Breaking the 4th Wall

Picture a stage in live theater. It typically looks a lot like a box. A three sided box. But really, there’s a fourth side to that box–the invisible wall between the action and the audience. Breaking the fourth wall is a technique for drawing the audience into the action of the play (or the television show or the movie or the book) by engaging with them directly.

House of Cards does this. The Netflix series does it very well. Frank Underwood, the main character, talks directly to the audience regularly. Deadpool in Marvel Comics does this all the time. Shakespeare used this regularly. Think of Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The comic Pearls Before Swine is hilarious at it. In Top Secret! there are several instances of it. Airplane! had a number of deadpan camera shots with characters speaking directly to the audience.

There are very good reasons for doing this as an author. It can help you connect with your audience. It can, when done well, make them part of the story. A main character who breaks the fourth wall is letting the audience in on their private, personal secrets. The reader might feel closer to the character or laugh at the inside jokes that only they (and not the other characters in the story) know.

But despite how many good reasons there are for this, there are as many reasons not to do it. The main reason is that it can, in many cases, actually bring the reader OUT of the story and not in.

Consider this little snippet that I made up.

His eyes roved over my body. He was hungry, desperate. I was water and he’d been trapped in the desert for years.

“I want you, Lucy.”

Now, you’d think that those words would have had some effect on me, wouldn’t you? Well, they did. They sent me over the edge. You know that edge? The one that you never want to cross? Have you ever crossed it? I hadn’t. But I wanted to now.

“Take me.”

Edge crossed.

In this exchange, the entire third paragraph is basically breaking the fourth wall. But . . . this is a sex scene. Or it sounds like it could be one. I don’t know. I didn’t get that far. But it goes from serious and dark and a little dangerous to . . . something else. Something that feels casual. Then when Lucy loops back around to telling this unnamed man to take her, we’re back in the dark and serious again.

When you break the fourth wall, you have to be careful. It’s best done in comedies, I’ve found, though there are plenty of instances where it works in drama (see House of Cards and Shakespeare). But even then, you need to pick and choose where you do it. In the middle of a sex scene? Probably not the best place.

One book that does it very well in drama is Cherry Stem. I loved this book. The main character, Cherry Stem (yes, that really is her name), talks to the reader regularly. But it’s done so seamlessly that you’d never notice that you’re being taken out of the action. She also does it from the very first page, so you know what you’re getting yourself into when you pick up the book. There’s another book that I just finished that I won’t name because it wasn’t that great, where the main character breaks the fourth wall six or eight times in the book. It’s a long book. Every time the author did this, I did a double-take. It didn’t work. I was in the middle of the story, happily reading along (okay, not totally happily because it wasn’t that good but I had to see how it ended), and then BAM! Pulled out of the story by a quick, offhand interaction with the reader and then back to the story.

So be careful with this trope. It can be done very well. But it can also be done very poorly.



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