The following is a paraphrased snippet of something I wrote, it is a conversation between the protagonist--a nihilist teenage boy--and an alien sociologist who communicates to him via telepathy, so the dialogue is private.

Alien: so, you don't want to go to the night club and get laid at all? The world is ending in three days or so, you know.
Boy: not really.
Alien: you don't want to die a virgin, do you? (reference here)
Boy: where did you get all these shoddy cultural references anyways?
Alien: well, I just had to say something that makes me sound like I know a thing or two about human society.

It may be too subtle or too obscure to be noticed, but the last sentence can be interpreted as me--the author--speaking to the reader and acknowledging my ignorance of popular culture.

My question is, is this kind of implicit/ambiguous fourth-wall breaking adding any value to my writing? I would also love to see some examples in existing literature that make use of this feature, if possible.

  • You'll be breaking the fourth wall for those that know those references. All others will miss the hint. Personally, I don't like that kind of meta-reference. It's a cheap device that ruins immersion for me. I find it much more impressive and enjoyable when an author manages to say the exact same thing without such a break.
    – user5645
    Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 20:08
  • The question in your title and the question in the body of your text don't match. Decide what single thing you are asking, and then edit your question to ask that. Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 20:48

1 Answer 1


I don't know if I'd call that fourth-wall breaking as much as meta. Meta subtly acknowledges realities outside the text without explicitly addressing the reader.

Tolkien's unnamed narrator using I and you in The Hobbit is "breaking the fourth wall." The trope is that the story is being told to the reader by the narrator, although the narrator is not a character in the story.

Meta is more like on the BBC's Sherlock at the beginning of S03E01 "The Empty Hearse," where a group of fans meet to speculate about how Sherlock might have survived his plunge from the roof of St. Bart's hospital — including crashing through a plate-glass window to kiss Molly à la James Bond and throwing a dummy off the roof and kissing Moriarty. The Sherlock fandom spent two years volubly wondering and theorizing how he did it, and there are of course many different shipping communities, so the on-screen (textual) theories were a meta wink to the off-screen, real-life ones.

So you could, strictly speaking, have your line about "where did you get all these shoddy cultural references?" as an authorial nod to the reader: Yes, I understand that these are silly, and I did it on purpose. The only caveat is that your entire story has to be told that way, with multiple nods and winks and meta lines. You can certainly do it, but it will take some finesse to pull it off. Whether it adds value is up to the reader, and the kind of story you want to tell.

Crossovers can be meta too — Diane Duane's Young Wizards series has a cameo by Doctor Who in High Wizardry.

  • So Special Agent DiNozzo's (TV show NCIS) constant references/quotes to/from classic motion pictures are meta, right? I think it is normal if the story is set in real world, and if it is not discriminative for the reader ("the diaphanous echoing opening sequence of Romantic Warrior's first track, Medieval Overture filled the room, blah, blah"--I would not expect a vast majority of people to be familiar with Return To Forever discography), and if it is not overused.
    – Lew
    Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 21:28
  • 1
    If the story is set in the "real world," mentioning other movies/TV/books etc. is not meta. Meta is the fictional characters acknowledging something outside fiction — Sherlock hinting that he had met the Doctor rather than John saying they were going to watch Doctor Who on Saturday night. In Hot Shots Part Deux, Charlie Sheen and Martin Sheen passing each other on boats and yelling "I loved you in Wall Street!" is meta. Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 21:42
  • Hm. I have not heard this term in this implementation. If anything I thought it would mean the exact opposite: "meta. A term, especially in art, used to characterize something that is characteristically self-referential." And Sherlock and Doctor Who are both fictional, they are both inside, just in different stories. Care to elucidate? I am not arguing, I am just confused.
    – Lew
    Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 22:04
  • @Lew My Sherlock/Doctor example may be stretching it a little. I was thinking along the lines that they are both BBC shows run by Steven Moffatt, which is the "self" part. A better one might be in S04E00, the Christmas special "The Abominable Bride," Victorian!Watson (in Sherlock's mind palace) says "I'm a storyteller; I know when I'm in one." Martin Freeman is playing a character (i.e., telling a story) who tells stories (blogs/writes) and is in a story (the show Sherlock) which is additionally showing the drug-fueled fantasy (story) in Sherlock's mind. Commented Mar 3, 2017 at 2:06

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