Breaking the fourth wall

Posted: May 3, 2013 in Books & Reading
Tags: , , , , ,

I just finished reading War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. It was a good read – a bit slow – but better than Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz. There were a few parts that were really intense, and the ending was great. I like how the story was resolved, I just wish it hadn’t taken so long to get there.

But that’s not what I’m writing about today. Today, I’m asking you, “Is breaking the fourth wall a good thing or a bad thing?”

First, a definition of a fourth wall:

An imaginary wall (as at the opening of a modern stage proscenium) that keeps performers from recognizing or directly addressing their audience

This obviously mostly applies to plays and such, but I think it’s appropriate for books as well (correct me if I’m wrong – maybe there’s another term we use?).

Second, an example. There are plenty of examples in War of the Worlds where the narrator directly talks to his audience, the readers. And plenty of other books have done this too. The first book in the Kane Chronicles, The Red Pyramid, is written in a way that consistently reminds you that the narrators are directly talking to you. This is especially evident in the first few paragraphs:

We only have a few hours, so listen carefully.

If you’re hearing this story, you’re already in danger. Sadie and I might be your only chance.

Go to the school. Find the locker. I won’t tall you which school or which locker, because if you’re the right person, you’ll find it. The combination is 12/32/33. By the time you finish listening, you’ll know what those numbers mean. Just remember the story we’re about to tell you isn’t complete yet. How it ends will depend on you.

You can see that the narrator, Carter, talks directly to the person reading the book. The author, Rick Riordan, purposely breaks that invisible barrier and simultaneously brings the reader into the world of the novel, and yet makes them something separate.

The point is that although you can still feel a part of the story, it’s hard to imagine yourself as the main character if he or she is talking directly to you.

So, here’s the question again: “Is breaking the fourth wall a good thing or a bad thing?”

I don’t really have a definitive answer. I don’t think there is one. The safe answer would probably be that is depends on the circumstance. Does the story call for it? Does it feel right? Does it hinder the story or does it help bring out the personality of your characters?

And, of course, it’s all about personal preference.

Instead, I just want to take a moment to look at the pros and cons. Because, like everything else, there are some great aspects to breaking down that wall. But there are some problems with it as well.

THE PROS:

  1. You’re made a part of the story. The characters come alive when they talk directly to you, and you feel like you’re actively taking part in the narration.
  2. It really grabs your attention. An opening like the one above really hooks you in. It sets the stakes and makes you feel like everything is on the line, like you have to act RIGHT NOW in order to save the main characters. That can be really fun.
  3. It makes the characters more real. In War of the Worlds, the main character talks as if he’s writing you a letter – a full account of what happened to him. He could be real. He could be a friend or he could be some stranger that handed you a notebook about this surreal event that occurred a few months back.

THE CONS:

  1. You can’t be the main character. As soon as the narrator starts talking to you, it takes you out of the story. You’re no longer a part of that specific narration. You can imagine you exist in that world, but no longer can you put yourself in the shoes of the main character in the same way you could if that fourth wall was still solidly in place.
  2. It takes you out of the story. I know I already said this in the previous point, but it’s worth mentioning on its own. When that fourth wall is broken, it reminds you that the book is just a book. We so often lose ourselves in a novel, but breaking the wall is like when an actor looks directly into the camera. It’s a little jarring because it reminds you that you’re really just sitting in your living room looking at them through a television screen.
  3. It can imply telling. Not always, but sometimes. If your narrator is speaking directly to the audience, it means he’s having a conversation with them – albeit a one sided conversation – and that often means he’s telling them some sort of information that might be better if he had shown it through his actions.

As you can see, there are pros and cons on both sides. Some pretty good ones too. Breaking the fourth wall can mean having a pretty incredible hook, but it might also bring your readers out of the story.

Should you do it? Maybe. It works really effectively in the Kane Chronicles series. I thought it worked fairly well in War of the Worlds, too, but it was far less necessary. It depends on your characters. On the premise. On the medium through which your characters are telling the story (ie. Sadie and Carter Kane are recording themselves). There are certainly a lot of factors to consider, and a decision to break the fourth wall should be made on a case-by-case basis.

Have you watched or read anything that broke the fourth wall? Was it effective? Have you ever broken the fourth wall in one of your stories? Why did you decide to do it?

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Comments
  1. Charleen says:

    It definitely depends on if it works for the particular story and if it’s done well. I think The Princess Bride is one of the better examples, maybe because the breaking of the fourth wall is somewhat removed from the story… that is, it’s not Westley or Buttercup who’s speaking to the reader, but Goldman (or at least the fictional version of himself) acting as a sort of intermediary.

  2. Tolkien did it rather brilliantly in The Hobbit – a good use of the technique, I thought. I think Asimov’s ‘A Statue For Father’ was written entirely via fourth wall address (it’s a while since I read it).But I figure that, like any literary technique that steps outside the norm, it’s best in smaller doses.

  3. Azevedo says:

    I was reading up on this subject and I think breaking the fourth wall is not the same in books. In a play or a movie, if the actors speak directly at you or at the screen they’re acknowledging that they’re in a story. That’s the fourth wall.
    In a book, the narration is always aiming at you, but to the nature of the medium the fourth wall is not broken. It is broken when the narrator says he’s going to tell you a story, for example, like in War of the Worlds.
    Correct me if I’m wrong 🙂

    • Karen Rought says:

      I think we’re saying the same thing! Regular narration isn’t breaking the fourth wall, but when the narrators speaks to you as if he’s telling you the story, or writing it to you in a letter, that’s when it’s broken. Just like the movies, it’s when someone acknowledges the existence of the audience.

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