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The Fourth Wall -- by Douglas Phillips

I’ve always enjoyed storytelling hiccups that involve the “fourth wall” – you know, that imaginary barrier between fictional characters and the audience. The name, fourth wall, comes from theater where performances have three physical walls, to the left, right and behind the stage. Characters in a stage play aren’t supposed to know that somewhere off in that fourth direction, there are people watching them. Once in a while, those characters figure it out, and that’s when the comedic fun begins.

West End comedies in London do it regularly. They do it on Broadway too. Even Shakespeare did it. One of the characters in the rather ridiculous Twelfth Night declares, "If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as improbable fiction."

Breaking the fourth wall happens regularly in film. Woody Allen was notorious for speaking directly to the camera, even as he interacted with the other characters in the scene (presumably they never heard him talking to us). Ferris Bueller did the same thing, essentially narrating his own story. Mel Brooks comedies took it to the extreme. In Spaceballs, Dark Helmet’s assistant has the brilliant idea of watching the just-released Spaceballs video to find out what happens next, and they end up fast forwarding to “now”, where they watch themselves, watching themselves, watching themselves…

In Blazing Saddles, the fourth wall is as flimsy as cellophane. Hedley Lamar muses about finding a sheriff that will offend the town, wondering, “where would I find such a man?” Hedley turns to the camera, “And why am I asking you?”. By the end of the movie, the fourth wall literally collapses as the characters barge out of their movie set and invade a neighboring sound stage that is filming a dance musical.

Another version of fourth-wall manipulation is what is called “medium awareness”. Comic strips do this well, usually when a character realizes that their existence is bounded by the dreaded “panel” that confines them. Other comic strip characters notice word bubbles floating over their heads.

Peals Before Swine is my all-time favorite for this craziness. It’s often Rat who breaks out of the confines of the panel, climbing to the top edge to harass Luann in the strip above, or throwing sunflower seeds at Jeffy, just below in Family Circus. Sometimes characters from other strips wander into the Swine world, and their personalities become nearly as irreverent as the Swine regulars.

Another form has characters passing from one medium to another. Mary Poppins jumps into the drawing at the edge of a Royal Doulton bowl (Mary Poppins Returns), a brother and sister are sucked into TV Land (Pleasantville), and Homer Simpson joins the rest of us in the real world (as does cartoon character Giselle, in Enchanted).

As a storytelling technique, breaking the fourth wall isn’t always this over-the-top. Sometimes subtle is more interesting – what you might call “leaning” on the fourth wall. There’s the scene in Moana where the title character strenuously objects to being called a princess. Her new friend, Maui, counters, “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you're a princess.” Of course, this is a Disney animation, and she does have a chicken for a sidekick.

My books fall into the leaning-on-the-wall category. In Quantum Space, scientist Daniel Rice recognizes he’s speaking with a cybernetic organism and muses that science fiction generally doesn’t have a good view of cyborgs. Someone should tell him he’s in a science fiction story. In Quantum Void, funnyman Thomas complains to Nala “Go ahead and make your clever plans without explaining. I’m just the lab assistant. Probably just here for comic relief.” And, in Quantum Time, Mathieu explains the concept of a block universe, including the notion that free will is an illusion. “We’re on page eighty-seven of a novel,” he says, “and nothing we do will change the ending.” Of course, Mathieu’s words appear on page eighty-seven of the paperback edition. Hey, fourth-wall silliness is fun for authors too.

Posted by Douglas Phillips 26 Dec 2019 at 01:13
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Responses to this blog

Ldv 19 Jan at 21:53  
That was fun to read! Hmm, I might have to try it!
Mrbillyd 19 Jan at 22:09  
A first person narrative, in which the character tells his or her own story, saying "I did this." is addressing the fourth wall.

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