13

Note: This question was previously about breaking the fourth wall. I discovered that my interpretation of that phrase was wrong. I have therefore rewritten the question.

(The above is in place to explain the number of answers and comments about the fourth wall)


This question deals with an author pausing the story to speak directly to the reader. An example follows:

It is a strange thing, but when you are dreading something, and would give anything to slow down time, it has a disobliging habit of speeding up. The days until the first task seemed to slip by [...] Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

The first sentence is the pause in the story/narration. In the second sentence, the narration resumes. In my experience, this sort of thing is generally frowned upon by writers. The reader is there for the story, not your commentary.

That being said, I believe there are cases where this practice is fine. C.S. Lewis and E. Nesbit did it frequently in their books, and I was never bothered by it. On the contrary, I found it to only add to the story being told. I do believe that continuing to speak directly to the reader does hurt the novel, but in my experience, I've found short, to-the-point lines directly from the author to the reader only help the story. I myself have done this briefly, and my readers never mentioned it. Even J.K. Rowling does it occasionally.

All of this has led me to conclude that an author can pause the story and speak directly to the reader, as long as the passages are short, to the point, and do not overwhelm the story, but add to it.

Is this an accurate conclusion? If not, why? Please provide evidence of shared opinion.

  • I would like to bring up Mr. Robot. Where the viewer was partially critical to the story line, and Sam Esmail went out of his way several times to include them. If you aren't familiar with the story, you were a "voice in his head," and he frequently talked directly to the audience for "help" in a voice-over method. – Oberst Jul 11 '17 at 23:35
  • I have encountered a few situations where the author, as the author, specifically starts discussing the construction of the novel. I believe B S Johnson did this. Would that be closer to a "breaking of the fourth wall" for a book? I.e. something along the lines of "now we have a real difficulty in how to conclude this chapter, since I know what's going to happen but I don't want you to know yet". – Damien_The_Unbeliever Jul 12 '17 at 12:34
  • For a fun look at the 4th wall, check out 1/0 - one of the recurring themes towards the end of the story, is that only some of the characters have a fourth wall. – Benubird Jul 12 '17 at 13:28
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    "as long [they are] short, to the point, and do not overwhelm the story, but add to it." -- Isn't this a good philosophy to follow for adding anything to a story? I mean, why would you want to add anything to your writing which overwhelms/distracts from your point, including long, rambling asides? (With the caveat that sometimes long, rambling asides are the deliberate point/style of the writing.) – R.M. Jul 12 '17 at 15:32
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    'Breaking the Fourth Wall' refers to when a character addresses the audience. It is the same in a play, on screen, in a comic, or, in a novel. It isn't when the author addresses the audience. The author is the narrator. If the author pauses the story/narration to explain something to the reader, that is more akin to a footnote, not an instance of the fourth wall being broken. – Shane Jul 12 '17 at 18:28
1

All of this has led me to conclude that an author can pause the story and speak directly to the reader, as long as the passages are short, to the point, and do not overwhelm the story, but add to it.

Is this an accurate conclusion?

I'd say that, yes, it is.

Although with the slight caveat that you should do what works best for the story. It is better to show, not tell. So if you have to tell, then don't do too much of it.

On the other hand, if you feel like you really need to explain something critical to the readers, and you can't come up with a 'natural' feeling way to show the readers, then you'll need a passage of longer exposition to get your point across.

I read a lot of SciFi and this happens often in that genre. You have to explain the technical details of how the magical technology works. With too much exposition, it can begin to feel like you are reading a technical manual from college. Other times, the authors will try to shoehorn the exposition into the story. If done inelegantly, this can be worse: why is the super genius Admiral asking about how basic technology works?

tl;dr While it is better to show than to tell, what's best is what works best for your story.

30

I think your premise is a little flawed here. The convention of the novel since its inception is that the narrative is addressed by the narrator to the reader, and that the narrator is free to relate events or to comment on them as they see fit. There is no fourth wall in the novel; there are no walls at all. That, indeed, is it greatest artistic virtue.

The tendency of the narrator to withdraw into the shadows is a quite recent phenomenon that seems to date from the time when the cinema began to be a significant cultural force and writers like Graham Greene started to experiment with cinematic techniques in their novels.

Some people like to make this into an absolute doctrine of the novel form today, and "show don't tell" has become a shorthand and rather unthinking form of dismissal for all kind of lazy writing, to the point where it has been inflated by some into an iron law of literature.

And yet is it easy enough to demonstrate that popular modern novelists continue to use the narrative voice that has been with us since Cervantes, and arguably since the Gospels or even Homer. Yes, there is more use of cinematic techniques in contemporary novels, as the cinema has become perhaps the dominant cultural form of our day. But it has not extinguished the narrator's voice, and nor should it. The novel form would lose much of its artistic power and distinctive cultural role without it. (There is a reason the book is almost always better than the movie!)

There are no walls for the novelist and you are free to use the narrative voice appropriately in your work. Just don't let it become an excuse for lazy writing.

  • An interesting conversation about exposition, commentary, narrative voice, and the fourth wall has been moved to chat. Please continue it there and use comments to request improvements to this answer. Thanks. – Monica Cellio Jul 13 '17 at 1:48
14

When breaking it is fun.

Narrators don't so much break the fourth wall as sit on it and give you the play by play. It's characters that break the fourth wall because they aren't expected to be self aware. Unless a character is a narrator. "Call me Ishmael".

Truly breaking the fourth wall is an act that subverts the suspension of disbelief and ends up reinforcing it by shining a light on it.

It most certainly exists in novels. I remember a fantasy novel that talked about a powerful wizard with the power to perceive all that is hidden. When the narrator took us to his chambers and started describing the scene, the wizard looked up and asked his companion if he heard someone describing their clothing. The narrator quickly took us elsewhere and acted unnerved by the experience.

  • 1
    Imo, this is the answer that best understands what breaking the fourth wall truly means so far. It's essentially when a work of fiction admits being just that : a work of fiction. This can happen in a number of more or less subtle ways . – Patsuan Jul 12 '17 at 13:53
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    @ThomasMyron Then you should heavily edit the question. Actually, you should just delete it and re-ask, because what you are talking about isn't the 4th wall. At all. IT isn't even a related term if you are squinting and looking at it sideways. The concept of the 4th wall and whatever it is you are asking about share nothing in common. – Shane Jul 12 '17 at 18:46
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    @MarkBaker "But this is more meta than anythings else" that's what breaking the fourth wall is: Being meta. "'Breaking the fourth wall' is any instance in which this performance convention, having been adopted more generally in the drama, is violated. This can be done through either directly referencing the audience, the play as a play, or the characters' fictionality. The temporary suspension of the convention in this way draws attention to its use in the rest of the performance. This act of drawing attention to a play's performance conventions is metatheatrical." They are nearly synonyms. – Shane Jul 12 '17 at 18:48
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    @Shane Thank you for bringing my attention to that fact. I have rewritten the question. I'm not sure how I formed that definition of the fourth wall... – Thomas Myron Jul 12 '17 at 19:18
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    That said, I think Shane is right about asking another question. You don't need to delete this. Just put it back to the 4th wall. Otherwise all these answers become invalid and confusing. I know it's annoying to be misunderstood but that's not something editing can fix at this point. Learn from this and take another swing. Just be clear so the next one isn't closed as a dupe. – candied_orange Jul 12 '17 at 21:38
1

There are two concepts being conflated here. One the one hand, there is the separation between the narrator and the reader, and the other the separation between the characters and the reader.

Many modern books are written from the perspective of a single character, but not as if they are telling the story, rather as if they are narrating their experiences in realtime. This makes it easy to mix them up, but the two types of separate are different, and the difference is important.

You seem to be asking about cases where the narrator addresses the reader. Whether this is a break of the fourth wall, depends on whether the narrator is also a character. For instance, C.S. Lewis writes as if the story is being told after the fact - and therefore, addressing the reader is not a fourth wall break. Neither is making comments on the current situation as they are being thought by a character. It's only a break if one of the characters shows recognition that they are fictional.

For example, writing (as a first person narrator) "You probably think this is very strange. Well, so did I, but then..." is not a break - the character is conversationally recording their thoughts. On the other hand, writing "I know this scene is going a bit long, but don't worry, we'll be back into it in a couple of pages" very much is.

Hopefully that makes sense...

  • 1
    But breaking the fourth wall in the theatre is not (usually) the character admitting that they are fictional, but the actor admitting that they are an actor playing a character, and momentarily stepping out of character to address the audience.Now, when Frank Underwood address the camera in House of Cards, that is the character addressing the audience, not the actor. But Underwood is not admitting he is fictional. It is more a case of TV borrowing first-person narration from novels. I don't have to admit to being fictional to tell you a story that involves me, or to comment on it. – Mark Baker Jul 12 '17 at 14:17
  • @MarkBaker You're right, that's a really good point, that it's the stepping-out-of-character that matters rather than the addressing the audience. It's tricky in novels, where there is no actor playing the character, but you can still have a character step out of character, or through any number of layers of meta-narrative; see for instance, the "Thursday Next" series, or Snow White and the Seven Samurai for some examples of that. The Frank Underwood case is very difficult to categorize, I can see both sides of that one. – Benubird Jul 12 '17 at 14:41
  • Sort of -- a character who addresses the audience may or may not be admitting to be an actor, but he is admitting that there is an audience. Whether the audience, then knows it's watching a play rather than spying on reality in their own universe is an interesting question. – Carl Witthoft Jul 12 '17 at 15:05
  • @Benubird, yes, it is possible in novels (almost anything is possible in a novel), but it is pretty meta. In effect, you have to have a character who is not the narrator address the reader directly, but since all you have it the narrative, the narrator is inherently complicit in the deed. In effect it is the narrator playing tricks, but still the narrator. Technically that is true in any fourth wall break, I suppose, since it is all the author's work. But it has to be far more contrived in prose than live or on screen. And I really don't think that is what Thomas was asking about. – Mark Baker Jul 12 '17 at 15:16
  • Especially in a time of rolling 24-hour news, constant on-the-spot reportage, a character talking to camera could just as easily be talking to a fly-on-the-wall reporter. Re. Frank Underwood, when watching Francis Urquhart in the British version of House of Cards, even back then (first shown 1990) my feeling was that he wasn't admitting to being a character (certainly not a fictional one) but was more talking to (through?) a fly-on-the-wall camera crew in a documentary where they normally pretend not to be there. – TripeHound Jul 12 '17 at 15:21
1

Authors often indulge in narrative departures from the plot, sometimes quite extensively. Les Misérables by Victor Hugo is infamous for its digressions:

More than a quarter of the novel—by one count 955 of 2,783 pages—is devoted to essays that argue a moral point or display Hugo's encyclopedic knowledge, but do not advance the plot, nor even a subplot, a method Hugo used in such other works as The Hunchback of Notre Dame.... The topics Hugo addresses include cloistered religious orders, the construction of the Paris sewers, argot, and the street urchins of Paris. The one about convents he titles “Parenthesis” to alert the reader to its irrelevance to the story line.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville likewise contains many digressions and stories-within-a-story, notoriously including an extended discussion of the etymology and pronunciation of the word whale.

Novels often feature a discussion of the authors’ (or narrators’) interests along with plot, characterization, and imagery. This commentary is less popular in contemporary novels than it was in 19th-century serialized novels, but it’s a long-established part of the form, and the examples need not be short or to-the-point. For some authors, like Hugo and Melville, they often seem to be the point of the novel.

0

All of this has led me to conclude that an author can pause the story and speak directly to the reader

But the passage you quote doesn't actually show Rowling doing that. She's not talking to you, she's describing a general concept/situation which is being experienced by the character.

Suppose you had something like

After rain, a Yorkshire moorland smells of damp earth and heather. Jem picked up his stick, stood up from the rock where he had sat for a moment to catch his breath, and followed the impatient dog up the hillside.

(I just wrote that, so don't be looking for a citation!)

The first sentence is describing a situation which is currently being experienced by Jem. It's phrased in a way which makes it a general statement, so it may be applicable to the reader too. The author has no intention to talk directly to you though, and it certainly is not breaking the fourth wall in any way whatsoever.

-2

No, your conclusion does not appear correct to me.

From what I have gathered, fourth wall breaks are just like any other trick of the trade: They need to be done well. If you know how to do them, it does not matter how extensive, clear or fun the break is. Those are not the critical points, they are just the methods that some authors use to make it work.

Yes, the fourth wall can be broken - we have enough examples of it to understand that yes it can, and yes it can work.

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    This is not a very useful answer. You could make it more useful by explaining how exactly fourth wall breaks can be done well and/or by giving some examples of good and bad use of fourth wall breaking and explaining why they are good or bad. – Philipp Jul 12 '17 at 13:54
-2

I completely understand what you're trying to do here, I love it. Continue doing this, as I know what you mean when the author adds to the story by commentating on the story as it goes.

Yes- too much can make the reader disinterested, but just the right amount will make the reader fall in love with the story even more.

Good luck to you, my good sir.

  • 1
    This is not breaking the fourth wall at all. It's simply(yet uncommon) the use of a second person point of view. – Patsuan Jul 12 '17 at 13:56
  • I like to think of it as fourth wall breaking. – Aspen the Artist and Author Jul 12 '17 at 17:01
  • @AspenRand whether you want to think of it that way or not, doesn't change the fact it isn't. I can think and believe all I want that the earth is flat, doesn't change the fact that it is not. – ggiaquin16 Jul 12 '17 at 20:35
  • @ggiaquin ? What do you mean? – Aspen the Artist and Author Jul 12 '17 at 22:36
  • I was simply saying that I liked what this guy was saying... – Aspen the Artist and Author Jul 12 '17 at 22:37

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