Monday, April 29, 2013

The Fourth Wall

The Fourth Wall

In playwriting and stage performance, there’s a convention called the fourth wall.  Think of the stage as a room with three walls that contain the action.  The fourth wall is the invisible wall between the room and the audience who views the action through that invisible fourth wall.  The characters on the stage are unaware of that fourth wall and that they are observed.

If a character addresses the audience, they are breaking that fourth wall and acknowledging that what the audience sees isn’t real. Shakespeare broke the fourth wall many times at the ends of his comedies to ask for the audience’s applause.  

The fourth wall is often broken in today’s sitcoms and, occasionally, in TV dramas in a playful manner through dialogue directed at the audience but spoken to another character.  On a few rare occasions, I have seen a character actually wink or smirk at the audience/camera breaking the fourth wall for a few moments before the fourth wall comes back.  This is usually done when a show is making fun of itself and its conventions.  CASTLE and a few playful episodes of SUPERNATURAL have used this method during metafiction moments.  (Metafiction: Literary/performance techniques that draw the viewer/reader’s attention to the fact that he is reading/watching.  For more detail, go here:

Early novelists had a problem with the concept of the fourth wall and the use of narrative and viewpoint to tell the story.  Novels like Richardson’s PAMELA were told in the form of letters to make up for no narrative voice.  Later novels used an omniscient narrator who saw all the action, the character’s thoughts, and dialogue and related it to the reader.  Sometimes, the narrator spoke directly to the reader with such comments as “Do not despair, gentle reader, for soon, Becky shall have her comeuppance.”

Over time, the omniscient narrator has all but disappeared, particularly in genre novels, and the story is now told in the close viewpoint of one or more characters.  

In some stories, the character looks back on the past and reflects on what has happened as they relate what happened.  This method is particularly popular in older style mysteries in the “had I but known” style.  Example: Had I but known that going to that party would destroy my happiness, I wouldn’t have gone, but I did and here’s the disaster that happened.  Writers like Dick Francis, Gothic romance authors, and earlier romantic suspense authors have employed the story retold method to good effect.  

Most novels now have the reader inside the character’s head in the present moment so she’s privy to thoughts and what the character sees and hears, but the narrative element is invisible.  The reader can only see and know what the character does.  

To break that invisible fourth wall has always been considered bad writing because it pulls the reader from the story.  

Recently, however, I’ve read several novels where the author deliberately breaks that fourth wall at some moment in the story by letting the viewpoint character talk directly to the reader.  This only happens once.

Since the writer has, until that moment, written a competent book, I’m assuming this is a deliberate narrative choice.

Is this a good thing?  I don’t think so because it pulls the reader out of the book.

Is it a probable change in narrative technique?  That remains to be seen.  

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