Writing Excuses 4.16: Breaking the Fourth Wall

Isaac Stewart, interior artist for the Mistborn books and Rocket Road-Tripper joins us again for a discussion of the fourth wall, and the breaking thereof. We talk about the theatrical origins of the term, and how the technique it represents might be used by authors and others. We talk about why Howard broke the fourth wall a lot more in early Schlock Mercenary strips than he does now, and why Isaac broke the fourth wall in some video game writing he did. We also talk about when it would be absolutely, inarguably inappropriate to break the fourth wall.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Alcatraz vs. The Evil Librarians, by Brandon Sanderson, in which the 1st-person narrator, Alcatraz, breaks the fourth wall a lot.

Writing Prompt: Write something in which somebody is literally the son of a shark, and in which you break the fourth wall. Oh, and the fourth wall is the glass wall of an aquarium.

Audio Glitch We Hate at 3:13: For some reason we lost one channel of audio for about 20 seconds. That’s why this episode is monaural, and why between 3:13 and 3:34 the volume drops off a bit.

Related Linkage: Here’s a link to the article about the HBO Game of Thrones adaptation Isaac mentioned.

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27 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 4.16: Breaking the Fourth Wall”

  1. The greatest usage of 4th wall breakage I’ve ever encountered is the Marvel Comics character, Deadpool.
    He regularly addresses the reader, comments on his voice and thought balloons, and makes reference to the comic book itself. And does this in the middle of the action, without breaking the story… because he’s really quite mad.

  2. I’m not sure if you’re aware of it or not, but there is a movie called “Funny Games” where the director intentionally breaks the fourth wall several times to make a point and increase the tension in the movie, it’s done very well.

  3. Breaking the forth wall can be funny if done in the place and time of a story. Mel Brooks did it in Blazing Saddles when Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) is setting at his desk talking to himself about finding a sheriff vial the people of Rock Ridge would kill him themselves, he then looks straight at the audience and asks, “Where would I find such a man? Why am I asking you?” I thought that was a very funny scene.

    As to Alcatraz vs. The Evil Librarians, I loved it. Thanks Brandon for making me laugh. Is there any chance of you ever writing a sequel to War Breaker?

  4. Personally, I love it when the fourth wall is broken. IMHO it added a lot to “Alcatraz”.

    This will show my age but I absolutely loved it when George Burns broke the fourth wall in Burns and Allen radio and tv shows.

    I have not really used it in my own fiction, but I might. Perhaps I’ve done it a little in some of my non-political blogs. One titled “Banana Peel” comes to mind.


  5. I’m considering whether to have a “future first person narrator” in some sections of a story, that essentially breaks the fourth wall in much the same way as Howard’s narrator. I’m a bit torn as to whether it works in the guns and sorcery fantasy genre.

  6. I think breaking the forth wall is done mercifully and for drama rather then laughs in many tv series. ‘Dead like me’, did it beautifully and so does ‘Greys Anatomy’. I wonder what can be learned from those examples when you put it into writing.

    Me personally have a playful relationship with the forth wall or rather the fort gray zone. It mostly a matter of degrees.

  7. @Daemon: Deadpool’s fourth-wall breaking works because we can chalk it up to an in-universe delusion. He THINKS he is in a comic book, and the Voices In His Head are narrating his life.

    It’s awesome, though. Definitely a great use of the technique.

  8. This podcast seems to define breaking the fourth wall as any time a character addresses the audience, but I think this is a bad definition. By this definition, Shakespeare’s soliloquies, TV show voice-overs, and first-person narrators would all be fourth-wall breaking, since there’s no in-universe reason for the characters to explain what they’re thinking or doing.

    I think it makes more sense to define breaking the fourth wall as whenever a character knows things about the audience that she shouldn’t. Soliloquies, voice-overs, and first-person narrators only talk about things the characters know, so they don’t break the fourth wall even though they’re sort of addressing the audience. I think Alcatraz doesn’t break the fourth wall either, because only Alcatraz-the-narrator (as opposed to Alcatraz-the-character) knows about the audience, and in the Alcatraz-verse, Alcatraz-the-narrator is actually writing the book so there’s an in-universe audience that he would know about. The Schlock narrator does break the fourth wall because he knows that the audience is living on 21st-century Earth, which is something an in-universe narrator wouldn’t know.

  9. I know in acting we talk about levels of breaking the fourth wall. For instance, cheating out (facing the audience even though you’re supposedly in dialogue with another character) is bending the fourth wall.

    In some ways, first person perspective in writing always bends the fourth wall a little. While third person is like spying on someone, first person is like having the character next to you explaining what’s going on in their heads. Someone has to be there to tell the story, and to hear it. If there’s an “I”, there’s also implicitly a “you.”

    The thinning of the fourth wall provided by the I-narrator makes breaking the fourth wall more acceptable and easier in first person than third person, in my opinion. That’s part of the reasons Alcatraz doing it worked so well…although it did occasionally make me wonder what kind of English lit classes this kid was taking. But first person also makes breaking the fourth wall harder to avoid. I find myself writing phrases like, “my worst fear, if you’re curious, is being drowned in a river of mashed potatoes.” I can delete the “if you’re curious”, but it’s also a part of the voice/the “I’m sitting here telling you my story” baggage that comes from writing in first person. I have a hard time deciding whether that’s something I should leave or cut out completely, because it breaks the fourth wall, but it’s not the same as addressing someone. It’s not, “As you know since you ate with him last Thursday, the Prince of Persia likes to dine on kidney pie.”

    I usually delete it because I figure it’s not essential to the story or the voice and its extraneous verbiage, but it always leaves me a little torn.

  10. Get your mop buckets ready boys; somebody just broke the fourth wall over in the aquarium.

    It may not always be funny but at least when it happens in a web comic no one drowns.

    Unless it’s Samuel L. Jackson’s web comic ‘cuz he done told you to turn yo motha ****** phone off.

  11. @Matthew Whitehead: Sometimes I’m afraid that every use of a first person narrator is actually a breaking of the fourth wall. After all, the first person narrator always sounds like s/he is talking to somebody. Who are they talking to? The audience?

    My favorite use of breaking the fourth wall comes from the old SNES game Secret of Evermore. In one city (modeled after ancient Rome) there is a prophet testifying in the streets, calling on the people to repent and obey “the button pressing overlord”. The people standing around the prophet call him a nut case, and as you keep talking to him he eventually says, “Don’t you get it? We’re all living inside of a video game. A VIDEO GAME!!! If I am lying, may I be struck as a basket.”

    And, of course, a bolt of lightning falls on the prophet and turns him into a basket.

    “Well what do you know?” the people say. “It turns out he wasn’t a nut case; he was a basket case.”

  12. Alan: Yeah. In some scenes I have my first-person narrator grounded in the present, and she describes herself in the moment. I’m perfectly comfortable with those scenes.

    In others I’ve played around with constructions like “X told me later that Y”, but I definitely feel uneasy about it. The issue is that the future-self-narrator allows me to do limited viewpoint switching when I literally need two viewpoints in one scene, and I haven’t yet found a way to write a couple of the scenes without information from the future narrator. This may just be beginner laziness.

    I think in the end I’m going to end up following an earlier ‘casts advice, and branch off one file where I use the funky narration, and one where I don’t, and see which one “looks right”.

  13. So, when Terry Pratchett names a Discworld character “Imp ‘Buddy’ y Celyn,” and it turns out that “y celyn” is Welsh for “holly,” is that a very subtle 4th wall break?

    Also, I’m stoked that I got to hear Brandon say something in Korean. (And Howard, I looked up the French idiom you mentioned. Apparently the full form is “Quand on parle du loup, on peut voir le bout de sa queue,” which means “When you speak of the wolf, you can see the end of his tail.”)

  14. No worries! Despite having a BA in French literature, I’d never heard of that idiom, so you at least picked up a few things while being very distracted by the opposite sex. :)

  15. “picked up a few things…”

    Oh, dear.

    There are any number of things I should not be picking up, and one of them is that particular straight-line.

  16. There is only one book I have ever readh which can top Alcetraz for sheer rule breaking: The life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. A strange book that braks all the rules of what narrative and novles should do. It is a man trying to write is own biography and never gets past his own birth or complets a thought. It is a book that meanders and dabbles.

    Imagin a book where the prolouge occurs at page 142 because the author had a few moments to spare. The stangests book ever written (sorry Brandon but you did not have a chapter long curse copied from an old church document).

  17. I agree that the definition of fourth-wall breaking needs just a little more precision, and I like the idea that it involves *knowledge* that the characters shouldn’t have. For example, Steven Brust’s Dumas-parody (satire? Homage?) of *The Pheonix Guards* and *The Viscount of Adrilankha* use an in-world narrator of incredible personality and force, which is explained as he is actually an (egotistical, hilarious) historian writing at the time of the main characters of his (Brust’s) other novels. This is laid out right at the beginning, and really makes the world come to life, as well as allowing the kind of omniscient narrator/character that Pratchett and Taylor use without breaking the fourth wall. This is just one example of a manner in which a character or narrator can speak directly to the reader and reference the fact that they are reading a book (he rails against having to provide synopses of past books, and makes much ado about a simple “now”/”not” mis-spelling in a previous book) without breaking the fourth wall, in my opinion.

  18. @Wesley – Yeah, but when Brandon breaks the rules it all makes complete sense eventually. And it’s VERY entertaining.

    Oh, and by the way @AlanHorne – your comment about that video game totally made me LoL. That kind of thing is so SNES era video game humor. I always loved the Sierra adventure games (not SNES, but same time frame) and their easter eggs. They broke the fourth wall all the time. In King’s Quest 4 the main character is female (the only one in the series) and this was when adventure games were still text entry instructed action. Most of the time if you typed something weird it just said “I don’t understand” or something. But if you take the female character and walk her to where she’s behind a tree or other visual obstruction and type “undress” she yells “I WILL NOT!!” (or something like that).

    I think of all the genres of entertainment video games are the most likely to break the fourth wall and the one medium where players will readily accept it. I think there’s just something inherent in the direct interaction with the environment that makes it okay. In a way the wall is already broken because you are controlling the events. Granted, games have started to take themselves more seriously, but even still there are tons of ways that they break the fourth wall.

  19. @bdagger: Yeah, you see a lot of that in gaming. Like in Earthbound when you encounter NPCs that have played “Earthbound” before.

    But probably the best example of fourth-wall breaking in a TV series is Boston Legal. Man I loved that show. They only broke the rules on occasion, but when they did it was always funny.

  20. I screamed in agreement when the podcast talked about taking phrases from our day and changing them to the time of the story. In Star Trek, “penny for your thoughts’ was strip of latnum for your thoughts” i hated it, totally draws me out.

  21. I don’t know if anyone else caught this, but you seemed to have fun planning this episode. everything matches up with 4:
    The season? 4.
    The episode? 16, which is 4 x 4.
    The date? 4/25/2010 – 4th month, 25th day, and we all know 25 is 1/4 of 100!

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