Integrating Metafiction, or Telling Tales

People generally like stories. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be reading your work or playing in your games, would they? The fiction section wouldn’t be so large, there wouldn’t be a whole mess of legends that the teachers in elementary and middle school insist on walking you through, and the entertainment industry wouldn’t be the juggernaut that it is now. But for all this fiction in our world, you see awfully little metafiction, or fiction within the fiction, unless its role (whether that’s clues, foreshadowing, building up a character, or bookbaiting) is extremely blatant. And at that point, it stops looking like part of an organic world and starts looking like it’s just there because the function was needed. How do we keep the metafiction grounded in its world?

For one thing, you’ll want to know what the metafiction’s in-world purpose actually is. There’s a lot of room for variation there, even among things that operate as a body of literature, but it’s likely to come back to entertainment. Most began as ways to entertain people, one way or another—even Greek mythology includes a decent body of stories in which the “And this is why X is the case” is at best an afterthought and at worst just plain not there. Fairy tales may look like ways to teach children moral lessons, but while the medium was co-opted for that purpose, it wasn’t how it started out. Historic ballads—well, you’ll note that they only sing about the things that make good stories.

Then think about things you can do with it that aren’t just clues, foreshadowing, building up a character, or giving yourself an opportunity to write a prequel/run a followup game/get people to bribe you to tell them what the story everyone’s talking about actually is. I’m personally rather fond of the one-two punch of using them to characterize both a culture and a character; the fact that the culture was responsible for the story says a thing or two about them, and then the character’s opinions of it, and the reasons why she has that opinion, say a thing or two about her. Another fun use is to help give the world its own range of idioms and jargon—analogizing between situations and stories, naming other things for what they look like, even acquiring vocabulary from made-up words and phrases. (If you don’t believe me, look up the origins of the word “robot”. The language grows faster than you might think.) And of course, there’s good old emulation, there’s people learning lessons from the stories (possibly the wrong ones), there’s seeing if this was one of those stories that the scholars argue over the points of….

Don’t be too blatant about the metafiction’s primary purpose. If you know perfectly well that you’re telling this story because the main characters’ story is supposed to mirror it, that’s fine, but don’t give it too big a one-to-one correspondence. Change the supporting cast, change the characters themselves, remove landmarks and add new ones (time does that, after all)—heck, do the character casting exercise on the metafiction, then if everyone maps perfectly, find a way to change the characters so that it’s a lot grayer. Trust me, the people who want to puzzle it out will thank you for it. If you’re doing storybait—give it another purpose, please.

Let the metafiction be metafiction. This is a particular problem with ancient legends and their ilk; if it’s worth showing up in the narrative, half the time it’s not only true in the main, but true in every last blessed detail, and the only reason for it to be a story is that the creator thinks that’s going to do a better job of withstanding the tests of time. (Which, yes, might be true as far as keeping the story alive is concerned, but there are many ways the story can, should and will change in the telling. More on this later.) It doesn’t need to be factually true, it doesn’t need to be accurate, it can just be a story.

Don’t tell the whole story at the first opportunity. I know storybaiters aren’t going to do that anyway, since telling the story later is half the point, but many of the other uses of the stories lead to trouble with that. You might stick a comparison between an event in the fiction and one outside here, someone emulating a character there, someone named after another character and a few signs of how that affects them socially over on this end. Heck, some stories only show up as titles. (In those cases, they’re usually pretty descriptive titles, or the story’s known by its description, like “The one about the two-headed demon and the figurehead maker.”) Going through the story word for word can lead to pacing problems in books, and in games—well, if you think people had problems with boxed-text descriptions, imagine how they’re going to react to this.

I hope one day to reach the point where I can say I never metafiction I didn’t like. We’re not there yet, but these tips will probably help.

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