Pros & Cons of Breaking the Fourth Wall

My youngest illustrates a stage actor breaking the fourth wall.

The technique of breaking the fourth wall generally applies to plays, TV shows and movies. It means that a character talked directly to the audience. The term originated from the idea that a theater stage is made up of three solid walls, the fourth wall is invisible. The audience looks past this last wall like voyeurs. Whenever an actor leaves behind the other players and momentarily includes the audience in his dialogue, he’s breaking the imaginary separation between the pretend world of the stage and the real world. In TV and movies they have the actor looking right into the camera as they speak. Monty Python was famous for breaking the fourth wall, as was filmmaker Mel Brooks. In fact it’s fairly common to see comedies break the fourth wall. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is another great example; that movie breaks the fourth wall from start to finish with useful tips on how to avoid going to school.

As I fight my way through my latest writing project, I’ve learned breaking the fourth wall is one of the many tricky issues a writer of a frame story might encounter. According to the Urban Dictionary:

“In fiction, “breaking the fourth wall” often means having a character become aware of their fictional nature.”

One of the most common ways a writer breaks the wall is to have a narrator foreshadowing or telling the reader about an event outside the frame of the other character’s viewpoint. Sometimes they will do this by addressing the reader as “the reader.”

Some writers believe this is just another form of literary direct address. Others say we should discount the effect if the primary narrator is the one speaking to the reader. The logic behind this claim is the reader always expects (to some degree) for the narrator to speak to them.

I think we can differentiate between a standard narration from one that breaks the fourth wall by style and content. A standard narration might tell the reader about the character’s back story, or impart information about the surrounding events or even remind the reader of a past event.  When a narrator comments on future events or tries to bring the reader into the story with a question or direct comment, I think the narrator has broken the wall.

Pros for breaking the fourth wall:

  1. It grabs your attention. Starting The Book Thief with Death speaking made me read faster and I think others would agree.
  2. It can help make the events seem urgent.
  3. It lets the writer reveal something they want the readers to know, but that characters can’t or shouldn’t know about.
  4. The structure allows for a character to form a one-on-one relationship with the reader.
  5. Since breaking the wall is often told with a first person POV, the reader feels he is being personally addressed and perhaps that character cares about him. This is particularly true in children’s books.
  6. The character can appeal directly to the reader and advise him and act as a guide. It’s not uncommon for the character to impart valuable advice or a message to readers during the exchange.
  7. Depending on the characters, it can make them more personable to the reader or make them seem even more horrifying and deadly.

Cons for breaking the fourth wall:

  1. It’s easy for the character to come across as crazy or stupid.
  2. It can feel like the writer just made a mistake.
  3. If done too subtly it might go unnoticed.
  4. Done too heavy and it can disrupt the fantasy and drag the reader out of the story.
  5. It can overshadow the story too much, reducing tension.
  6. It can disrupt the pacing of the novel and make the reader feel like the story keeps stopping.
  7. It can seem clumsy, awkward or downright laughable. That’s great in comedy, not good for other genres.
  8. The writer might flat out confuse the reader or leave him unsure how to respond to what he just read.
  9. It reminds readers they are reading. It eliminates the readers from recast themselves as the lead character.
  10. Worst of all, some readers hate it. This is a big one, there are loads of rally cries against breaking the wall and readers that find the act unforgivable.

I like it when a great writer breaks the wall, it’s daring and adventurous. And sometimes being willing to take a risk is just what a writing project needs. I’m not sure if the fourth wall will come down in my project or not, but I’m picking up my literary hammer and giving it a good whack. For now I’ll just see what happens. Maybe I’ll make a dent or maybe I’ll turn that wall into rubble.

 

 

Author: Robin Rivera

Robin trained as a professional historian and worked as a museum curator, an educator and historical consultant. She writes dark young adult fiction, with diverse characters. She's currently querying a novel, and working on two new manuscripts that started off as NaNoWriMo projects. You can follow her on Facebook(https://www.facebook.com/robin.rivera.90813) or on Twitter @robinrwrites. However, Pinterest (https://www.pinterest.com/RRWrites/) is where her inner magpie is happiest of all.

7 thoughts on “Pros & Cons of Breaking the Fourth Wall”

  1. Hi I’m researching with young children their experiences of school by listening to the stories they share within the classroom and playground. When I have the ‘data’ [children’s stories] [obviously this could be never ending – but I have a specific time frame] I would like to work present the data as a story. I would need to ensure that I had consulted the children and that what I was sharing was infact what they still wished to share – so it could be a fictionalised story that presents the gathering of stories and the interpretation – present as a story as part of my thesis. I have my own story of school too.. but wonder if you might have any ideas for me to think through as how I might embark on storytelling and how I as researcher [parent/ex school pupil etc] might break into the narration?

    1. Hi Sally Ann,
      That is a complicated question. From what you’ve described it sounds like you want to write a frame story, but one that also breaks the fourth wall. Without understanding your goal better (to frame, to clarify, to create narrative linkage, etc…) it’s hard to offer advice. What I can suggest is you look at stories that break the fourth wall and see if they are providing the same type of information you want to convey in your story. I would also suggest you look into writing frame stories. I’ve written a few posts on this topic, they might help you learn more. Tips for Crafting Frame Story and The Princess Bride: A Frame Narrative Good luck!

  2. I love literary tricks, and would love to play with this one someday.

    For my current novel, though, I’ve made the conscious choice to write the story totally ‘plain;’ no breaking the forth wall, no flashbacks that aren’t written in as someone’s memories or telling a story, telling the story in chronological order, etc.

    I want the feeling you get from all this is that it’s easier to believe that you were really there. Ok, granted, you can see the characters’ thoughts, but overall, you see what you’d see in real life if this really happened. My hope is that it will help the readers identify with the characters and the lessons in their lives.

  3. Robin, I am so glad you wrote this. I have had it bouncing around in my head for awhile, trying to figure out what to say about it.

    I think you are doing a good job here explaining how the fourth wall works in fiction. I like the rules, or observations. The numbered thingys They are good

    There’s a fourth wall in blogging, too. An artificial boundary between the blogger and the blog reader. Almost no one gets this. My understanding of it is what sets me apart, I think. My posts are terrible for views, if the truth be known. But I speak to bloggers frequently, because almost everyone who reads our posts is a blogger. I am willing and able to just step across the boundary at any time think it might help. You know my personal blog. It is dedicated to talking to bloggers at this point.

    Your niche is secondary, is what I think. The important thing is that you are bloggers, and if I may say you have a ton of credibility. I look at this site and I drool and wish I’d had a part in building it. What you are producing here is good. The collaboration that goes into producing this blog is genuinely impressive.

    Find a way to speak to bloggers as bloggers. Do it in a monthly feature. Or do it on other social media occasionally (@TweetOnSisters strikes me as a good candidate). But do it. Get yourself comfortable with it.

    Sorry if I ran totally amok on your fourth wall post.

    1. Hi Gene’O, You’re right, many bloggers do break the fourth wall with their posts. We do it all the time here, some of us more than others. I think it’s a highly accepted means of engaging a reader. However, it takes a unique set of skills to do it right and not everyone has them. I would say you do.
      You and Gertie bring up an interesting point. We have been blogging for a while now and that might mean we have some advice worth sharing on the art of blogger. I’ll pass on the suggestion to the crew.
      And thank you for the kind words on the blog. When Caryn, Heather and I got started there were some dark days, the whole first 6 months were not easy. I think we all considered giving up. But we just worked harder and recruited other writers to pitch in and now every milestone we hit feels sweeter than the last.
      Please run amok on the comments anytime! You always have something great to share.

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