The Fourth Wall

There’s a principle in acting known as the fourth wall. You probably know what I’m talking about, but if you don’t, the fourth wall is that invisible barrier the audience looks through to see the story. Actors are not supposed to break that fourth wall as it breaks the spell the audience is under, that suspension of disbelief.
It’s there in writing, too, though there are ways of breaking it. For instance, I’ve just started a book called The Double Game by Dan Fesperman. The basic idea is that you have our hero, Bill Cage, who was a reporter back in the Eighties and was able to interview Edwin Lemaster, the best writer of spy novels to exist in Cage’s opinion.
Cage was raised by a diplomat father who loved spy novels—kept over two hundred on his shelf, most of them signed first editions—so Cage is steeped in the traditions of the genre. Lemaster’s most famous novel is The Double Game (can you see the wall starting to break here?), in which Lemaster’s spy finds out his best friend is actually a Soviet mole.
As I said, I’ve just started the novel, and it begins with Cage’s interview with Lemaster in 1984, in which Lemaster reveals that he briefly entertained the idea of turning—becoming a Soviet operative—just for the challenge of it.
Fast forward to 2010. Cage is now a disillusioned PR man. The interview with Lemaster was the beginning of the end of his journalistic career. He gets a note that says perhaps Lemaster wasn’t all he appeared to be, and there’s where the action really starts, apparently. The conceit of the book is that all those spy novels out there are fact, not fiction, whereas the so-called nonfiction versions can’t be verified.
I became interested in this book by hearing about it on NPR. What interested me is that the book is littered with references to spy novels. There’s even a bibliography of spy novels in the back, including the Erksine Childers 1903 novel The Riddle of the Sands, which is considered the first novel on the genre (according to the novel, Childers was later executed for spying).
You can see how this book really breaks the fourth wall, the idea that there is a barrier between writer and reader that can’t be broken. It’s not as stringent in writing. There are tons of books out there written as diaries or journals, even tell-alls that address the reader directly. This one is no exception. Cage is writing it in an effort to show you that any book that has the disclaimer that any resemblance to persons alive or dead is coincidental is actually a sign that it’s a true story.
I break the fourth wall in my Lyle Villines novels, but I do it by using the idea that he’s either talking to a reporter or, later, using a digital recorder to leave a record for his son in case something happens to him.
In acting, breaking the fourth wall is a major no-no. In writing, maybe not so much. But, in my opinion, it has to be done right to work, or it blows the whole suspension of disbelief thing out of the water. And we need that to get the reader interested.
On the other hand, if the wall is broken in the right way, I think it engages the reader even more, makes them feel a bit like the narrator is talking directly to them. My daughter said it kinda threw her off in Pipeline, and I’ve had that reaction in writing group on occasion when enough time has passed for them to forget Lyle is telling all this to a reporter (the downside of the slow pace required when in one of these groups).
What do you think? Should we leave that fourth wall alone? Or is it okay to break it occasionally?
Let me know what you think.


5 thoughts on “The Fourth Wall

  1. Madison Woods

    Gil, I’d never heard of the fourth wall. This was a fascinating post about it. I think it depends on the story, but that’s true in scripts too because it seems like I’ve seen some where the characters talk directly to the viewer. Like you said, it has to be done well to work, but I think it can work.

    1. gilmiller Post author

      I learned about it while doing some acting in high school. It was drilled into us not to break that fourth wall, and the idea has always stuck with me for some reason.

    1. gilmiller Post author

      Comedy seems to break that fourth wall regularly. I’ve seen it used as a very good gag, but I’ve also seen it come up lame. Again, it’s all in how it’s used. I think we have to be a lot more careful in books.


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