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.Tags: Sequence 02: Improv and Writing