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:
- It grabs your attention. Starting The Book Thief with Death speaking made me read faster and I think others would agree.
- It can help make the events seem urgent.
- It lets the writer reveal something they want the readers to know, but that characters can’t or shouldn’t know about.
- The structure allows for a character to form a one-on-one relationship with the reader.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- It’s easy for the character to come across as crazy or stupid.
- It can feel like the writer just made a mistake.
- If done too subtly it might go unnoticed.
- Done too heavy and it can disrupt the fantasy and drag the reader out of the story.
- It can overshadow the story too much, reducing tension.
- It can disrupt the pacing of the novel and make the reader feel like the story keeps stopping.
- It can seem clumsy, awkward or downright laughable. That’s great in comedy, not good for other genres.
- The writer might flat out confuse the reader or leave him unsure how to respond to what he just read.
- It reminds readers they are reading. It eliminates the readers from recast themselves as the lead character.
- 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.