Ontological Metalepsis

RELATED TERMS: Metalepsis; Deixis and Indexicality; Storyworld; Lifeworld - Lebenswelt - Umwelt; Avant-garde movements; Tangled Hierarchy and Strange Loop

The notion of ontological metalepsis is particularly important for narrative environment design as it emphasises that meaning is generated through the engagement of the sensorimotor, experiential, existential, moving body within the designed environment. Metalepsis, rather than being simply part of media theory concerning the transgression of levels of narration, i.e. intra-diegetic transfers across story levels and extra-diegetic incursions into the diegetic (where, for example, the narrator, as teller of the story, becomes a character in the world of the story), instead concerns the transgressions that occure across the diegetic and the real, i.e. the level of the author and the reader. The transgressions here generate confusions among what were held to be distinct levels: narratee (intra-diegetic); narrator (extra-diegetic); and author (real).

The former kind of transgression, concerning the intra- and the extra-diegetic and which relate to crossing from one narrative level to another, might be called ‘fictional metalepsis’, while the latter, concering transgressions from one ontological level to another, whether these be ‘fictional’ ontologies or ‘real’ ontologies, might be called ontological metalepsis.

Ontological metalepsis places the body within complex environments and brings to attention the various ways in which ontological metalepses can be achieved experientially and different worlds brought into play, conjunctively or disjunctively. In the design of narrative environments, the body is not considered ‘invisible’ or ‘irrelevant’ to the multisensory, aesthetic experience.

Taking into account ontological metalepsis therefore extends narrative beyond a transmedia context, i.e. narrative across print, electronic, cinematic, theatrical, art installation and other media of presentation, into an existential domain, not just narratological storyworlds but also lifeworlds, from whence an appreciation of the aleatory (chance), the ergodic (work, labour) and the rhizomatic (creative, inaugurative) elements of meaning-generation in lifeworlds come into play.

While narrative is an important part of lifeworlds, lifeworlds are not reducible to narrative structures, and ontological metalepsis concerns these always-shifting boundaries, as lifeworlds become narrativised, ritualised or conventionalised; and as narratives, rituals and conventions are critiqued. There is not, in other words, a single relationship between the diegetic storyworld and the lifeworld (‘actual’ world), but a continual interplay of borders and boundaries among storyworlds and lifeworlds.

In consequence, the immersion in narrative structures and processes in narrative environments involves a continual breaking of intra-diegetic and extra-diegetic borders and boundaries, to extend narrative into the lifeworld/’actual’ world; and to bring to awareness of the degree to which embodied experience is, has become or is becoming narrativised.

The concept of ontological metalepsis, as Ryan and Bell and Alber, indicate comes from a development of Gerard Genette’s narratological model.

For example, Bell and Alber propose a modification of Gerard Genette’s structuralist model to conceptualize ontological metaleptic jumps as:

(1) vertical interactions either between the actual world and a storyworld or between nested or hierarchised storyworlds; or as

(2) horizontal transmigrations between storyworlds.

They explain vertical and horizontal metalepses on the basis of interactions between ontologically distinct worlds rather than narrative levels; and suggest that the manoeuvres of ontological metalepses in particular suggest a breach of world boundaries.

Terminology that demarcates those domains of existence as ‘worlds’ rather than ‘levels’, Bell and Alber argue, more accurately reflects what we are led to believe happens in the course of ontological metalepses.

For discussion: Ontolepsis

The distinction that Raine Koskimaa (2000) makes between ‘narrative metalepsis’ and ‘ontolepsis’, of which the former is a special case of the latter, is of relevance here. Both concern transgressions or ‘leaking’ of ontological boundaries. However, they still only concern transgressions from one possible fictional world to another. They do not concern transgressions from the possible fictional worlds to actual experiential worlds.

Narrative metalepsis concerns transgressions of fictional ontological boundaries. The innovation central for the development of fictional ontology is the notion, grounded in possible worlds semantics, that a fictive text is not a “world”. Rather it is a fictional universe, a structure of multiple alternate worlds.

The conventions of realistic fiction define each fictional universe as having a centre, the textual actual world, around which a number of other worlds orbit, the textual alternative possible worlds, as well as the textual referential world, of which the textual actual world is a representation. The textual referential world, Koskimaa notes, can be more or less similar to our own actual world. However, for analytical reasons, they must always be separated

Three kinds of worlds together constitute a fictional universe, the domain of fictional ontology; the textual actual world; the textual alternative possible worlds; and the textual referential world. Crucially, Koskimaa clarifies that, “the levels of narrative embedding always constitute an ontological domain, but the border between fictional worlds does not necessarily imply a change of narrative level.” The complications hypertextual structure causes for ontology are more complex. The complications caused for ontology by the design of narrative environments are still more complex.

Koskimaa argues that,

“Ontolepsis in print fiction is a violation of narrative conventions. In postmodernist fiction it is used as a metafictional device to foreground ontological questions. In science fiction and fantasy it is presented as a feature of the foreign world. In hypertext fiction ontolepsis is an integral, unavoidable part of the representational logic.”

Equally, it could be argued, ontolepsis is an integral part of the representational logic of narrative environments. We may be dealing with metalepsis (transgressions across narrative levels), ontolepsis (transgressions across possible fictional worlds) and ontological metalepsis (transgressions across possible fictional worlds and actual experiential, social worlds).


Bell, A. and Alber, J. (2012). Ontological metalepsis and unnatural narratology. Journal of Narrative Theory, 42 (2), 166–192. Available from [Accessed 18 March 2016].

Genette, G. (1980). Voice. Chapter 5 in: Narrative discourse: an essay in method. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, pp.212-262. Available from [Accessed 27 November 2015].

Koskimaa, R. (2000) Ontolepsis - from violation to a central device. Digital literature: from text to hypertext and beyond. Available at: [Accessed: 17 March 2021]

Ryan, M.-L. (2006). Metaleptic machines. In: Avatars of story. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 204–230.