Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Breaking the Fourth Wall, or, This is a Blog Post

Today I'm going to talk about breaking the fourth wall, which is much easier to do in a blog post than in a novel or film or TV show. Personally, I don't break it very often when I'm writing stories, but I love it when it's done well (or done at all) in other stories. So, I'm going to talk about who does it well and why I think that is.

Breaking the fourth wall, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, is an act of metafiction, or something that deconstructs the boundaries set by fiction. The work itself seems aware that it is a work that will have an audience that will enjoy it. Basically, if you are reading or watching something that references itself or talks about itself as a work of fiction, then it's breaking the fourth wall. For examples of this, please watch anything by the Muppets, because if they don't break the fourth wall into dust particles (and probably every other wall involved in the making of the film), it's not the Muppets.

Lately I started reading a book series by fantasy great Brandon Sanderson that does quite a lot of breaking the fourth wall. It's the Alcatraz series, a fantasy series for middle grade/young adult audiences that barely acknowledges the fourth wall, if it does at all. The premise of the books is the world is held captive by evil Librarians, and a 13-year-old boy named Alcatraz Smedry somehow is going to save the world from them. He also has a Talent for breaking things, but you really should read the books if you want o know more about that.

However, the story is apparently told by a much older Alcatraz who is doing everything he can to convince the audience that 1) the book is true, 2) he is a terrible person and a liar, and 3) everything you know about the world is false. The narrator repeatedly breaks the fourth wall by mentioning that he's working with Brandon Sanderson (whose books are too big and heavy to be of any use other than knocking yourself unconscious) and by talking directly to the audience about writers and books and other relevant topics. The books know they're books, if that makes sense, so the fourth wall is broken.

Another book series like this is The Name of this Book is Secret series by Pseudonymous Bosch. The writer spends the whole series pleading with the reader to stop making him tell you everything because it's too horrible. But he does, and you read, and it goes on.

I really love it when a book breaks the fourth wall, but it's not appropriate for all stories. All of my examples are quirky, crazy stories that appeal to younger audiences (though I think adults would enjoy them too). More epic stories are better off without it; I can't imagine The Lord of the Rings breaking the fourth wall without it feeling out of place. This literary device is funny, and best suited to comedy. And when used in comedy, it just makes the funny all the more awesome.

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