Addressing the Reader: Breaking the Fourth Wall

breaking the fourth wall brickwall-fist3Recently I was beta-reading a book for another author and found an annoying recurrence of what I consider to be a newbie mistake. The book was fiction, telling the story in omniscient third person as if the reader were a fly on the wall watching the drama unfold. Good enough as far as it went, but then suddenly, with a single word, it catapulted me right out of the telling.

I’m going to dummy up an example here.

Rodrigo had to feel his way in the darkness. He slid his hands along the rough, moist walls of the cave, moving his feet cautiously so as not to trip on loose rocks or step blindly into a hole. The complete absence of sensation befuddled his brain; his eyes strained to see and his ears pounded with the surge of blood through his veins. It was so quiet, you could hear a pin drop.

Pardon the cliché there, but the point is, with the use of a single word — you — the author successfully destroyed the container of fantasy she had been painstakingly creating, and in doing so, popped me out of the story faster than a blatant spelling error. With that one word, she ripped away the fourth wall, and with that construct gone, the entire house of cards came falling down.

If you’re not familiar with the fourth wall, it’s actually a stage concept. When we’re watching a live production on stage, the fourth wall is the imaginary barrier between the stage (and the actors on it), and the audience. The barrier is invisible but implied; its presence gives us that fly-on-the-wall feeling as we watch the drama play out. We see everything that goes on but the characters are totally unaware of us. This fourth wall is sacrosanct and generally not to be breached.

I say generally because, of course, there are exceptions. We’ve all seen plays or movies where a character suddenly turns to the audience and speaks directly to them. In the movie Wit, Emma Thompson does this throughout the film, but she established early on that she was telling us her story of dealing with cancer. She was the narrator as well as the main character, and her speaking directly to us helped to move the story along. The device is probably used more often in comedy, when a character plots a scheme or joke and turns to the audience with a wink to pull them into the plot. Used sparingly, it can be effective.

But in third person fiction? It doesn’t work for me. I want to suspend belief in anything other than the story. I want to sink into it, be engulfed, be submerged, float contentedly in the warm waters of fantasy with nothing expected of me and the characters none-the-wiser to my existence. As soon as the writer starts to speak directly to me, she breaks that fourth wall, drags me into the scene (grumbling) and has lost the hold she had over my imagination. To the consternation of both of us, it will take me a bit to get back into the story.

Author: Melissa Bowersock

Melissa Bowersock is an eclectic, award-winning author who writes in a variety of fiction and non-fiction genres. She has been both traditionally and independently published and lives in a small community in northern Arizona. Learn more about Melissa from her Amazon author page and her blog.

43 thoughts on “Addressing the Reader: Breaking the Fourth Wall”

  1. I’d never heard of the Fourth Wall before this, but it makes complete sense now that you’ve has shone your spotlight on it. A useful lesson for those of us new to fiction. Thank you Melssa.

    1. I think it’s something to be mindful of in non-fiction, too, with the same caveat. Established early on and used consistently, no problem. Thrown in haphazardly, it’s just annoying, at least to my mind.

      1. Non-fiction requires more intellectual connection to the audience, in which case the fourth wall is a barrier. If you’re telling someone how to do something, you are often in the “instructor” mode, using the second person, saying things like “watch out for the grain of the wood, here, because…” That sort of comment breaks the fourth wall for the purpose of jarring the reader into paying attention to the writer.
        When you are trying to maintain an emotion that requires the reader to move into his or her own imagination, the last thing they want is to be conscious of the writer sticking an oar in.

  2. The first time I came across this in a novel was in “A Star Curiously Singing” by an indie author, Kerry Nietz. When the author spoke directly to me, it gave me quit a jolt. The technique was used sparingly throughout , and worked very well. Somehow, it carried me into the inside of the story, as though I were a confident of the author.

    It’s become very common in sit coms. “The Office” pioneered the process, although in the guise of a documentary. Modern Family, which I love, uses it all the time. In House of Cards, Kevin Spacey often addresses the viewer directly.

    I’d like to try it some time, but I do think it has to be done well and purposely. The example you gave was a POV slip, which is, as you say, a turn off.

    1. Pete, you bring up a couple of good points. Every rule has its exception, and if we’re going to break a rule, we need to do it well and with good reason. Thanks for adding that.

  3. Great point – it’s disconcerting to be tossed out of a story like that!

    I’ve seen it work with internal dialog – for example, when a character thinks, “Well now there’s something ya don’t see every day.”

    It was common in the 19th century (“Reader, I married him”) but today, not so much.

  4. I agree, Candace, in the framework of dialog it’s not an issue, maybe because we know the characters aren’t speaking to us. And the days of hearing, “Gentle reader,” are long gone, thank goodness!

  5. ‘You’ will be added to my list of words to check that could hamper a story . A quick word find can always save the day. Thanks Melissa

  6. I have used a fourth-wall break in fantasy. In my “Sword Called Kitten” novel, the POV character is the Sword, and she is a rather sharp personality. Once in a while, especially when I am setting the scene, she breaks into something I am saying and corrects me. It’s done subtly (I hope) and you might read right past it without noticing what happened. But, as Melissa says, it works best for comic effect.

  7. Why didn’t the editor catch this? You can’t believe how many books I’ve read where editors did not do their jobs. There was one book where the same paragraph was repeated word for word twenty pages apart. Then there was the book where the body disappeared, the next line they go to bury the body (yes, the one that disappeared) then several pages later they realize the body is gone (I thought they were there when the body disappeared). These books were not self published. And one of the publishers won for best publisher!

    1. Susan, that’s pretty bad to miss continuity that far. I have seen similar instances when I’m beta-reading, but most of that has been pre-edit, not after. I think it’s a fact that editing with trad publishers is not what it used to be.

  8. I think this one could be one of those damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenarios. Clearly, the author is using “you” in the sense of the more formal “one.” And probably rightly, she considers the latter far too stiff for the overall tone here. My solution (had I been her editor) would have been to suggest a rewrite, especially as that phrase (pin drop) is about as clichéd as it gets.

    Strangely, I literally read this today:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/06/by-heart-joshua-cohen-dostoyevsky/395978/

    1. Dostoyevsky wrote The Double during the same period I mentioned earlier (19th century) when it was fairly common to “break the wall,” although they probably didn’t call it that at the time.

      1. Right. But that article is interesting in that it mentions authors right up to modern times, such as David Foster Wallace and William Gass. In The Dark Tower series, Stephen King even has his characters meet him (a fictional Stephen King) in Maine around the time of his life-threatening accident! Although my favourite part in the Atlantic article is when Cohen asks about the “crises novelists face in the Internet age: Who’s talking? Who’s listening? And how should we speak?” All excellent questions.

          1. Ha, yes. I remember doing the reader version of a double take at first! I think in one of his Bachman novels, he had a character sitting and reading “one of that King fella’s horror stories.” 😀

    2. David, just so you know, I trumped up the example, including the cliche, all just to make the point. However, you make another good point about using “one” instead of “you,” and how it can be viewed as more formal and possibly not a good fit. I think your suggestion to rewrite the paragraph speaks to the issue. We can always find better ways to say what we need to say without including little blips like this.

        1. I agree with David. Depending on the character’s voice, “one” not be appropriate. I’d definitely be tempted to rewrite the paragraph or at least suggest it to the author.

  9. Excellent catch, Melissa. And a little bit said, too, that the author didn’t catch the interior dialogue that lifts one out of the story. In reply to Susan Piazza: a book error is not all on the editor. My trad books were read by an acquisition editor, a line editor, a proof editor and a reader. Before a book went to the printer, I was given the final proof copy to read and double check. I often caught small errors. We fixed them. Authors always have the last call/word before a book goes to print. That is even more true as an indie author. I hire editors and beta readers and formatters, but the errors we miss are all on me.

  10. In this example, the “you” is a self-referring “you,” not a move into second person. For more about this, look at commentaries about such books as Gibbon’s “The Scot’s Quair.” He was famous for this usage.

    Shakespeare used it as well. And, you’ll find it in a colloquial sense where people say things like, “you’ve got your Californians and your New Yorkers and your Hoosiers. . .” That’s not second person either.

    Idiomatic or self-referring, “you” isn’t always a “lapse” in point of view in an otherwise omniscient or third person restricted narrator.

    Malcolm

      1. I’m with Melissa on this one. It was sloppy of both the author and the editor to leave this slip in. Since the style didn’t match Shakespeare or Gibbon, the use of ‘one’ would have got over the problem without popping anyone out of the story. We all make small slips occasionally, but most try, usually with editorial help, to eradicate them. This was a good example that has drawn our attention to the point; something that should be helpful to all in the future.

        1. I sure as heck wouldn’t have used a self-referring you in this way unless I’d previously established the style. While the style need not match Gibbon or Shakespeare to be legitimate, it tends to be a bad attempt when the “you” appears once.

          This isn’t a forth wall issue. It’s either a mistake and most everyone here thinks or a bad attempt at self-referral, a device that implies the thought is universal rather than specific to one scene in one moment.

          Malcolm

          1. I agree that Melissa’s example, since it is a cliche, isn’t technically “fourth wall,” however, it is just an example and I do think it illustrates how the abrupt use of the word “you” in a third-person POV novel can pull the reader out of the story. I know it would pull me out of the story, but I also know I’m a picky pain in the neck. 🙂

  11. I confess, I’ve done that before, and I imagine a lot of authors have. Not in a part like that, though–but perhaps, to indicate humor. Still, it’s advisable not to stray from a character’s viewpoint or an author risks suspending a reader’s disbelief. And in Melissa’s example–if I were going to use the phrase, “hear a pin drop”–I’d have chosen “he” because it’s less formal and more familiar.

    1. Thanks, Linda. In most of the times I’ve seen such things, using the pronoun for the character would work well. Why a writer defaults to ‘you’ seems to be just unthinking habit.

      1. I agree that ‘he’ should be most appropriate in the case of hearing the pin dropping , Linda. This is because most of us boys don’t listen carefully enough to hear such a quiet event.
        In another direction, you really mean ‘suspend disbelief’? Surely it’s the belief, and engagement, that gets suspended? A double negative is almost a heinous as the point Melissa started with!

    1. KS – You can a;ways be forgiven for being a picky pain in the neck, especially when it’s constructive. How else are those of us who are still learning (i.e. everyone) to learn from our mistakes, if nobody ever points them out?

  12. I found your post extremely useful and pertinent as I had just started reading a spy thriller by a new author. Although I was in the Prologue, the book engaged and intereted me. Until I reached page 10 when the author wrote “cleaner than your typical Quetta hack.” I don’t know what this is, but it jolted me out of the authors world and back into mine. I’ve reading on, but the book lost its momentum with me at that point.

    1. Jaye, thanks for commenting. I’m glad I’m not the only one who gets thrown out of a story this way. It’s a small thing, I know, but if it’s big enough to notice, it doesn’t belong there.

  13. I agree with your comment on the change from third person to second, this demonstrates an ignorance (or carelessness) of use of the English language. I also find it difficult to assimilate any stories that are written in the present tense, maybe I am too fastidious! Regarding the actor conversing direct to the audience, this was done in Kevin Spacey’s “House of Cards”, and the earlier British version starring Ian Richardson. This was done very effectively, an exception to the rule perhaps, but generally I do agree with you, maintain the barrier.

    Ray Scott

  14. Stories in the present tense. Oy! A (former!) editor changed my entire Japanese historical to present tense. The worst thing she did, though, was changing “businessmen” to “businesspersons” in a scene set in 1952 Sapporo.

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