario, you’ll be able to read nine hundred words a minute until you burn out. This might sound good on paper, but you won’t remember a single word of it. Which kind of defeats the point.

Of course, as essential as good music is to trancing out and losing yourself in a paperback, you’ve gotta be careful. Because libraries never fully went over to silicon chips, they were one of the few parts of the world that didn’t get royally fractured when the solar flare hit.

As such, they’re almost as bad as churches when it comes to traditions. Even second-generation librarians, born in carbolic-smelling wards shrouded in the inky darkness of a thousand flare-fried electric lanterns, have an eerie obsession with silence.

Apparently, before the flare, there were these things called ear-buds that you could use as a cloaking device for your music. They’re even mentioned outside of the science fiction section. An oldie even told me about them once. Claimed that he still had some in a wooden box somewhere, but that they wouldn’t fit into the dial on his phonograph.

Last I heard, he tried to sell them to a museum and was never seen again. I like to think he made millions and moved to some island somewhere, but the museum gremlins probably just put him in a glass case. Seriously, those guys make librarians look positively normal by comparison.

But, I digress. The secret to sneaking your music into a library is to go for a good portable phonograph. The kind that breaks apart like a sniper rifle. Once you’ve got one of these, then take your book to the corner nearest the boiler. Every library has one.

Apparently some of the trendier ones use the old books as fuel, something to do with ideological differences apparently. Anyway, a good boiler is a noisy, clanking thing that instils a deep atavistic fear in even the greenest of newbie librarians.

If you get there early enough, then you can stake out a corner, assemble your phonograph, lean into the trumpet and ride the paper highway at one hundred miles an hour. It’s like nothing else. Not only do you reach the point where you stop seeing words and just start thinking in pictures instead twice as quickly but, when you’ve gotta stop and wind-up the clockwork again, there’s usually someone interesting there too.

Someone who is reading a paperback with good cover art. Someone who spends more time on the page than in the world. Someone whose brain is like the computers that the ancients kept writing about all the time. If you’re lucky, you can pick up a few interesting Dewey Decimal numbers from them that you can pencil down and use to get into some of the better reading nooks in town.

Of course, you’ll sometimes get a hipster dweeb who will quote an ISBN number from memory, like they’ve spent so much time reading about life before the Flare that they still believe that things like databases actually exist.

But, most of the time, you’ll find interesting people near the boiler. The best one was this lady with woad blue hair who told me about this book called “Neuromancer”. I’ve never been able to find it anywhere, so I had to take her word for it.

Apparently, this was a book written before the Flare about people who use silicon machines to go into something like a reading trance. They called it “virtual reality” or something like that. Some things, I guess, are timeless.

Short Story: “Wave” By C. A. Brown

It had started at the car boot sale where Jack had spotted a box of old VHS tapes going cheap for a fiver. Rachel hadn’t planned to go along, but Roy and Sue were still on holiday and anything seemed better than sitting in her rented room, staring at a blank screen and wondering what the hell she was going to write her dissertation proposal about. There were two days left on the deadline and, so far, the only thing she’d been able to come up with was a recycle bin filled with stupid questions.

When they’d arrived, she’d turned to Jack and said: ‘I haven’t been to one of these in bloody ages.‘ Followed shortly by ‘Oh my god, is that a tube of POGs? No way!‘ Since the next student loan instalment didn’t arrive for three days, she knew that she’d have to ration herself. Even so, the translucent green tube of cardboard discs was only 25p. It even included a couple of gnarly-looking slammers too. As she handed over the coins, she told herself that the POGs would be worth hundreds in another decade’s time.

I knew we should have kept hold of that shopping trolley.‘ Jack grinned as he leaned against a tree and rolled a cigarette. Rachel put her bulging carrier bag down on the ground and leaned next to him. His lighter clicked. They stood in silence for a minute, until Rachel stared up at the grey sky and said: ‘Looks like it’s going to rain. We should probably head back.’

You’ve never been to one of these things before, have you?‘ Jack exhaled and flashed her another grin. She raised an eyebrow. He continued: ‘The rain is half the fun. Since everyone wants to get out of it, the prices usually go down quickly. It’s nature’s clearance sale.

For a second, Rachel had looked puzzled. Then the heavens opened. Under the shelter of the tree, she watched everyone begin to scatter. As she knotted the handles of her bag, Jack finished his roll-up and gestured towards the cars. ‘We’ve got maybe ten minutes until they leave. Let’s make it count.

When they stopped in front of a grimy grey Astra with an old guy in an even older trenchcoat standing next to it, Jack had pointed at a cardboard box. Rachel leaned over and stared at it. It was full of old video tapes. They were only a fiver. How could she refuse?

After they’d got back to the flat and changed into dry clothes, they sat around drinking coffee in the lounge for a few minutes until Rachel spotted the old video player below the TV. It had come with the flat. Jack smiled at her: ‘I’d always wondered if it actually works. Guess it’s time to find out.

So that’s why you spotted the videos.‘ Rachel could have been angry at him. After all, she was the one who had paid a fiver. She’d thought about taking the tapes home at the end of term and using them for quirky Christmas presents. She didn’t realise that Jack had an ulterior motive. Still, she was too curious to really feel angry.

Kneeling next to the damp cardboard box, she found the newest-looking tape. It was Terry Gilliam’s 1998 adaptation of “Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas”. And, to both of their surprise, the chunky tape not only worked – but the machine didn’t even think about chewing it up.

About halfway through the film, there was a scene where the stoned journalist sat at a typewriter in a dingy 1970s hotel room and gave this melancholy speech about the sixties. About how everything had seemed to be going well back then. How it seemed like the world could only get better. Of course, he lamented, it hadn’t lasted. The ’70s had shown up and hippies had gone out of fashion.

Oh my god, it’s just like the 1990s‘ Rachel muttered. Jack raised an eyebrow. She continued: ‘Think about it, everything was… brighter… in the ’90s. Everything was so cheerful back then. Surely you remember how… optimistic… it was. And then it all went to hell. Just like in the movie. It’s ahead of it’s time.

Jack had just looked puzzled. Rachel shrugged and walked into the kitchen to get a packet of crisps. They crunched through them in silence. When the credits rolled, Rachel pressed the rewind button. As the VCR rumbled and chuntered like a freight train, she said: ‘Another tape?

Nothing better to do.‘ Jack shrugged as he searched the kitchen for a can of cider. Rachel’s eyes settled on a blank tape. Holding it up, she laughed and said: ‘Mystery tape?

You know, more than one horror movie has started with something like that.‘ Jack cracked open a can and proffered one to Rachel. Sitting back, he said: ‘If a ghost pops out of the screen to snatch our souls, I’m telling her that it was your fault.

Deal.‘ Rachel laughed as she put the tape into the machine. After a few seconds of static, an old BBC logo had appeared on the TV before a mid-1990s episode of “Lois & Clark” began. There were two episodes on the tape. By the end, Rachel just gawped at the screen. Jack finished his second can of cider and began rolling another cigarette.

Beside him, Rachel said: ‘Oh my god! Not only did this predict the ridiculous modern obsession with the superhero genre, but it predicted so much more too! That episode where the re-animated Nazis march through the streets of Metropolis and no-one sees it coming until it’s too late. It’s just like that scary thing in America last year.

Barely pausing for breath, she continued: ‘Then there was that other episode where that supervillain runs for president and he parrots Trump’s slogan about making America great. And, Lois and Clark make sarcastic comments about it. It’s a really topical joke…. that was made over twenty years ago.

Jack just looked at her blankly: ‘It’s a stupid superhero rom-com. Ninety minutes of my life I’ll never get back. Please tell me we’re picking a horror movie next.

Smiling, Rachel got to her feet. ‘There are a couple in there. You’ll have to start without me though. I’ve finally thought of an idea for my dissertation proposal!

How To Make Metafiction Work – A Ramble

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Usually, I’m both mildly cynical about metafiction (eg: stories about stories, movies about movies, songs about music etc..) and yet absolutely fascinated by it at the same time. But, the afternoon before writing this article, I happened to rediscover two things that reminded me of how to use metafiction well.

The surprising thing was that these two things would probably be considered to be as “low brow” as you can get, and yet they are brilliant examples of metafiction. I am, of course talking about “Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back” and NOFX’s “War On Errorism” album.

If you’ve never heard of “Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back”, it’s a “shock value” comedy film from 2001 about two immature stoners who travel to Hollywood in order to stop a movie being made about them.

Although some elements of “Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back” caused controversy (eg: about whether the film promotes or satirises the prejudiced attitudes expressed by several characters), the film’s metafictional jokes about Hollywood work really well. This is because they aren’t affectionate in-jokes that require you to be a member of the film industry. Hollywood isn’t romanticised, but mercilessly ridiculed at every opportunity.

Even if this was a film about the publishing industry, fashion, sports etc… these types of metafictional jokes would still work. The metafictional humour about Hollywood is funny, but it isn’t an integral element of the film and it certainly doesn’t exclude anyone who doesn’t live in Hollywood and/or work in the film industry.

Likewise, if you’ve never heard of it, NOFX’s “War On Errorism” album is a punk album from 2003. Although the album is mostly meant to be a protest album about George W. Bush, there are a few songs about the punk genre and it’s fans. The songs in question are “The Separation Of Church And Skate”, “We Got Two Jealous Agains”, “Mattersville”, “Medio-Core” and “13 Stitches”.

Although I really love a few American punk bands from the 1980s-2000s, a lot of the musical references in these songs went completely over my head when I heard them for the first time. Yet, “We Got Two Jealous Agains” is one of my favourite songs on the album. Why? Because, quite simply, it rocks. The music is loud and fast, and the lyrics are written in a way that flows really well. Even though I initially had to do a bit of research to understand what the song was about, the lyrics [edit: which mostly consist of a list of punk album titles] still accompany the music really well.

Even if the lyrics of “We Got Two Jealous Agains” were replaced with similar-sounding lyrics about, say, trainspotting or chess or something – it would still be an absolutely brilliant song – for the simple reason that it sounds great.

The thing that “The War On Errorism” and “Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back” have in common is that they’re funny and/or energetic things that just happen to include metafiction. Metafiction is a major part of both things, but they also accompany it with humour or energetic music, so that there’s something else for people who don’t get the cultural references.

Both things don’t fall into the trap of worshipping themselves or assuming that the audience have insider knowledge. In “Jay And Silent Bob”, a lot of the commentary about Hollywood is more understandable because the main characters are ‘outsiders’ to the film industry. Likewise, most of the “meta” songs in “The War On Errorism” are about the lead singer’s experience of being a fan of punk music, rather than about the fact that he’s in a punk band.

So, yes, metafiction works best when it doesn’t snobbishly assume that the audience have extensive experience of the film, music, publishing, comics etc.. industry.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂