Novel readers know—when they read fiction—that stories are fabrications usually originating in the writer’s imagination but, on some unconscious level, the readers still perceive fiction to be true. Knowing this, writers intentionally disguise the make-believe factors in their stories. This “great pretend” is an amiable deception. Writers blur the lines of reality because—for the most part—that is what readers want. In contrast metafiction is a method of storytelling that does not permit the reader to sink into that unconscious lie. By interjecting narratorial interruptions, the reader is kept cognizant that what they are reading is fiction and make-believe. This experience can be disconcerting for the reader because the author breaks the rules of traditional storytelling and actively engages the reader. When Judith Viorst uses metafiction in her middle-grade novel Lulu Walks the Dog she also breaks the illusion of make-believe in three ways: narratorial interruptions, inviting reader participation, and confronting reader’s suspension of disbelief. Despite breaking the above rules of storytelling, Viorst still manages to give the reader a sense of security by reminding the reader the narrator is in charge of the story.
On the first two pages Viorst goes into exaggerated detail explaining how Fleischman (secondary character) got his name. Then a horizontal line cuts the double page spread of exposition, and the following is written in a larger and playful font. “Got it? No? Well, too bad if you don’t. I’m busy, and it’s time to tell my story” (4).
This vertical line and different font makes the narratorial interruption obvious; yet, the quoted statement clearly exposes the “great pretend.” This is make-believe. This is a story. And more importantly, this is the narrator’s story. By using metafiction, Voirst is able to interrupt the story to reveal these two facts. The truth about the make-believe and the story’s ownership gives the author authority and power to weave a story by breaking the rules.
As Lulu’s story unfolds in Lulu Walks the Dog, Viorst does something unusual. On page 49 Viorst uses metafiction to make the reader an active participant. Viorst knows the reader is pondering one important question since the story started. In traditional storytelling this important question is part of the “great pretend,” the deception. The reader’s curiosity about what does the protagonist want keeps them curious, makes them turn the page, and the writer covertly leads the reader on. Not in this story. Through the use of metafiction, the question is acknowledged blatantly, and the narrator’s response is unexpected and funny. What does Lucy want so badly she is willing to walk three strange dogs? The narrator’s answer shocks the reader: “”I don’t feel like discussing that right now” (49). Metafiction allows Viorst to engage the reader directly and then surprise them by her overt refusal to answer the question.
In addition, Voirst purposely and openly withholds information that an author would normally reveal to maintain the flow of a story. The narrator tells us Fleishman plays a number of different instruments, including a gusli. Metafiction allows Voirst to interrupt the story to directly engage the reader by answering their obvious question regarding a gusli. “The what? The WHAT?” (129). Having addressed the question Viorst repeats the above phrase, “I don’t really feel like discussing that right now” (129). Metafiction allows this active interaction between the reader and the narrator (writer), but this open conversation keeps the reader cognizant that the story is make-believe.
Metafiction also allows Viorst to address the reader’s suspension of disbelief. On page 110 the narrator explains a highly unlikely event. “And if you find that hard to believe when I tell you Brutus [dog] tied up Lulu on purpose, remember who’s in charge of this story—me.” Voirst openly confronts the unbelievable plot point, but in this case the reader’s suspension of disbelief becomes inconsequential. This writer isn’t going to play the “great pretend.” Again Viorst re-iterates that this is a story—the narrator’s story, and he/she’s in charge. This fact is important. The reader can sense many things on an unconscious level. Rules have been broken. But metafiction allows Viorst to provide a measure of security for the reader. Yes, this story is make-believe, and the narrator may have an attitude, and perhaps this plot point is a tad unbelievable, but this story has somebody in ‘charge’—the narrator. Despite the craziness, the reader feels a sense of security in that fact.
In the last chapter of Lulu Walks the Dog, “Overtime,” the narrator, finally, shares that Lulu wants to buy a seat on a spaceship. Voirst again confronts the reader’s disbelief by using metafiction. “Impossible? What do you mean impossible? Have you forgotten who is writing this story?” (143). The obvious answer is how could the reader forget. Viorst uses metafiction to keep that fact front and center inside the their mind. She also confronts their disbelief, and then reminds them that the narrator is charge, providing a sub-conscience sense of security.
Using metafiction breaks the illusions of make-believe and invites the reader to become an engaged and active participant in the story. Viorst shows that metafiction offers the author many ways to reject the rules of traditional storytelling. In addition, she demonstrates that a writer can write fiction that is about fiction and still maintain a sense of authority that will not alienate the reader even when their suspension of disbelief is broken.
Writing fiction under normal circumstances is hard. Writing metafiction is without a doubt even harder. Viorst shows us in Lulu Walks the Dog, that it can be done, and it is well worth the effort. To be certain, metafiction can be an invaluable tool in the writer’s tool box, especially when the author wants to interact with the reader and develop an unusual story.