ABC’s of Fiction Writing: M is for Metafiction

Posted by on Mar 14, 2015 in Uncategorized | 3 comments

LQheadshotsmallLet’s talk about metafiction. The term “metafiction” was coined in 1970 to refer to works where the construction of the narrative is part of the narrative itself.  But metafiction arguably began during the Dadaist movement of the early 20th century with practitioners like Felipe Alfau, whose absurdist works echoed the revolt against reason embraced by visual artists. Seriously. If you were sitting right here next to me, first of all, I would totally share my ravioli with you. Secondly, I’d talk exactly like this.

Have you read Felipe Alfau? You should. Everyone should. In Alfau’s 1936 book Locos: A Comedy of Gestures, a group of characters wanders in and out of stories, changes roles, talks back to the narrator. At one point, the narrator writes the first line of a story, then excuses himself to answer the door. The character from his story takes over to tell his own story of leaving the text to meet a woman:

“It was, after all, my first escape into reality and I felt a bit shy… She was a real
being and I was only a character. Had I stolen into her world
of reality, or had she entered into my world of fancy? . . . Who would be the
stronger: she as a real being or I as a character?”

If you want to go online and get it right now, I’ll wait. You won’t regret it.

In If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino’s metafiction takes a different route, denying the structure of the narrative, beginning the story over and over, but creating a story arc from these fractured, loosely-related fragments. Robert Coover steps outside the story by giving well-known fictional characters lives outside their familiar stories, all the while acknowledging the story in which those characters originally appear. In Bartleby & Co., Enrique Vila-Matas eschews the novel form altogether, preferring to tell his story entirely in footnotes.

The point is that “metafiction” isn’t any one thing or any one style. The only “rule” is that the narrative is its own subject. Metafiction allows the author to be above the story – to look at it from outside. By acknowledging the fiction, the author steps into the realm of fantasy without having to create an entirely new world.

Who’s talking to you in this article? Lise Quintana the author? Lise Quintana, a fictional construct of the author? Or could it be someone else entirely? When you think about fiction as a conversation between the author and the reader, metafiction is a little flirtier, a little more playful. The author/tease lets the reader/victim believe something, then flips things around. The reader ends up on a chase looking for the “real” story and looking back to reconstruct what they thought they understood about the narrative. Fun for the reader, fun for the author, because when you turn things around, you can do things like point out that on the back of the letter O, there’s a pointy thing that keeps it from falling down. You can only see it from the back, though.

The real value of metafiction is what it can teach you about writing other kinds of fiction. Understanding metafiction at the craft level means being able to work within the differences between author, narrator, and character.  You are a real person, and when you create a narrator for a piece of fiction, it’s easiest to create a narrator who is identical to you with all your knowledge, quirks and habits. For metafiction to work, your narrator alter ego needs to take that crucial step: acknowledge their own fictionality.

Say it with me. “I am making this up. I am fictional.”

Being able to fully realize a character – someone with a history, with scars and odors and tics – and letting that fullness of being inform a character’s actions without having to be explained or justified is the essence of great writing, whether your characters admit they’re fictional or just play their story straight.

Lise Quintana is the developer of the Lithomobilus ereader platform and head of Zoetic Press. Her fiction can be found at Drunk Monkeys, Red Fez, SLAB, Extract(s) and other discerning journals. She’s an alumni of the Antioch LA MFA program and dreams of owning a wagon pulled by a goat and driven by a monkey. Because who doesn’t dream of that?


  1. Hi Lise – I read your article and must admit we are about as far apart in philosophies and — I’m guessing from your photo — lifestyles as two women can be but…. from the sparkle of wisdom in your eyes, I’d love to share a cup of tea with you and your wonderful scotty pup. My husband and I were privileged to share our home with a rescue scotty for about 12 years and it just wasn’t long enough. Anyway – I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article and will explore metafiction further. I’ve always been curious about the Dadaists so perhaps I will check out Alfau on the next rainy afternoon that comes along. Oh, and – love the hair and tats. Quite attractive. “B”

  2. B,
    In the words of Robert Louis Stevenson, “The world’s so full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.” I have to admit that in terms of philosophy, I’m often in the minority. On the other hand, in terms of loving to hang around with bright, engaged writers – I love nothing better. I don’t know if you’re planning to be at AWP this year, but I’m going to be there with Zoetic Press and would love to meet up and talk over tea. Sadly, Dalziel, the handsome guy in the picture, won’t be there. It’s just as well – he’d charm everyone in the place and everyone would be sad because nobody would be attending their panels and talks.

  3. Ha ha — hello to Dalziel. Sadly, I will not be wandering the aisles or joining the panels at AWP this year. I will be thinking of you though. Enjoy! I’m hoping to attend when AWP comes back east to Wash DC – next year? I’ll take a rain check on that tea and maybe turn it into something a little stronger 😉

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