Oct
21
2013

Experience is a Matter of Perspective

In a theater, defining audience perspective and experience is easy. After all, the audience will only sit where we put the chairs. In TV or movies, this perspective is more fluid, though the viewer effectively sits behind the camera. When constructing a set in theater or cinema, you don’t build an entire room. Good luck fitting two hundred and fifty chairs, or an entire production crew, into someone’s kitchen. Instead, only three walls are constructed. The missing wall, the wall between the performance and the audience, is what actors refer to as the “fourth wall.”

The fourth wall is both concrete and invisible. In most schools of thought regarding acting, characters can neither perceive nor interact with the audience. To them, the fourth wall is as real as the rest of the world. “Breaking the fourth wall,” acknowledging the fiction of the situation, shatters that reality. By the same token, there shouldn’t be anything that distracts the audience from the experience. There’s a reason after all, that the fourth wall was not built when the set was constructed.

In writing, the fourth wall exists in the imagination of the readers and in the language of the prose. As a writer, I can only directly control the latter, and use it to manipulate the former. Even so, the rules of the fourth wall remain. Nothing should directly call attention to the fiction of the story, nor should any aspect of the story distract from the reader’s experience. However, like any other writer’s mandate, breaking the fourth wall can be done well.

One of my favorite forms of humor, meta-humor, is entirely dependent upon flirting with the fourth wall. In this sort of joke, a character bounces a ball off the fourth wall. Some sort of comment is made that implicitly or subtly references the fiction of the situation, but doesn’t ever directly acknowledge it. If the joke is too obvious, then the ball is thrown too hard, and the fourth wall shatters.

Narrators have more flexibility in regards to the fourth wall than characters, especially in humor or satire. I have seen this work best in a third omniscient POV, but occasionally, a third limited manages as well. Douglas Adams does it best in my opinion. His narrators will turn and wink at the audience, then go back to the story as if nothing had ever happened.

The aspect of the fourth wall that is least forgiving is the invisibility of the prose. The easiest way to add opacity is poor grammar or spelling. Mistakes that reveal internal inconsistency or irrationality of the world also add up quickly. Even when everything is done correctly, excessive poetry in the prose draws attention away from the story and to the words.

When I read a book, I want to look up, stretch and suddenly realize that it is dark outside and I have missed two meals. It is the performance, and not the scenery that holds my attention.

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4 Responses

  1. David says:

    An interesting parallel is when the audience IS actively engaged, and essentially within the fourth wall. I saw this best in The Shape of Things, but I know it’s been used in other places. You could argue that a Choose Your Own Adventure book does this same thing, which is especially true in To Be or Not To Be (Ryan North’s “Choosable-Path” Hamlet). What’re your thoughts on this sort of approach within a book? Can it work?

    • Nathan Barra says:

      I missed the Shape of Things, but I heard it was an awesome show. Bringing the audience into the fourth wall can be done in theater, I’ve seen the Shakespeare’s Tavern do it well. It’s a different school of thought though, one that is subordinate to what I would consider the “majority.”

      I wouldn’t have thought of a choose your own adventure book in this case as they are such a specialized format, but I agree with your point. In this case, though, a reader goes into the story with an expectation of opacity. We know that we’ll read a bit, pull back and then make a choice and flip a bunch of pages. It’s a self guided tour of the story, and so, the physical book and the fiction of the illusion is always in our awareness. I would argue that the novel is different, a case of guided immersion, like a themed roller coaster ride.

      One of my fundamental beliefs as an author is that anything can work, but not everything does work. Breaking the fourth wall can be done if the writer is skilled, as I described with meta-humor and direct address from the narrator. I’ve seen and read some shorts where the author tries for audience immersion in the second person, but those seem clunky and tend to have opacity because of the strangeness. In a way, the first person POV does this better as it allows for extreme amounts of reader sympathy. Dresden would be a good example of this to me. I imagine myself cast as Dresden when I read the books. Do you? What do you think?

      • David says:

        Oh, man, good point with 2nd vs. 1st. I totally agree that the Dresden format does a much better job of immersion. To Be or Not To Be, which I mentioned, does basically the opposite, though, to a somewhat similar effect. I would say that it immerses you 100% in the “story” of choosing and the dialog he creates between you, the reader, and himself, the narrator. The actual story of Hamlet provides just enough of a frame to be getting along with, but the true gold lies in the inside joke of the modern interpretation of Hamlet , the ridiculous non-canon endings and choices you can make (e.g. making soup), and the narrator constantly berating you for making STUPID choices (which typically happen when you follow the “Shakespeare” path) and being very biased about what choices you should make. It might not be the most immersive presentation of a great tragedy, though. CYOA is still an interesting case study in immersion, and it could provide some interesting insights.

        • Nathan Barra says:

          Sounds like I need to find a copy of To Be or Not To Be.

          Like many other things in fiction, I think the acceptance of a narrative voice comes to setting expectations. To some writers, this is a matter of their personal style/voice. You go into a Douglass Adams book expecting to have a present narrator making quips at you and frolicking along tangents as the story goes along. In a Dresden book, the narrator is clearly Dresden sometime in the future, but he is only vaguely present with asides or commentary. I personally enjoy the latter better, but that’s a matter of taste.

          With a few exceptions, theater and cinema do not have narrators through out the story. I’ve seen narrators in a “prologue” sort of role (see Lord of the Rings), but in my experience, extended narration become grating quickly. The question of narrator and narrator interaction with the fourth wall, then, seems to be focused on written works. As I see it, there are three places the narrator can be.

          Does the narrator stand outside the fourth wall and provide running commentary? Is it a mystery science novel 4000 sort of scenario? This seems to work well for humor, satire, and commentary, allowing the narrator to speak on behalf of the author and point out the absurdity or flaw in the situation to the reader.

          Is the narrator inside the fourth wall but apart from the rest of the characters? By my interpretation, this is closer to the style of classic fantasy with an omniscient POV. In this case, the narrator is a character in and of itself. I’ve read a few stories (which I can’t name at the moment to my embarrassment), in which the narrator has a distinct personality and character. This, naturally provides some level of bias to the narration, but it seems to be dampened.

          In the third scenario, the narrator can BE the fourth wall, the only mechanism through which the audience interacts with the story. Thoughts?

          Another question I had was how narrators are presented in comics. I’m not well read enough to be able to make any assertions regarding their efficacy or tricks/techniques commonly used, but I would be interested in hearing from someone who is.

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