Let’s Talk Process: The Fourth Wall
Full disclosure: I am a fourth wall curmudgeon. I like it were it is and, as a general rule, I would prefer it stay there. There are certainly some exceptions in my repertoire (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, anything by Douglas Adams, A Matter of Blood by Sarah Pinborough, Mechanique by Genevieve Valentine, and select others). In these instances, the shattering of the divide is done is such a way as to not pull the reader out of the story but rather, into pull her further in. This is not a simple thing to do. As with continuity changes, it is very, very difficult to do well and, when done poorly, completely ruins the reading/viewing experience in such a way as to make it impossible to salvage.
The last thing I want to happen as I’m enjoying my getaway into fiction is to hit an iceberg and go nose first into the freezing Atlantic. It makes me grumpy. As I do the majority of my reading during the weeks I’m on nightshift, the baseline grumpy is pretty high so you can imagine what happens if I get sucker punched by a giant pothole.
You can so be sucker punched by a pothole! Come to Pittsburgh for a few hours, I’ll show you.
^ Is what your face probably looks like right now. Hush, let me lay this out for you.
In the majority of cases, fourth wall breaking is a device. And we’ve covered on several previous occasions the myriad issues with devices. Your character may be fantastically snarky but unless there’s a damn good reason, he shouldn’t be throwing that snark directly at the reader to get her attention; he shouldn’t have to. If he’s well written, he should already have it. Having a character speak directly to me doesn’t bring me into the story; it brings the character out in to the world and I, for one, read to escape the world. That’s why I read primarily fiction, aka: shit that isn’t real. If I wanted real, I’d read the news section when I get the Sunday New York Times instead of using that part to keep glue off the table during craft time and focusing on Style, Travel, and the Review of Books. Oh, and the crossword puzzle. Also, I’d get my news somewhere besides Jimmy Kimmel’s monologue when I bother at all. The intrusion of a character into my plane, unless done perfectly, is jarring and irritating and it kills my happy place. In most cases, I will put the book down gently while resisting the urge to throw it and never pick it up again; I am also unlikely to read other books by the same author. Monty Python and Deadpool may *wink wink nudge nudge me.* Most other people will be summarily dismissed.
Why do I find fourth wall breaking so intrusive? Because for the most part, there is no good reason for it. In very, very, very, very rare cases, perhaps it’s integral to the character or even the tone of the work. I have yet to encounter an instance, however, when it is actually truly integral to the story (Hitchhikers aside), even when done well and amusingly and with the perfect about of gravitas or snark. If you’re writing in the third person, then pony up the italics of internal thought – I talk to myself all the time and it’s perfectly acceptable for my characters and your characters and everyone’s characters to do the same. Don’t like that solution? Allow your characters to relate the information in a conversation rather than having one of them turn to face the audience. Writing in the first person? Your main character is all about herself anyway, no conflict with showing internal thoughts there. Or, better still, integrate the concepts into the story. Make them part of events rather than word vomit that splatters off the page and on to the readers shoes.
Admit it: fourth wall breaking is easy. It’s a much simpler thing to have your character elbow the reader in the ribs and whisper something directly into her ear than to integrate it into the book as a whole. AKA: it is, again, unless integral and well done, lazy. Lazy as all get out. Need to get an idea across? Work it in to the plot, the scene, your word choice. Make it part of the fabric of your world instead of tearing the fabric and peeking your surrogate-head out the other side. Fourth wall breaking is, inherently, an info-dump, a summary. It’s covering a lot of ground via a cheat code rather than giving your ideas and your characters and your writing the time and space they deserve. It allows you to write in snippets instead of fleshing things out and tying them all together. I don’t want to be told what your story is. I want to experience it in all it’s glory. Cheap tricks don’t become your efforts or the reader’s attention.
At its core, most fourth wall breaking is an attempt at a witty deus ex machina that typically across as obnoxious or self-aggrandizing, self-congratulatory or maybe a tad bit masturbatory. And as those of us with children have had to explain at one time or another, it’s absolutely fine and natural to explore yourself, but you shouldn’t do it in public. Stay home, close the shades, and maybe even your bedroom door. It’s only polite.
In summary: Berlin Wall? Bad. Fourth wall? Unless you’ve got something spectacular on the other side, very, very good.
Think my head is up my ass? By all means, let me know. Just make sure you tell my why!