Fourth Wall Breaks
A fourth wall break: when the line between the story world and the real world becomes blurred.
What is the Fourth Wall?
The fourth wall is a term from plays, TV shows or movies. Imagine if you are looking at a room in a TV show. You can see up to three walls at once but the fourth one is an invisible wall between you and the people in the story. In a play, this wall is the edge of the stage; in TV shows or movies, it is the camera lens.
So, when we talk about a fourth wall break, it is any time when the people in the story show that they know they are in a story. This kind of technique is used in writing as well, either where the characters in the story talk to the reader or when they show that they know they are in a story.
The Story Bubble
The idea of a fourth wall comes from plays and movies, but of course, there are no walls in writing. So, a better picture is to think of a story bubble. When you are reading a book, you are holding a story world in your hands inside an invisible bubble. The entire story universe is inside that bubble and the people inside it do not (usually) know there is a bubble at all. So for this post, I will about story bubble breaks. We are going to look at three different situations where you could use story bubble breaks.
1. When the Narrator Outside the Story Talks to the Reader
As I talked about in the post Point of View, if the story is in third person (using he/she), then the narrator is outside the story. Most stories are written like this. In this situation, there are actually two bubbles: one with the narrator in it and one inside that with the story in it.
A story bubble break of this kind is when the narrator talks to the reader. In this situation, the narrator is not in the story but is telling the story to the reader. This used to be very common with children’s stories since it mimics a parent telling a child a story before bed or in a similar situation. You will find this in books like The Hobbit, the Chronicles of Narnia and especially in Lemony Snickett’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, where the narrators constantly talks directly to the reader.
Here is an example of this technique:
Hester stepped into the portal of glowing light. This was not a smart thing to do, as you can imagine. A portal of glowing light might seem inviting but I think we can all imagine some pretty terrible places where they might lead. But Hester had been brought up to think positively, so in she went.
It is important to note that story bubble breaks go outwards, not inward. Obviously, you can shout at the characters in a story and tell them they’re idiots or cheer them on, but the characters have no chance of hearing you (it would be creepy if they did). In the same way, I have never read a book where a narrator who was outside the story talked to the characters inside the story. It would make the dialogue complicated, I would think. But if you ever find a story like that, let me know.
Why Use This?
As I said, it is common in children’s books and is useful for creating a close feeling between the narrator and the reader. You might notice that I use this type of writing in these Writing Corner posts, talking directly to you, the reader. These posts are not fiction, but the purpose of it is to have a conversation with you and establish a rapport. It hopefully also makes them more interesting to read than if they were written in an academic style.
2. When the Narrator Inside the Story Talks to the Reader
If a story is written in first person point of view (using “I”), then the narrator or storyteller is inside the story.
These story bubble breaks are less intrusive than another character talking to the reader since the storyteller knows that they are telling a story. Most of the time the storyteller will not talk directly to the reader but they can. A famous example is The Catcher in the Rye. Here are the first few sentences:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
Why Use This?
An advantage of using 1st person point of view is that it is a very close and personal story. Adding this technique of the storyteller talking to the reader increases this feeling so we feel very close to the person. It might not work for every story but can be effective sometimes. In Catcher in the Rye, we get a clear picture of the main character Holden Caulfield as a confused and uncooperative teenager and the extreme conversational style can help us relate to him.
3. When the Characters Know They are in a Story
This is usually what people think of when they think of fourth wall breaks. The characters hint that they know they are in a story or say it outright. Here are some examples, although this is not a complete list by any means.
1. Using writing terms in dialogue
“I will destroy the whole world!” Archmage Darkbeard shouted, laughing maniacally. “Evil will triumph.”
“You weren’t written with a very nuanced motivation, were you?” Dax said. “Oh well, it’s just another day for the Justice Squad.”
2. Talking about/interacting with the structure of the story
Terrence frowned. “What was that banker’s name again?”
“I don’t remember,” Olivia said. “That was back on page 24. Hey Bob!” Bob ran up. “Go back to page 24 and see what the banker’s name is. But don’t let us see you! That chapter was messed up enough as it was.”
3. Talking directly to the writer or reader
Kathy yawned. “I’m exhausted,” she announced to the empty room. “I’m going to take a shower. Don’t you dare follow me in there or describe anything, you pervert. Go see how Lon and Billy’s date is going and come back to my storyline once I’m a bit more rested.”
4. Mentioning aspects of the writer/readers’ real world
It was a new year. When the gang met again on the first day of school, there were three new people in the group: a Vietnamese girl, a blind chess champion and a nonbinary Ethiopian in a wheelchair.
“Who are these people?” Mark whispered.
“Shut up, they’re our friends,” Tonya hissed back. “We’ve known them for years. David’s publishers thought our books needed more diversity. Just play along.”
Why Use This?
This type of technique is not common and almost always used for comedy since the idea of a character knowing they’re in a story is pretty absurd. It can be used to surprise the reader and subvert their expectations. However, you should definitely not use this kind of story bubble break for most stories.
Now it’s your turn
- As you are reading or watching TV or movies, look for situations where the characters show they know they are in a story or where the narrator talks to the reader.
- Try writing a story with some element of a story bubble break. If you do, email it to me at email@example.com. I’d love to read it.
If you have any questions about writing or other topics you want me to talk about in Writing Corner, just send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.