1. MatthewR
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    MatthewR Member

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    narrators breaking the wall

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by MatthewR, May 22, 2011.

    I'm curious how others feel abotu narrators breaking character and talking directly to the audience?

    I've seen this done in many comedies and it seems to work wonderfully.

    However, I don't know that it would have the same effect in other fictions?
     
  2. Reggie
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    Reggie I Like 'Em hot "N Spicy Contributor

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    I see what you're saying, the second person POV. I'm not sure if that would really work in other works of fictions. I have read stories in the comedy genre that are written in the second person perspecitive. I think it might work in other genres too. You can give it a try and see how it works for you.
     
  3. StrangerWithNoName
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    StrangerWithNoName Longobard duke

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    I remember a short story written by HPL, "Pickman's model", that is told in second person POV, but the narrator doesn't address the reader, it's more like the transcription of a discussion in a bar,so I wouldn't say it's really a case of "breaking the fourth wall".

    King in the last novel of the Black Tower series addresses the "trusted reason" in several occasions.
     
  4. mootz
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    mootz Member

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    I say give it a try and post some bits of it here.
     
  5. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    i find it annoying to the max, if it's in modern fiction, can only excuse it in the classics from a long ago time when such was the fashion...
     
  6. IfAnEchoDoesntAnswer
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    IfAnEchoDoesntAnswer Member

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    Like a lot of other "unusual" techniques: it's easy to do poorly, difficult to do well-- but worth trying if it strikes your fancy, to see if you can make it work.
     
  7. LaGs
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    LaGs Banned

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    Bit harsh maybe. It can be very effective in comedies, like someone said, and even in films. Think Ferris Bueller for example
     
  8. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    It's an outmioded style, rarely seen in modern fiction. It takes the readers out of the story by reminding them they are only observers. Your goal should be to involve the reader completely.
     
  9. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    Second person POV doesn't necessarily break the fourth wall. Good second person doesn't, because it's designed to pull the reader into the story, not address them from the outside, if that makes sense.

    And as other have mentioned, it's a bit out of fashion, but that doesn't mean it's impossible to do well. Especially because what's in fashion today may be out tomorrow, or out today in tomorrow. The trick is to not only do it well, but ensure the technique or trick is so out of fashion people don't really even remember, as then it's suddenly new and you're a genius. :p
     
  10. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    You can involve the reader by breaking the fourth wall. I guess you meant immerse the reader completely, but in no way is that the general goal of all fiction. As with many things writing-related, this is a genre issue more than anything else. Casual readers or those who read primarily for escapism or to be told a good story are, as you can tell, pretty unreceptive to anything that will take them out of the story. But for a lot of (mostly literary fic) authors, the idea of the reader being blindly immersed in the story is anathema, so techniques like breaking the fourth wall allow the author to redirect the reader's attention to the fact that they are reading a book and encourage them to critically reflect on what is being said (among other motives). As others have said, it is often very effective in comedy (Deadpool, The Office, etc).

    It's clearly not going to go down well with everybody, but it certainly can be used to great effect in the hands of a skilled writer. So, if you have a genuine reason to try it, and you have the technical ability to pull it off, there's no reason to shy away from it.
     
  11. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    I like it just fine. And a narrator talking to the audience does not have to be second person. I've seen it done well in new work, and if you can make it interesting, there is no reason not to do it in my view.
     
  12. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    This sounds pretty counter intuitive to me. In fact, having the at times unfortunate please of being immersed in everything literary, breaking the fourth wall as a literary writer is about the worst thing you can do if you want to be taken seriously.

    I know people like to attribute anything related to technique or self-consciousness to being allowed in literary fiction, but it's quite the opposite (at least currently, and we aren't trying to publish in past eras, so it's best to stay contemporary). Literary fiction these days is all about the writer-as-narrator completely disappearing, making it as if the story is happening whether there's a writer or reader there to witness it or not. You want the reader to become a part of the story so fully they forget they are a reader and are instead in this new world.

    So, no, the style that was once more acceptable of the self-conscious post-modern literary writer telling you a story, reminding you you're the reader witnessing the genius that is the writer, are well passed. These days, the vogue and goal isn't to build a neon sigh saying 'look here reader, you're being enlightened, THINK about the fact you're reading.' Quite the opposite, and as with all fiction these days, the trend is very much away from this and what you claim.

    And I know, opinions, everyone has them and whatnot... and I generally respect and value your opinion, but in this case you're kind of just a bit wrong. :p
     
  13. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    Junot Diaz won the Pulitzer last year with one of the most self-aware, fourth-wall-breaking novel's I've ever read. Bret Easton Ellis had a best-seller last year with the extremely self-aware sequel to Less Than Zero, Imperial Bedrooms. Neither of these are about glorifying the author or anything ridiculous like that (I can't think of a single book where that would be the primary motive for breaking the fourth wall).

    Do I really need to insert a copy/paste spiel here about not making generalisations (especially unfounded ones) about whole genres?
     
  14. Sidewinder
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    Sidewinder Contributing Member Contributor

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    I've seen it done a lot but I've never really thought of it as "breaking the fourth wall." I don't know if that term really makes sense in the same way as it does in theatre or film where you're actually talking about the way space is used. Using second person or addressing the reader mmmmight be said to break the fourth wall in the sense that it makes the reader aware of the act of reading. But I don't know if that's really an accurate description of the effect you always get. Best example I could think of would be Vonnegut, who spoke to the reader quite frequently. In that case it allows us to feel the author's presence, like he's sitting in the room having a chat with us. I quite enjoy it. It's also pretty common in poetry to address the reader, and I LOVE this sort of style because it creates a kind of intimacy. Frank O'Hara made a joke literary movement called personism. He said every poem should be addressed to one person. This puts the poem "finally between two people instead of two pages," as he put it. I've always thought there was something profound to that, even though he was joking around.

    Honestly I think the way in which this sort of style could be used is so varied that it's hard to comment. I can conceive of it being annoying. Brecht annoys me and he invented breaking the fourth wall. On the other hand, one of the coolest performance pieces I ever saw involved bringing the audience onto the stage at the beginning without explaining to us what was going on. There was a giant screen keeping us from going to our seats. They let us just stand there for a while and eventually certain members of the audience started moving through the crowd very slowly with their eyes closed. (These were the performers.) Then the sound guy started setting up his stuff on the stage. Eventually the performers sat down on a table and the screen rose allowing us to go to our seats. It only got cooler from there. It was amazing the way it changed the way the space was perceived. So yeah -- in theatre I think it can be a really interesting device with a lot of possibilities.
     
  15. Melzaar the Almighty
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    Melzaar the Almighty Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think it can be a lot more hit and miss to have the narrator directly talk to the reader than to just break the fourth wall. Being self-aware or drawing attention to literary techniques, plot twists or whatever within the novel is no big deal, and I think you can take it quite far without being irritating as long as the character never looks up and out the page. Think of Jasper Fforde. He takes it to an amazing level. :D
     
  16. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    It's still used in movies, but pretty much entirely comedies as you say. In more serious fiction then I can only see it working if the narrator is supposed to be conscious of (potential) readers. For example, if the narrative is supposed to be a journal then it's reasonable for the writer to say something like "If you find this journal, please let the world know what happened." Other than that it's going to break the reader out of their suspension of disbelief, and you need a very powerful reason to do that.
     
  17. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    Yes, please do copy/past your spiel, then feel free to read it, because a few select, rare examples does not a trend or standard make.

    It's like the people who read Cormac McCarthy and think suddenly what it means to be literary is to not use apostrophes and disregard many standard aspects of grammar, when it obviously isn't.

    So your generalization, no, outright statement that

    isn't valid based on a few examples.

    There simply is no defense or rationale behind saying "a lot" of any writers do this, and from my experience certainly not "mostly literary fic" writers, as it's the opposite of what most literary fiction writers seem to be trying to do by allowing full immersion to the point the writer-as-narrator completely dissolves and it becomes all about the story.

    So, lets agree we're both generalizing, though my generalization comes from what the vast majority of writers and those advising writers seem to be saying (meaning it's generally true?), and your generalization seems to be based on exceptions to the rule.

    As I noted, I value and respect your opinion, but in this regard I simply find you're mistaken, unfortunately.
     
  18. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Moises Kaufman's wonderful play, "33 Variations" did this by having the MC speak to the audience, telling of how Beethoven came to write the variations. It was both breaking the sense of watching the play unfold and what some would consider an "infodump", but it worked wonderfully well. Of course, the fact that the MC was played by Jane Fonda probably helped, but I found it to be the most interesting play I'd seen in many years.

    Does that mean it's "okay"? Absolutely...for Moises Kaufman...in "33 Variations". YMMV.
     
  19. art
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    art Contributing Member Contributor

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    Give it a go, old boy. I usually enjoy this sort of thing very much. As has been indicated, tis not that much of a rarity...and indeed for some authors is a device so commonplace that it too becomes a convention to subvert...(see DFW's recent The Pale King which is absolutely more a memoir than a work of fiction, except when it's not, of course. Here, that sense of intimacy that Sidewinder mentions, renders the whole thing more absorbing, not less.)
     
  20. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    I rather like the technique in comedy movies or shows, and pretty much any stage play can pull it off. I've seen it done well in some fiction, Kurt Vonnegut coming to mind as people have mentioned, but most of the time I don't find it effective in fiction, and usually done badly by writers who simply seem to want to desperately be a part of their story.

    I think that's the difference, that it's the writer, not a character, and I find when it does work decently in fiction it's the characters in stories become meta fiction. I mean, imagine if in the middle of a play or movie the writer/director stepped onto stage/camera and started his/her own monologue. I could see it being done well, but imo it's one of those things that would rely heavily on the pre-established fame of this person so it's more like an 'oh, the famous writer/direct, neat' sort of thing and not having much to do with the story, much less enhancing it.

    The problem in fiction is that the writer is usually already so involved and present, that it's not the actors/characters breaking the fourth wall as part of the story, but usually the writer saying 'hey, look at me,' which really only works if you're Stephen King and can write yourself into your own novels, or something. If you're 99% of writers, you don't get the leeway to do these kinds of antics, because it's not always a matter of 'anything can be done well' so much as 'anything can be considered 'done well' or simply excused if you're famous enough.'

    To me is the same thing as when a character in a story, movie, or play has an agenda that's in the context of the movie, I don't mind. When the writer-as-narrator starts having an agenda, I get very dubious, and usually it's not justified to pull the reins from a character-narrator to give the writer their own voice. And so rarely are writers able to create non-writer third-party narrators that are effective, especially these days when it's somewhat out of vogue, so it's usually not a third-party narrator with its own personality, but simply feels like the writer wanting attention.
     
  21. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    I guess it's possible that the authors we read just don't overlap, but it's certainly not true that most of the lit authors I read aim for total immersion or place the story above the writing. But, I feel like you're not gonna be convinced either way so let's just agree to disagree.
     
  22. Norm
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    Norm Contributing Member

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    I think it is a good technique to use sparingly. I also think that it is best left to comedy and other less serious genres.
     
  23. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    Perhaps. Though I talked to someone today who loves Junot Diaz and said he's read most of the short stories that he's published, and doesn't recall any fourth-wall breaking in them, so it seems not even Junot Diaz does it most of the time....

    Though, yes, there is a lot of stuff I haven't read, so maybe we just don't read the same things. Though for 4 or so years I've basically read non-stop from contemporary literary journals, anthologies, collections and novels, though far more short stories than novels, as I don't recall a single instance of it in the hundreds of short stories I've read the last few years, so perhaps it's just not ever done in short fiction, and is common in novels?

    Who knows. I know I for one, as a writer trying to break into the industry, am certainly not going to do it. Not even close. (and I do all sorts of risky (read as: stupid) things in my fiction).
     
  24. dianableu
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    It depends on what you are writing. Someone writing in first person, especially first person present may be able to get away with it if the story is written in a confiding tone. I don't think see how it could work writing in second person, unless you broke from it momentarily. For it to work in omniscient, I think could work if you were writing a period piece.

    It worked very well in The French Lieutenant's Woman and lent it a lot of charm. I guess what I'm saying is that it can work but you need to be careful and it is best left to the experienced writer.
     
  25. digitig
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    I can't see how you could write in second person without breaking the fourth wall!
     

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