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What do you guys think about breaking the fourth wall?

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message 1: by Aaron (new)

Aaron Yeager | 11 comments I was wondering if you guys mind it when books break the fourth wall for a joke. Personally I love that kind of humor, but I have been told that for some people it ruins the illusion that the fantasy world actually exists and bounces them out of the story.

For anyone not familiar with the term, breaking the fourth wall is like the literary version on a Mel Brooks movie where the character turns to the camera and talks the the audience. It is an acknowledgement that this is a work of fiction and that the characters involved are aware of it, almost always for the sake of a joke. It can be big things like characters pointing out a gaping hole in the plot, or announcing "I can't lose, I'm the main character!" It can be little genre-savvy things too like someone saying, "Hey, we can't do that, this is a children's book," or something along those lines.

What do you guys think? Yay, Nay, or Meh?


message 2: by Trike (new)

Trike | 1957 comments Very difficult to do well so if you aren't Mel Brooks (or William Goldman), don't do it.


message 3: by David(LA,CA) (new)

David(LA,CA) (DavidScharf) | 327 comments I think I've only seen it once in anything I've read (that I can recall right now). It was very subtle and I loved it.


message 4: by John (new)

John Wiswell | 86 comments It's worked very well in non-prose mediums, like Mel Brooks, or Deadpool in comic books. In prose, I generally prefer prodding the fourth wall. Tristram Shandy, for instance, shakes at the foundations of fiction, but isn't so enormously about fiction being fake and winking at the audience.

It can be fun. Honestly, I feel like I must be forgetting an obvious example of major fourth wall breaking in prose fiction that worked. I enjoyed Stephen King appearing in his Dark Tower series, but this wasn't for humor, actually pursuing what the purpose of fiction is through themes.

Anyway, if you're going to write it, I just beg the author to do it in an original fashion. We do not need the prose equivalent of Saved by the Bell.


message 5: by Trike (new)

Trike | 1957 comments John wrote: "It's worked very well in non-prose mediums, like Mel Brooks, or Deadpool in comic books."

Funnily enough, I took out the line from my original post, "It's almost never done well; see every issue of Deadpool, for instance."

Even by people you would think might be good at it, like Kevin Smith in movies or Christopher Moore in books, it really feels forced 9 times out of 10.


message 6: by Alex (new)

Alex Ristea (alexristea) | 654 comments I thought Scalzi did this well in Redshirts, if you can call it breaking the fourth wall.


message 7: by James (new)

James Ward | 9 comments Aaron wrote: "I was wondering if you guys mind it when books break the fourth wall for a joke. Personally I love that kind of humor, but I have been told that for some people it ruins the illusion that the fant..."

Are you talking about Characters having "Meta-awareness"(knowing that they are artificial characters in a story) or are you just talking about characters "breaking the fourth wall" (talking to the audience) because they are not actually the same thing. The tradition of characters addressing an audience goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks and has been used by 1000's of authors from Shakespeare to Jim Butcher. It's a very common convention. Now characters being aware that they are characters is quite a different matter, similar but not the same. Although you can trace it's root as far back as Chaucer it is really a post-modern device. When Sam Spade speaks to the reader he is not aware that he is a construct of someone's imagination like the characters in Scalzi's Red Shirts or Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author.


message 8: by Timothy (new)

Timothy Pecoraro | 224 comments I'm fine with the idea of it. But outside of TV and movies I can't seem to think of a case where it was used to great effect. At least a memorable one anyway.


message 9: by Richard (new)

Richard | 221 comments I would argue that WG was not breaking the 4th wall with "The Princess Bride." While the film was mostly about the love/adventure story with narrative interludes, the book was a story about a fictional book & the need for editorial revision, complete with descriptions of the text that had to be cut to turn this dreadful social satire into an engaging adventure tale. WG does the opposite of breaking the 4th wall by using himself as the narrative voice & maintaining that he was only editing the work of another.


message 10: by Trike (new)

Trike | 1957 comments I'm suddenly reminded of the framing device of Victorian-era novels, that started off, "Dear Reader, in the Year of our Lord, 18__, I inveigled passage upon a ship owned by Mr _____ heading...."

I never really cared for that. Especially the blanks. Stop being all coy and pretending this is a 200-page letter.


message 11: by Richard (new)

Richard | 221 comments I can't decide which I hated more, reading the original dated prose of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or watching recent films try to turn him into an albino Hulk.


message 12: by Gord (new)

Gord McLeod (mcleodg) | 346 comments Trike wrote: "Very difficult to do well so if you aren't Mel Brooks (or William Goldman), don't do it."

This is terrible advice that nobody should listen to, I'm afraid. You can't know if you'll be the next Mel Brooks unless you do it. So absolutely do it. And if you're not Mel Brooks, and you want to do it... keep doing it. You won't get good without practice.


message 13: by Andy (new)

Andy (Andy_M) | 246 comments For me there is an important distinction, is it the narrator talking to the audience or the character.

As James notes, Jim Butcher uses Harry Dresden as the character and the narrator of the book. The narrator will often make jokes and slight asides to the audience. Harry the character has not done this.

Red Shirts is a great example of characters breaking the 4th wall explicitly and in the context of that book for great effect.

Either way, as long as it fits the humor and tale of the book I do not mind. If I was reading a serious piece of literature and the author broke the wall I would be more frustrated.


message 14: by Joe Informatico (new)

Joe Informatico (joeinformatico) | 783 comments There's generally not much call for fourth-wall breaking or monologuing a la stage plays (or film, TV, comic books, or video games) in prose fiction, because there aren't the same barriers to showing a character's inner thoughts. Especially since third-person omniscient narration seems to be passé these days, so almost all books in the last decade or so seem to favour first-person or limited third-person/POV style narration. We're already privy to the characters' thoughts, at least the characters whose thoughts the author wants us to be privy to.

The meta-awareness/genre-savviness James talks about, i.e. characters knowing that they're characters, or characters understanding genre conventions and commenting on them--it's ancient, but a lot more common since the rise of the web, or even the rise of popular fiction a hundred years ago. And today I feel it's done partly out of a sense of authenticity: if you and your friends actually believed there was a vampire in the vicinity, someone would bring up Dracula or Anne Rice or Buffy or Twilight. You'd probably start discussing if you'd have to resort to garlic, stakes, and crosses. You'd probably think it was weirder in a modern story if a group of supposedly average people encountered a vampire and nobody made a pop culture reference.


message 15: by James (new)

James Ward | 9 comments Joe wrote: "There's generally not much call for fourth-wall breaking or monologuing a la stage plays (or film, TV, comic books, or video games) in prose fiction, because there aren't the same barriers to showi..."

I agree. In fact I would go so far as to say that in literature you can't "break the fourth wall" since there isn't one. There is no wall between the reader and the action because literature is storytelling so their must always be a storyteller whether its the author, character, narrator, or whatever. In Theater (and by convention film)you don't have narration (a storyteller) unless you have someone step out of character and do it (or you establish a greek chorus like character ala the Stagemanager in Our Town who can break that much maligned fourth wall). So really we should confine our discussion to either books or film(theater) not both.


message 16: by Mapleson (new)

Mapleson | 94 comments I'd disagree with you, James and Joe. The fourth wall is the one between you and the story frame. Whenever a character directly addresses a reader/viewer, they have stepped outside the narrative to make some comment or another. Interestingly, this comes up in this month's read, Bridge of Birds.

In theatre, it often occurs to have a narrator that's seperate from the story frame, but it as oftenly common to have a narrator that either steps into or out of the plot at some point in the telling.

To answer the OP question, unless it is done extremely well and to good effect, I'm definately not a fan. Meta-awareness is fine, if you wish to explore that concept, but I prefer to figure things out for myself than be ham-fistedly told what has or is about to occur.


message 17: by James (new)

James Ward | 9 comments Mapleson wrote: "I'd disagree with you, James and Joe. The fourth wall is the one between you and the story frame. Whenever a character directly addresses a reader/viewer, they have stepped outside the narrative ..."
Mapleson, I must respectfully counter your argument. I still hold that to apply the term Breaking the Fourth Wall to literature is incorrect. A narrator in a play is actually a very uncommon device. There are of course famous examples of such but they are rather the exception then the rule. My experience is much more in play writing (and reading) then in prose. In a play you don't have an authors voice as you do in fiction (even first person presupposes that the main character IS the author in a sense). An excellent playwright once said to me, "in the theatre, unlike a book, you can't just write: it was a dark and stormy night. You have to have someone look out a window and report, "Gosh, what a dark and stormy night it is." Therefore fiction automatically breaks the wall between reader and story by employing a narrative voice outside of dialogue. My rather quibbling point is just that the literary device you are all referring to is not (IMHO) Breaking the 4th Wall but Meta-awareness. You can love it or hate it I just think we should correctly name it. But if you really want to call it that...go ahead...it just bugs me.


message 18: by Mapleson (new)

Mapleson | 94 comments Without a definitive breakdown of plays with and without narrators, we'll have to agree to disagree. I still consider a story framed by the imagination, hence why we so little, if any, second person point of view stories.

To be fair, 'breaking the fourth wall' is a bit of a misnomer when applied to print literature, but people are more familiar with it than 'meta-awareness'.


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Books mentioned in this topic

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (other topics)
Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was (other topics)