RELATED TERMS: Diegesis; Diegese; Diegetic Levels; Intradiegetic; Extradiegetc; Ontological Metalepsis; Ontological Design; Theatre; Cinema and Film Studies; Deixis and Indexicality; Tangled Hierarchy and Strange Loop

Metalepsis in Rhetoric

Metalepsis in rhetoric has a different meaning from the use of metalepsis in narratology, theatre studies and cinema studies. In a yet further extended sense, metalepsis has an important role to play in transmedia phenomena and, most importnatly, in the design of narrative environments.

In rhetoric metalepsis is a trope which is similar to metaphor and metonymy, or perhaps combines them, as when metonymy (use of one word for another with which it is associated) is used to replace a word already used figuratively (metaphorically). For example, if the word ‘sable’ replaces the word ’black’ in the phrase ‘black caverns’, black is already figurative, standing for ‘dark’ or ‘gloomy’ or perhaps ‘dark and gloomy’. Thus, ‘sable’, already in a metonymic relation to ‘black’, in this new context takes on additional meanings of ‘dark’ and ‘gloomy’, with which it was not necessarily associated previously.

A metalepsis, as the example above shows, is a transgression of a common usage, such as the association of sable and black, through which the figure of speech is used in a new and innovative context, sable as connoting dark and gloomy rather than simply the colour black.

Metalepsis in Narratology

Gerard Genette extended the realm of metalepsis from rhetoric to fiction, in the process transforming it into a narratological concept (Petho, 2010). For Genette, fiction itself is an extension of the logic of the trope which relies on our capacity to imagine something as if it were real. Thus, for Genette, metalepsis creates a paradoxical loop through the ontological levels of the real and the fictional. This is a common feature of meta-fictional works, in which such shifts serve to foreground the artifice of the fictional world as well as the illusory nature of any ontological boundary between the story and narration. As a narrative device, it can be understood as a breaking of the narrative frame which separates distinct narrative levels, for example, between an embedded tale and primary story or when a third-person narrator appears within the fictional world of which s/he narrates.

As Macrae explains, interpreting Genette, in the context of literary fiction, the simplest ontological structure has three levels: the level of the story (the diegesis), at which the characters exist; the level of the narration (the extradiegesis), at which the narrator exists, for example, through third-person narration; and the level of the real, at which the reader and author exist. In contrast to the reality of the world in which the book is authored and read, the diegesis and the extradiegesis are both fictional.

Metalepsis has been used in the context of theatre, when characters onstage refer directly to the audience as if they are a character in the play, and into cinema, for example, when a screen actor steps out of a projected film within a film, as in Woody Allen’s 1985 film, The Purple Rose of Cairo. Such techniques are sometimes referred to as ‘breaking the fourth wall’, a metaphor taken from the architecture of the theatre, where three walls enclose the stage and an invisible fourth wall is omitted for the sake of the viewer. The (cinema, television, computer) screen technologises this ‘fourth wall’.

Brian McHale (1987) argues that a characteristic of postmodernist fiction is the foregrounding, through metalepsis, of the ontological dimension of recursive embedding. It is this emphasis on the ontological implications of transgressions of narrative levels that is of particular interest to the design of narrative environments.

When it comes to the specificity of the use of the term metalepsis within the design of narrative environments, taken as phenomena that examine how the metalepsis of ‘artifice’ and ‘life’ is becoming part of the real in the everyday experience of our lives, the insights of Jamie Freestone (2017) are particularly relevant. Freestone notes that recent scholars of narrative, such as Bell and Alber (2012) and Ryan (1995; 2006), following McHale (1987), it should be noted, identify metalepsis as part of a more general category of strange loops. Beyond describing the tangle of levels in a fictional text, metalepsis, as well as being extended to other media, increasingly figures in other discourses, such as logic, computer science, linguistics, and the natural sciences, where it is used to refer to the way physical (‘real’) levels are tangled as much as diegetic or representational levels.

The example which Freestone explores is that of gene editing. He points out that narratives of evolutionary history, such as Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, employ two techniques that contribute to metaleptic effects: a pervasive textual metaphor, which figures the genome as a text to be read and copied, and nowadays to be edited through gene manipulation technologies; and a personification of genes, such that the genome is presented as the author of organisms’ behaviour, including humans behaviour. Freestone reasons that, taking into account recent developments in gene-editing technologies and their potential future advances, the genome-as-text and genome-as-author metaphors implicate us as readers in a novel configuration: we find ourselves editing a text that itself has authored us. This, he concludes, is a novel kind of metalepsis. As he explains, “The term “editing” designates an intervention from a high level into a low level, where the higher level is dependent on the lower level to exist”. This relationship is characteristic of a tangled hierarchy or a strange loop (Hofstadter, 1979).

The proliferation of different kinds of metalepsis led Monika Fludernik (2003: 396) to distinguish between real ontological metalepsis and metaphorical ontological metalepsis. The former involves the transgression of ontological levels in the story (diegesis), for example, when a narrator enters a story-within-a-story. The latter occurs when, for example, the narrator positions him- or herself as an invisible observer in the scene of the story without affecting it. However, these concern the relations between the diegetic and the extradigetic. Freestone, as indeed is the design of narrative environments, is more concerned with actual ontological metalepsis, in which real nontextual levels are tangled, such as when an actual strange loop occurs in the real world with an edit of the text of the genome.

Metalepsis and the Design of Narrative Environments

When used in the design of narrative environment design, it not just the transgressive character of metalepsis which is important, that is, taking something from one context and placing it in another, thereby giving it new meanings. This a manoeuvre that it shares with other literary and avant-garde practices such as collage, assemblage, detournement and Ostranenie (making strange). Rather, it is the combination of this transgression with the extension of transgression to ontological levels beyond the diegetic-extradiegetic boundary, towards the reflexive re-writing or re-making of the creative or the authoring level by the created or authored level, thereby putting into question the ontological status of the subjective entity involved in the ‘re-writing’ of its own self, along with the assumptions that the subjective entity makes about the ontological structuring of the real in which it is immersed and upon which it depends.

This is the kind of tangled hierarchy or strange loop which the design of narrative environments seeks to evoke and create, in which the narratee, as the authored level, enters into the re-writing of its self and its own world. Gene-editing is but one metaphor and example of such processes. This possibility arises because of the inseparability of the subjective, the narrative and the environmental dimensions of the narrative environment, each of which may serve as the top level for the other’s bottom level, with the third term intervening, in a series of interconnected tangled hierarchies or strange loops. In this way, for example, what is assumed to be environmental emerges, through the subjective, in the midst of the narrative, and vice versa; what is assumed to be subjective emerges, through the narrative, in the midst of the environmental, and vice versa; and what is assumed to be narrative emerges, through the environmental, in the midst of the subjective, and vice versa.

One feature that may distinguish the design of narrative environments from other modes of design, then, is that it consciously takes into account the condition of all design: that it seeks to un-throw or over-throw the world into which it has been ‘thrown’, a world full of existing ‘designs’. In this condition, design is always re-design. Equally, design presents a paradox or an aporia: design is the ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ that is ‘design’. Perhaps this is the terrain in which the notions of ontological metalepsis and ontological design have value, enabling us to recognise the ‘fiction’, the construction, the mediation, the performativity and the immersivity of our ‘being’, or our being in-between, which is a process of constantly being thrown-over-thrown, made-re-made or designed-re-designed.

A warning note

Hal Foster (2002: 193) sounds a warning note in respect of the metalepses and transgressions that may occur in a narrative environment, borrowed from modernist and avant-garde art practices and their reiteration in post-modernism, when he proposes the thesis that, “contemporary design is part of a greater revenge taken by advanced capitalism on postmodernist culture - a recouping of its crossings of arts and disciplines, a routinization of its transgressions.”

Allan Parsons, May 2021


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Fludernik, Monika (2003) “Scene Shift , Metalepsis, and the Metaleptic Mode.” Style, 37(4), 382– 400.

Foster, H. (2002) ‘The ABCs of contemporary design’, October, 100, pp. 191–199. Available at: (Accessed: 7 September 2016).

Freestone, J. M. (2017) ‘The Selfish Genre’, Storyworlds: A Journal of Narrative Studies, 9(1), pp. 225–246. Available at: (Accessed: 10 March 2021).

Hofstadter, D. R. (1979) Godel, Escher, Bach: an eternal golden braid. New York: Basic Books.

Macrae, A. (2019) Discourse deixis in metafiction: the language of metanarration, metalepsis and disnarration. New York, NY: Routledge.

McHale, B. (1987) Postmodernist fiction. London, UK: Routledge.

Petho, A. (2010) ‘Intermediality as Metalepsis in the “Cinécriture” of Agnès Varda’, Acta Universitatis Sapientiae, Film and Media Studies, 3(3), pp. 69–94. Available at: (Accessed: 27 October 2019).

Ryan, Marie- Laure (1995) “Allegories of Immersion: Virtual Narration in Postmodern Fiction.” Style 29.2: 262– 86.

Ryan, Marie- Laure (2006). Avatars of Story. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.