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Image by Peter Steiner 🇨🇭 1973

Breaking the Fourth Wall, Beyond is a Place No Author can go... or is it?

The Welcoming Moon in the HALE series is that greatly anticipated celebration where the young Griffins bask in the light of the moons to receive their powers. When it was finally time to write this scene, I had a distinct image in my head of what it would look like. But my goal wasn't to just convey the scenery but to also make the reader feel as though they are experiencing the Welcoming Moon alongside the characters. If the reader did not feel as though the moon has bestowed a supernatural power on them, then me being my own hardest critic would feel as though I had failed. To give myself that satisfactory read, I wrote the Welcoming Moon scene using terms like "imagine" and "you", as if I was directly speaking to the reader.

When my luck finally kicked in after eight long years, I got to work with an wonderful editor. My dreams were coming into a slow-paced reality, yet there were many times I would narrate directly to the reader using "you", like in the Welcoming Moon scene. The hard press against breaking the "fourth wall" was a big bummer for me, and I distinctly remember justifying the action in my head before forcing myself to change every "you" to "Hale" to get the process over with. I still do not agree with refusing writers to keep inside their four walls because that means sacrificing their style for acceptance.

At the same time, I learned that breaking the fourth wall isn't truly necessary as readers can live vicariously through the character and feel exactly what the character is feeling.

All this begs the question: Is breaking the fourth wall nonsensical or whimsical? Is this mysterious place beyond the fourth wall forbidden ground? What would happen if the author dares to speak directly to the reader?

I can see it now... a book speaking to the humble reader, a hot beverage spilling over, the possessed book flying across the room, there is a loud shout followed by scrambling away to safety, much like the way one behaves when a creepy crawling thing enters one's safe space.

"What was that? Is that the book... speaking to me?"

Is breaking the fourth wall as blasphemous as a royal in love with a peasant? As unlawful as addressing the queen without a curtsey? Would the literary world cast out the one who traveled beyond the wall forevermore? Or beg an editor for mercy and your publisher for a reprinting?

No. I do not think so... but here are some reasons it's usually not done.

What is beyond that fourth wall?

Writers should be cautious after breaking through your stone confinement and stepping through the fourth wall. We are all gifted with the superpower to do so, though most enjoy confinement as it guarantees fewer issues. What lies beyond is a land called "Hello There", but one should not go too far for "Hello There" is awfully close to the land of, "What is Happening?"

Many feel that breaking the fourth wall can confuse the reader, as there is a change of voice the writer is using. This might be true if breaking the fourth wall is not done correctly. And there are a ton of ways to do it without confusing the reader, without causing too much trouble, and keeping your reader engaged and genuinely pleased.

Also, there is the age-old rule writers follow and that is "show, don't tell." If you find that you are breaking the fourth wall to pull the reader away from finding things out as the story progresses, and you are just spoon-feeding them information, that might take their engagement away.

The term "Breaking the Fourth Wall" was originally created in theatre.

The four walls are the stage and the screen the audience is watching, the screen is the fourth wall that is broken in this analogy. Ironically, I can think back to several times an actor would directly address their audience in a play without changing their lines, but using direct eye contact when appropriate. Their direct eye contact might feel daunting because it is not expected, though once it happens—if it happens— is truly magical!

In the case that I have just mentioned, keep in mind, the lines do not change to "you". There is just a heightened connection between you and the character that is behaving as though they are speaking to you. This might happen during a monologue scene, or if something funny happens, the character might turn to you as though to say, "Check out this knucklehead."

That sense of connection is what all breakers of the fourth wall are striving to achieve. We do not just want our audience to read the passage, we want them to feel what is actually happening as if they were the main character themselves. This is how you break the wall and travel to the land of "Hello There", but not the land, "What is Happening?"

Immersing your reader does not need to be such a forceful action. Keep in mind that your reader can and will feel as though the character's circumstances, trials, and emotions are their own while you keep the story within its four walls.

Want to break out? You aren't alone.

When that powerful surge to write overwhelms you entirely, who knows what you will do? Call it an act of whimsy or even defiance. But don't be so quick to edit out your "break out" just yet, no matter what your editor tells you.

Just because it is not usually done doesn't mean it's not done.

Lemony Snicket. How iconic. At the sound of this very name, your mind has automatically reverted to one of his little messages written as if with a typewriter, concluded by a beautiful signature, which is warning you NOT to continue reading his wonderfully crafted Series of Unfortunate Events. Using the fourth wall, though only briefly, upon preparing you for the whirlwind ride to come, Lemony Snicket has tastefully brought you into the land of "Hello There".

Some of the other pieces I have come across recently are Tahereh Mafi Whichwood and Obert Sky's Leven Thumps have both done this. In Whichwood, narrator Mafti occasionally allows the reader to know that she has met the protagonist and understands when the protagonist is feeling differently than she is letting on. This gives us readers a bit of information we might not have known, and it is building a connection between the reader and the writer with our common interest, the protagonist. It is like when two parents share a common interest in their child.

Here is one example found in Whichwood, "There was something about Laylee—something about her Oliver couldn't quite place—which drew him to her, and though at the time he couldn't understand what it was, the explanation was actually quite simple. Reader, he admired her." Here she addresses the reader plainly as "reader", note this very brief touch.

In Leven Thumps, Obert Skye also speaks to the reader. Take this short paragraph for example: "You may doubt their existence, for the shadows of Sabine are not easy to spot unless you are connected to Foo. But even for those who know nothing of Foo, it is possible to catch a glimpse of them. You can see the shadows searching even now. Watch when a car goes by. See how the light flashes off the chrome."

Here, Skye is speaking to you indirectly, however he makes sure to evoke the scene in your mind and make it as believable for you as possible. Just as swiftly as Skye began addressing the reader in this passage, all the more swiftly he pulls out of it, returning to his usual voice.

These examples are only from the top of my head, which means there is so much more!

And that's the secret. Briefly. As if a graceful feather has landed upon your skin and floated away. A brief touch, as gentle as a caress, then evaporating entirely, returning to the four walls once finished as there is the rest of the story to relay.

Recap on How to Break the Fourth Wall

1. If you feel it, do it.

No editor should say it is undone, though they might tell you to tone it down and continue as though it never happened. Who knows, breaking the fourth wall might be your style, and it might be what makes you stand out from the crowd, like Lemony Snicket!

2. Briefly

Keep it short and simple, don't take the attention away from the character. It should be the character your audience is sympathizing with. It is always best to show what your character is thinking or feeling rather than have the narrator explain it to you.

If you breaking the fourth wall entails you connecting and engaging with the reader—like Obert Skye, letting the reader in on a secret—like Tahira Mafri, or providing a piece of information—like Lemony Snicket, then absolutely do it, briefly.

3. Gently

A whole passage screaming at the reader and telling them to experience something is not the best way to break the fourth wall. A subtle piece here and a subtle piece there doesn't steal focus from the story or your character. If anything, breaking the fourth wall should be the icing on the cake, never the entire cake, it is that oomf of what makes the reader connected to you, through your character.

4. Return to the Stage

You've either made your connection to your reader, helped them see through someone's intentions, or you have possibly given them an important piece of information. Whatever the reason for your breaking the wall, you have done a job well done! But be sure to return to the stage straightaway as your story isn't over yet. The show must go on!

5. Worry not. They are immersed.

Magicians don't usually tell the audience their secrets, and you do not need to either. Writers can make a reader relate to an inanimate object, a rock, or even a bug! That is our superpower. You do not need to try so hard to get your readers to feel or visualize. Your audience connects with the magic of your writing without you explicitly telling them to, that is just our nature as readers. It is up to you how you do that. Every writer has their own style. If your style includes breaking the fourth wall, then do not change it!

Are you planning on breaking the fourth wall? How are you going to do it, and what are you hoping to achieve by doing so? Did these tips help?

JK Noble | Author | Artist | Philanthropist

Published author of the new YA Fantasy Series, HALE.

Creator of the LMB franchise and the Encourage Literacy Foundation.


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