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Metafictional Device

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Well, isn't that handy?

Normally, it would just be Paratext, or a basic building block of the fiction. But somehow, something used to construct the work — the font of the text, or the formatting, a cute yellow thought/narration box or a dialogue balloon, quirks of spelling, the edge of the filmstrip — is incorporated into the text, where the characters can interact with it. When this happens, that item becomes a Metafictional Device.

Sometimes this involves Breaking the Fourth Wall; other times, it doesn't occur to anyone to wonder why that pretty thought balloon is visible, and it becomes more of a Strange Loop or Painting the Medium.

See Author Powers. Ninja Prop is combining that with Chekhov's Gun. Left the Background Music On, Frame Break and Harsh Word Impact are related.


    open/close all folders 

  • This advertisement for GEICO shows that "words really can hurt you".

    Anime and Manga 
  • Invoked in one Doraemon chapter where Doraemon produces a potion that can solidify the words/speech of the one who drinks it. Nobita uses one of his solidified words to retrieve Shizuka's ball that is stuck on a tree, but this becomes a problem when his father (who also drank the potion) starts sneezing and fills the house with hardened sneeze sound effects.
  • Kill la Kill: When Nui Harime confronts Ryuko for the first time, she makes a show of literally Leaning on the Fourth Wall by leaning against the big red Boss Subtitles that accompany major characters when they're introduced.
  • One scene in Negima! Magister Negi Magi features a speech bubble impaling Chisame.
  • A few episodes of the Pok√©mon: The Series anime had Team Rocket interacting with the split screen; one time Jessie grabbed the divider and started hitting James with it.
  • These start popping up in Anime-Gataris once the story takes a more surreal turn.

    Comic Books 
  • Deadpool:
    [Narration]: Do I still think in those little yellow boxes?
    Deadpool: I'm good.
    [Narration]: Ooh, I missed you, little yellow boxes! What fun we shall have together!
  • Grant Morrison is a big fan of these: Final Crisis has the Miracle Machine, which is a literal Deus ex Machina; the Monitorship from The Multiversity, Qwewq from Seven Soldiers and that's not even getting started in Flex Mentallo.
  • Partway through The Unbelievable Gwenpool, Gwen Poole, who supposedly was born in the real world but somehow traveled into the Marvel universe, realizes she can interact with the medium and control it, in addition to having knowledge of everyone's secret identities from reading comics. Her powers include entering the gutter space, breaking panel walls, muffling noises by grabbing the sound effects, and traveling through time and space by moving between panels.
    • At one point when she's experimenting with her powers, she creates a caption box with a continuous stream of thoughts and it grows so large it pushes her through a window.

    Comic Strips 
  • The Tank McNamara strips for the week of July 12-17, 2010, show a pitcher who is able to read the thought balloons of the batter at the plate. The batter is concerned about being traded to another team as the baseball trading deadline approaches. Based on the batter's concerns that he can read, the pitcher, whose team is leading by eight runs late in the game, "grooves" one to the batter to allow him to get a home run. In the Saturday strip, the catcher comes out to the mound. The pitcher assumes that he's in trouble for allowing the home run and begins his explanation with how he's heard that the batter was about to be traded. The catcher then tells the pitcher how freaked out he is because he [the catcher] was able to read the batter's thought balloons. Although, oddly enough, no one says anything about being able to read the pitcher's thought balloons.
  • In Peanuts strips of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Snoopy often did this with Woodstock. For example:
    Snoopy: [after punching three holes into Woodstock's speech balloon] Woodstock hates it when I punch holes in his argument.
    • The music from Schroeder's piano also counts. Besides Snoopy, and sometimes Woodstock, interacting with the musical score, a Sunday strip from 1987 has Lucy grabbing the music and wadding it up as if it were printed on paper. After Schroeder untangles the score and puts it back over his piano:
      Charlie Brown: It's none of my business, but to me your music sounds sort of wrinkled.
  • The characters in this strip of FoxTrot combine this with [Trope Name] as they physically interact with their speech bubbles.

    Fan Works 

    Films — Animation 
  • Many of the Winnie the Pooh movies use the text in the book from which the stories are being told as a metafictional device. It's used so much that it's never really a surprise, but, for example, in one of the movies the text is used as a ladder that lets the characters escape from a pit, and in an older one it's used as a platform to get Tigger out of a tall tree.
  • At the end of The Thief and the Cobbler, the Thief steals the letters in "The End" and the film reel and runs off.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In Austin Powers in Goldmember, Austin is reading the subtitles to understand what a Japanese man is saying, and is offended when the man says "Please eat some shit". It turns out that something was blocking the subtitle, so Foxy Cleopatra moves it out of the way to show that what he said was "Please eat some shitake [sic.] mushrooms".

  • Thursday Next: The footnoterphone, and a number of other things.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Whenever one of the characters on Sesame Street happens to notice the words, letters, and numbers materializing above his head while he talks.
  • Similarly, in The Electric Company (1971), even though Spider-Man's dialog is shown onscreen rather than spoken, the other characters know what he is saying.
  • Sometimes happens during the show openings in Green Acres. The credits for the episode's writers, director, and executive producer have been known to surrealistically appear on things like bath towels, newspaper headlines, breakfast items, and chicken eggs. The characters sometimes notice this and comment on it. On other occasions, the credits flash onto the screen in typical fashion — except that the characters see them in-universe and remark on it.

    Video Games 
  • In all of the Metal Gear games; if an enemy soldier discoveres where you are, an exclamation point appears over his head for a quick instant. In some of the games, if you shoot the exclamation point, it knocks him out.
  • In the video game Comix Zone, Sketch, trapped in his own comic book, can tear out part of the pages to use them as a paper airplane One-Hit KO.
  • In Undertale, there's a segment where Mettaton introduces you to his minigame in which you have to defuse seemingly regular objects that turned out to be bombs. As he's finished explaining that everything around you is a bomb, he then proceeds to say "EVEN MY WORDS ARE...", after which these words promptly fall out of the dialogue box onto the game screen proper and explode.
    • Possibly the most striking example of this in the game is when Asgore destroys the MERCY button at the beginning of his fight. Flowey physically destroying the save file dialogue box at the beginning of his fight also counts, as well as Asriel blowing away all the buttons except for SAVE in his. This trope also occurs in the True Lab, at two separate occasions, once when a Save Point morphs into an Eldritch Abomination upon interaction, and once when the generic exclamation point above the main character's head (that is generally used before random encounters) morphs into another Freak Lab Accident.
    • On the Genocide route, this trope is most notably prominent in the fight with Sans, where, after a certain point, Sans will start attacking you within the menus, given that your cursor used in the menus is actually your soul, which is the target of his attacks anyway. This trope also comes into play at the end of the fight, when you have use your soul to move the bullet board itself in order to be able to get your soul to the FIGHT button and finish Sans off.
  • In Mass Effect 3, Commander Shepard goes on a geth-related mission where they are transported into a world entirely built in computer code. They physically walk on the code and shoot off the pieces of bad code which represent virus-riddled geth. When Shepard asks about this, Legion responds that the geth are providing their mind with something it can comprehend while they interact with the Geth's system.
  • The Flash platformer Humbug and sequels has Villain Protagonist Ziggy Fraud doing things like using information text and background objects as platforms, continuing to move while the game is paused, and so on. According to Ziggy "It's not cheating, just deliberate misunderstanding of physics."
  • Vitamin Connection: In the second stage intro, when Mrs. Sable gets sick right after arriving at the dojo, she thinks about the vitamin pill, then the thought bubble poofs away and she proceeds to use it.

    Web Animation 
  • When stuck in The Adventurous Adventures of One Direction 2, Niall has an Idea Bulb, which he then literally uses to burn the leeches off himself and Zayn.
  • Happens at least twice in There she is!! In episode 1 Nabi doesn't understand why Doki is looking at him so intently, until he sees the heart symbols emanating from her, and is horrified (why? Watch the animation). Love hearts in their world also have physical (and sometimes painful) presence. In Episode 2 Doki's thought bubble is pushed out of the way by a friend as she comes into shot.

  • Brawl in the Family: This comic shows Mario in a Toad House from Super Mario Bros. 3, where the Toad, who speaks via a text box, says, "Pick a box. Its contents will help you on your way." Instead of selecting a treasure chest/"box", Mario points to said text box. The last panel has him throwing letters from the text box at goombas and carrying the rest.
  • The Order of the Stick:
    • In one strip, a mystic theurge throws a protagonist character out through the edge of the panel.
    • Lien The Paladin explains that a person is Obviously Evil because he has a distinctive speech pattern; i.e., the dialogue balloon is black and the text is red. Lampshaded when the main characters tell her she doesn't have to pretend to lack Medium Awareness.
  • Sword and Sarcasm: It's common knowledge that mysterious invisible beings called the Choral Djinn secretly chronicle all the events of our lives. Part of Herbert's curse is that he and anyone standing near him can hear them. That is, they can hear the comic's caption boxes.
  • 1/0:
    • Ghanny at one point contemplates whether they could use the contents of their speech balloons as tools or weapons. Junior is all in favor of the weapons part, but Tailsteak discourages the idea.
    • Used again when they're wondering about Tailsteak's nationality, noting he must not be American because Ghanny said "colour", with a u.
  • Roommates:
    • There is the vine/root border in the Such Stuff Dreams Are Made On arc which is a flourish indicating "dreams". Until it attacks that is. Later revealed that they are actually part of the Shadow Child's "body". This is Ninja Prop with an actual ninja.
    • Also, Censor Boxes seem to be real things in the 'verse and the characters can interact with them.
    • One of those characters climbed up a panel to fix his own speech bubble icon once, so it's reasonable to assume that all comic convention stuff is actually "real" for them to one degree or another.
  • Zero Percent Discount: In this strip, a character grouses about being hungry, gets an Idea Bulb when he realizes how to get something to eat — and then grabs and eats the bulb itself.
  • MS Paint Adventures:
    • Problem Sleuth: The quickest way to deal with an enemy who has a huge stack of Life Meters is to chop through the Life Meters themselves.
    • Homestuck:
      • Characters store items in video game-esque inventory systems called silladexes, which are represented in the comic as sets of inventory cards in which the stored items are displayed. The comic is very ambiguous about the degree to which these displays physically exist; for the most part, they're depicted as metafictional icons overlaid "on top" of the comic itself, but they're also often interacted with directly by people, such as by characters ejecting items from them as combat projectiles, Sollux slicing one of his cards in half with his throwing stars, or Gamzee retrieving an item by physically reaching into his silladex's display and grabbing it.
      • When a character messages another one using a chat client, this is represented with a small speech bubble hovering over the relevant computing device. These are for the most part purely metafictional ways of showing the reader what's going on on a non-visible screen, except for one scene where Jade quiets down someone messaging her by kicking the speech bubble away.
      • Cans, a member of the Felt, can punch people hard enough to send them flying through panel borders.

    Western Animation 
  • Bobby Bumps cartoon "Bobby Bumps Puts a Beanery on the Bum" does some Lampshade Hanging on the use of Speech Bubbles in animated cartoons of the silent era. Fido the dog makes a cat literally eat his own words by stuffing the cat's speech bubble (which reads "You Dirty Cur!") down the cat's throat.
  • Tom and Jerry: A gag in one cartoon involves question marks and exclamation points appearing above the characters' heads... which they then seize and use in their fight.
  • Animaniacs: In one episode, Yakko gets an Idea Bulb but Wakko eats it, leaving him without an idea.
  • Phineas and Ferb: In "Gaming the System", Candace and the brothers are transported into a video game. When she faces the giant boss, she thwacks him with her health bar, causing him to fall off a cliff.
  • Pibby: Implied in the trailer. The opening spells out certain words in the theme song on-screen, typical of a cartoon made for very young children. Once the Eldritch Abomination invades, however, the letters in "Pibby" are shaken up by the impact. Later scenes suggest that the characters can directly interact with these: Pibby inadvertently blows her cover while hiding when she attempts to tell her friends to be "QUIET" and summons the word by accident, while a massive battle in the same setting briefly shows other letters scattered on the ground amid the commotion.


Video Example(s):


Mario Farming

Mario plants some corn, before being told that corn takes 90 days to grow. Mario merely grabs and pulls up text reading "90 Days Later" and the corn instantly grows.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (8 votes)

Example of:

Main / MetafictionalDevice

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