Monday, August 1, 2022

Talking Shop: The Fourth Wall • By Eric Dontigney

Most people are familiar with the concept of the fourth wall, even if they don’t recognize it by name. It’s essentially a convention of performances (theater, television, and film) that an invisible wall exists between the audience and the performers. The audience can see through this wall, allowing them to participate vicariously in the action, but the characters remain unaware of the audience, thereby preserving the integrity of the false reality they inhabit. While violations of this rule are fairly common in ancient Greek theater right on up through Shakespeare (Hamlet’s soliloquy, anyone?), the practice of breaking this fourth wall fell out of favor starting in the 19th century and throughout the 20th century. It is also, not surprisingly, a basic convention of fiction writing.

There are some notable exceptions. Deadpool is one high-profile example of a character who not only addressed the audience (often for comic value) but is also full cognizant that he is a fictional character occupying a fictional universe both in the comics and onscreen. Bugs Bunny, Monty Python, and the British and American incarnations of House of Cards, all deploy violations of the fourth wall to varying degrees of effectiveness. You even see it in literature with The Princess Bride as a prime example. Terry Pratchett arguably violated the fourth wall with his footnotes in the Discworld books, although that’s a gray area. Readers could theoretically ignore the footnotes to avoid interrupting the narrative. On the whole, though, it’s a rule that most writers adhere to without giving it much thought. Why? Is there a good reason to avoid breaking the fourth wall?

There is at least one good reason to avoid breaking the fourth wall: the delicacy of suspension of disbelief. Even in visual media, where verisimilitude is arguably easier to achieve, it doesn’t take much to break suspension of disbelief. You only need one character to do something or use something that doesn’t fit with the established reality to bring the whole house of cards tumbling down. Maintaining it with books or short stories is, in theory, even harder because the connection between the narrative and the audience is carried on the much more tenuous thread of naked text. Shatter that suspension of disbelief and there is a good chance that the reader will simply put the book down in favor of something easier or more immediate, like surfing the Internet or updating their social media profiles.

Beyond that basic concern, there is also a practical element for the author. Violating the fourth wall means that the author must disengage from the existing narrative while writing to put in that authorial aside. Some authors may find it simple to dive right back into the narrative, but other writers may struggle to reacquire whatever flow they achieved while working on the narrative in the first place. Given that breaking the fourth wall generally provides only limited value, it makes sense that authors typically avoid it on principle.

So, is there ever a time when violating the fourth wall does make sense? There are a handful of times when this tactic can make sense and provide some value. Books written in the first person (a common conceit in genres like urban fantasy and mystery novels) tolerate breaking the fourth wall pretty well. The reader accepts that the story is being related after the fact in some fashion. A detective may be preparing case notes or a magical hero might be relating the tale in some manner of journal. The exact method of the retelling isn’t usually made explicit, but that it is a retelling underpins the first-person approach. That allows the narrator to address the reader without necessarily acknowledging the reader. The hero is only explicitly addressing whatever in-universe audience they expect to hear or read the recounting. That allows the narrator to break from the retelling momentarily to, for example, challenge the in-universe audience member and reader by proxy to try something if they think it sounds easy.

The only other time it really works and provides value is when it’s an established element of the storytelling from the outset, à la Terry Pratchett’s footnotes. This is a more dangerous move because, frankly, you risk alienating readers who expect a more traditional narrative approach. It can work, but you should go into that approach with the expectation that you’ll get pushback from some readers. On the whole, though, your best bet is to reserve breaking the fourth wall for narrative situations that tolerate it well, such as the first-person narrative.


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Eric Dontigney is the author of the highly regarded novel, THE MIDNIGHT GROUND, as well as the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One. Raised in Western New York, he currently resides near Dayton, OH. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally online at

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