There are a thousand ways to interact with your audience when you’re creating a piece of fiction. You can give them an ambassador character to follow, or throw them in blind. You can tell them what’s going to happen, but not tell your characters, so that they have to watch as a character walks right into the maw of danger. You can even give them someone to root for before revealing that the character knew something all along that the audience didn’t.
My favorite iteration of story-audience interaction, though, is breaking the fourth wall.
Welcome to the Fictional Room
In order to understand what breaking the fourth wall means, you have to understand where all four walls are first. Imagine that you are watching a play that is set in a single room. The stage is quite literally set with three walls, one in the back and one on each side. Where the fourth wall would be is an opening through which the audience is seeing the action take place.
The term “fourth wall” was coined by French playwright Jean Baptist Moliere in his comedy, l’Impromptu de Versailles, where one character asked, “whether this invisible fourth wall does not conceal a crowd observing [them].” The concept goes hand-in-hand with that of dramatic irony, or the knowledge that the audience has but the characters do not, making for audience tension when they know how a scene will end long before the characters do.
Talking more generally about fiction, this “fourth wall” is the imperceptible barrier between the characters and the audience, or, more formally, the separation of intrinsic actions and extrinsic observation by an outside observer. It’s the separation between the worlds. So what happens when that separation is breached?
When We Escape the Room
When characters acknowledge and address their audience directly, they are breaking the fourth wall. This is usually done in a small way, as an “Easter egg” or a sly bit of humor. These one-off comments or actions are often done by one character, and are largely ignored by the others, played off without impacting the larger story.
These types of breaks are typically done as a call out to popular real-world reactions from the audience to previous instances of the work (such as when a character comments that “there’s already an episode about that” or references a popular fan theory). They are a way for the creator to tip their hat, and usually don’t go any deeper than that.
However, some stories not only break the fourth wall but actively obliterate it. They go so far as to incorporate the audience as a character themselves. These larger breaks introduce fascinating story dynamics that mean that you, by simply observing the work, influence its outcome, much as you would in a Schrodinger’s Cat scenario. Simply being there completely changes the outcome of the story.
Fourth-wall breaking is usually reserved for comedies and parodies when it comes to film and television. Some of the earliest wall-breaks come from things like the Looney Toons when Bugs Bunny talks directly to the audience to comment on the absurdity of his situation. This is an instance of isolated breaking, as no one else seems to recognize that Bugs is talking to “thin air,” and he never uses the audience to get the upper hand in a situation, but simply to make witty remarks at the expense of his scene mates.
On the other side of this, one of the most famous wall-breaking characters is Wade Wilson, more commonly known as Deadpool, the Merc with a Mouth. Deadpool’s ability to interact with the audience is actually acknowledged in the story, explained as a level of insanity that allows him to see between dimensions. He often uses outside knowledge of the situation, such as having a copy of the script in front of him, to progress the scene and make it come out the way he wants. In his most recent movie incarnation, he even makes light of his actor Ryan Reynolds’ previous superhero flop in Green Lantern by killing him before he can accept the role. This active influence means that he can connect directly with the audience and joke with them as an old friend rather than a simple character. This open fourth wall break is used to progress the story and make it more fun and entertaining to be a part of.
Recently, fourth-wall-breaking has become a popular trend in gaming. The most popular audience-including game in recent memory is Undertale. In my recently published article in celebration of the game’s fifth anniversary, I talked about the appeal of the game’s complete player autonomy, where every choice made has a direct impact on the game’s ending. Another part of what made this game so popular, though, is the characters that can directly remember your choices, both in your current save and in any previous saves you may have. Some characters will acknowledge that you have died and reloaded your save, and some will remember if you have killed them in a previous run of the game. The save mechanic becomes a part of the lore of the game itself and is explored by characters before you even start playing, making for disturbing commentary on the reversal of the typical kill-them-all RPG mechanics, telling the story from the perspective of the characters being slaughtered.
There are even wall-breaking children’s books. A classic is Sesame Street’s The Monster at the End of This Book, in which Grover begs you not to finish the book for fear of finding a monster, only to realize the monster is him. In fact, the entire Sesame Street franchise is built on incorporating their child audience into this world without breaking the suspension of disbelief in the existence of these monsters, all with the goal of teaching through play.
Breaking the fourth wall is a fascinating story technique, but can come across as underwhelming if done with poor timing. Having a character recognize that they are in trouble and then actively do nothing about it is frustrating and infuriating, and including your audience in the story but not allowing them to change it can be frustrating. Ultimately, though, it comes down to the story that is being told, and whether or not becoming a character in the story will improve the audience’s interaction with it.