It’s a term you’ll probably hear more often in the theater. But the term has been creeping into other areas — movies and books — and it can be quite effective in your writing with the right plot and story format.
In the theater, the “fourth wall” is the invisible barrier that stands between the audience and the action on the stage. The stage represents the room in which all things occur and the fourth wall allows us to be voyeurs to that action. It’s performed without acknowledgement that someone is watching, only that the actors are absorbed in it.
“Breaking the fourth wall” refers to the action being directed toward the audience. In the theater, the best example is a musical titled The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The narrator is constantly speaking directly to the audience, to tell the back story or solicit their involvement in how the show develops. In the movies, the best example is Ferris Buehler’s Day Off, where Ferris is always delivering asides directly to the camera and thus to the audience in the movie theater.
In fiction, the best example is Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell Tale Heart, where the narrator is trying to convince you, the reader, that he’s done this terrible murder but it doesn’t make him crazy. He speaks directly to the person reading the story, using “you” when he addresses the reader. “You,” he says, will understand why he’s doing this and “you” must know that he’s not mad, he really isn’t.
Breaking the fourth wall is a wonderful device for drawing the reader in and making that reader a part of the story. The reader becomes a willing co-conspirator, even when he or she doesn’t want to be. It can make for interesting reading by doing so, but reader involvement also gives an emotional payout at the end. When used well, this device enhances the reader’s enjoyment of the story. When the story is written in First Person — the narrator is one of the characters of the story — this is a good time to break the fourth wall. This is a very good time for the narrator to carry on a personal relationship with the reader through the storytelling.
But it’s not always appropriate and that’s the hard part about using the device of breaking the fourth wall — determining when it can be used effectively and wisely. With genres such as mystery, thriller, or whodunit, breaking the fourth wall can work against you; especially when you don’t want the reader to know what the narrator or main character is thinking. You want the mystery to envelop everyone, including the reader. Reader involvement doesn’t require the fourth wall coming down in that case and can be just as fulfilling an experience. So pick and choose the times you want to use the device and make sure it’s appropriate to your story.
Lexington, have you ever read a story that used this device? Writers, have you ever used it in a story of your own? Tell me about your experiences; did you like it? Was it not for you? Did it not work or did it work? Tell me in the comments.
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