Metafiction I Oxford Open Learning


What Exactly Is Meta-Storytelling? With A Little Help From… Deadpool?

Metafiction sounds strange, doesn’t it? And it is. While it’s possible you may have heard of it, you probably have no idea what it actually is. That being said, it’s highly likely you’ve either watched or read something that is metafiction.

To be ‘meta’ is to be self-referential. In the case of fiction, it simply means to refer to the conventions of its genre. Metafiction is an added layer to a piece of fiction that brings attention to the fact that it is fiction. To put it really simply, it’s a story within a story that stares right into the camera and gives the audience a wink.

However, there’s a little bit more to it than that. It’s a bit of an elastic concept, which blurs the lines between fiction and reality, and has been used by writers to either take their stories into new directions, bend the rules and ask questions of storytelling, or to poke fun at the ‘tropes’ of their chosen genre. Be that with breaking the fourth wall (the idea that in any film the camera sees three walls and that the screen is the fourth), characters being aware that they are in a piece of fiction, unreliable narrators, and plenty more.

It’s easy to say that it’s a relatively recent thing, but if you look hard enough you’ll find examples dating way back. It’s definitely more common now, because we have more access to fiction than ever before. With so much choice when it comes to books, TV, films and gaming, that’s a lot of stories being told, and a lot of overlap and repetition in themes or tropes. There comes a point when some authors adopt metafiction to build on these stories and push the boundaries of fiction—by bringing the audience in on the fun. Still with me? Good. Because this is where it starts to wrinkle your brain.

How Do You Spot Metafiction?

Metafictional awareness is something to be conscious of on your second visit to whatever story it is you’re enjoying. If you go looking for it on your first time reading or watching, you’ll likely only spoil your experience. But if something jumps out at you, you’ll no doubt feel clever and tell anyone who missed it all about it afterwards. Metafiction pops up in a few ways, but there’s no better way to showcase them all other than through the king of metafiction himself: Deadpool. Marvel’s Merc-With-A-Mouth has been a staple character for Marvel since 1991. This chaotic antihero and “friend” of the X-Men is blessed with regenerative powers, skewed morals, a dark sense of humour, and the awareness that he is a fictional character. He’s the embodiment of metafiction and plays the role brilliantly. Here’s how he highlights the elements of it:

Self-awareness: His awareness of being a fictional character is a big part of who he is. Whenever he appears there’s likely to be a comment acknowledging the fact or referencing some other piece of fiction that nobody in that world should know about.

Breaking the fourth wall: Deadpool’s signature move, there will be constant panels of him breaking the fourth wall and looking to you, the reader, to drop some comment or joke about the story, or some sarcastic comparison to another piece of fiction. He’s even been known to quite literally take it further, as he’s broken the confines of comic panels to jump across the page from one scene to another.

Subversion of Expectations: In one of his most memorable and admittedly controversial stories, Deadpool’s self-awareness took him to new heights. Aware of his made-up nature, Deadpool decides to flip the script and embarks upon a metafictional quest of rebelling against his creators by attempting to kill every hero in the Marvel Universe. The title of that run? Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe. And it’s great.

Commentary on storytelling: His comments extend beyond throwaway references. He’s often been known to call out cliched tropes developing in stories, question the logic of the plot, and even point out plot holes and inconsistencies that can pop up in comics that have been running for years and years.

Other, More Subtle Examples

Stranger Than Fiction is a film in which Will Ferrell plays IRS agent Harold Crick whose life is turned upside down when he starts hearing a voice narrating his life. As he struggles to come to terms with it, he soon discovers that he’s a character in a novel. Without delving into spoilers, the film’s conclusion does a great job of blurring the lines between fiction and the real world; drawing up questions about free will and fate through its breaking of the fourth wall. It’s well worth checking out.

Inception, a big blockbuster sci-fi action-thriller, is another great example. Christopher Nolan’s concept of intruding on people’s dreams to influence their decisions quite literally plays with the layers of storytelling through the idea of layers within dreams. Dreams are manipulated for the sake of extracting information—is that not so dissimilar from stories? But its greatest metafictional feature is its masterstroke of an ending, which breaks the fourth wall in the most subtle of ways and poses a question to the viewer: is any of this real?

It would be ideal to mention a few books here as well, particularly those with unreliable narrators, but that would unfortunately spoil the twists of discovering their deception. But literary examples that use metafiction in other ways are Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, which features Death himself as a narrator, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, which plays with the concept of linearity and features a self-insert of Vonnegut himself, and Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, which has its narrator directly address the reader.

By now, you should be a little more clued up on the concept of metafiction. If you’re still scratching your head, well wouldn’t that be ironic, as the purpose of a post like this is to inform you. Now either I’ve done a terrible job of explaining things, or I’ve deliberately misled you to break the expectations of this kind of text. I’ll leave that up to you.


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