Grab Your Readers Attention – 5 Tricks To Kicking Down The 4th Wall

Grab Readers Attention - 5 Tricks To Kicking Down the 4th WallWhen I heard about Deadpool’s use of the 4th wall, I raised a skeptical eyebrow, checked the calendar to make sure it wasn’t May, and braced myself for some kind of Marvel comic pornstar love fest between Obi Wan and Asimov. I was disappointed, there was no need to call social services. The hybrid love child was not to be.

Instead, I discovered it was one of those literary techniques I knew, but didn’t know I knew.

Have I lost you yet? I have, haven’t I? You’re thinking Sacha’s pulled one too many all nighters, lost her shit and fallen into a caffeine induced hallucinatory coma.

Okay, let me start again… I had one of those, mythical childless evenings the other day. So the wife and I hot footed it to the movies before my mother came to her senses and promptly brought the terror tot back. We watched Deadpool, the latest Marvel comic hero movie and in my usual style, I dissected it in order to bring you some kick ass (did you see what I did there?) lessons.

Imagine you are at the theatre, sat in velvet red seats shovelling over priced wine gums in your gob. The lights go down and you hear the first shriek from a glass shattering soprano. You expect to be entertained. Not interacted with. This isn’t a ‘he’s behind you’ Panto or an interview. This is theatre, or the movies.

The point is, they’re on stage, you’re not. There’s a barrier between you and the actors. Whether that’s a movie screen, the invisible line between the stage and the neck breaking front row, or the page between the reader and the character. It’s there, and it has a name.

The Fourth Wall

But, breaking that wall, is a whole can of literary device awesomeness in itself. But what do I mean breaking the 4th wall?

Breaking the 4th wall

Image curtsey of google

Breaking the 4th wall means the character acknowledges that’s what they are and they speak directly to the audience.

Ever seen: House of Cards, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, American Psycho, Lord of War or what about my two faves: Spaceballs and Fight Club. Each one of those films breaks the 4th wall and has a character speak directly to the audience.

And because I like examples, here’s a 1 minute clip from Fight Club. Note – Explicit references and content.

The fourth wall separates the reader or viewer. The wall allows us to view the world through the eyes of the protagonist. In effect, we become the protagonist, seeing the story enfold through their eyes, opinions and emotions. When that fourth wall gets broken, we can no longer embody the characters in the same way. They become entities in their own right.

Breaking the 4th wall is often confused with a soliloquy, but don’t because it is not the same thing. Soliloquies are when characters speak to themselves like in Hamlet or Macbeth.

Why break it?

Well, it is an unusual literary device that’s rarely used for one, which means it helps give your story a unique selling point. It’s often used for humour or satirical purposes. But it also makes readers feel engaged with what they are viewing on another level – we are no longer passively viewing we are actively engaged with what’s in front of us.

As a note on Deadpool the film, it’s rated 15, personally, I felt it ought to be an 18. There was an excess of graphic violence at the beginning, scenes of a sexual nature and a serious amount of bad language! None of that stopped me loving it though.

Here are 5 tips I took from watching Deadpool’s use of breaking the 4th wall.

ONE – Humour

Deadpool was hilarious. Not only because of the ridiculous insults, comebacks and prolific use of swear words. But because it used a plethora of satirical humour, sarcasm and dry comedic timing. They would stop fight scenes to add in witty narration, for example in the 50 second clip below (bare in mind all the warnings I have given about content)

TWO – Use It When You Least Expect It

Like in the clip above, the writers would break the 4th wall when you least expect it, like in the middle of a fight scene. This keeps the use of it fresh and the viewer engaged. Same can be said for Fight Club. It’s such a serious intense film, you don’t expect to be spoken to as a viewer, therefore when the narrator/Tyler Durden talks to us it’s a surprise.

THREE – Use It Sparingly

Just because you decide to break the 4th wall, doesn’t mean you then need to do it all the time. In fact, I’d recommend you don’t; use it sparingly. Breaking the 4th wall jars the viewer. It’s a shock tactic. So if you use it too often the shock and awe impact decreases each time, making it a less effective tool.

FOUR – Narration

Ultimately, breaking the 4th wall is a narrative technique. So if you break it, you need to ensure it’s for a reason. Comedy is great, but it should serve a purpose deeper than just comedy. For example, giving viewers insight to the protagonists mindset or character. This deepens the relationship with the viewer and also gives depth to the character, and all that can be achieved even if you are using humour.

FIVE – Find The Balance Between Subtlety & In Your Face 

Whilst breaking the 4th wall is great, it is also a difficult technique to use. You have to find the balance: Not funny enough and you’ll fall flat on your face, use it too often and you jar the reader so much they no longer enjoy reading. Using this technique you remind the reader they are in fact participating in the act of reading, rather than just being embroiled in the pleasure of it.

There are other subtle benefits though, like the ability to let the readers know something other characters (other than the protagonist) don’t know.

House of Leaves

Image curtsey of goodreads

If you’re interested in literary books that break the 4th wall. One of the best most insane books I have heard of and is on my TBR pile is House Of Leaves, everyone I know that’s read it says they feel a little less sane at the end!

 

 

House of Leaves TextCan you blame them when it looks like this on the inside?!

Other books include: Don Quixote, The Gunslinger (The Dark Tower Book 1)by Stephen King and Storm Front: The Dresden Files Book 1.

 

 

Have you heard of the 4th wall? What do you think of it as a literary or film technique? Do you like it when it’s used? Let me know in the comments below.

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89 comments

  1. That is so true, what you wrote! You gave words to what I felt but couldn’t express! It was so funny to be included in the story and that made me connect with the actor more than in a usual movie (yes, I saw Deadpool too…and although it was so morbid… I almost broke down from laughing).

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Very true! I also loved the frozen picture in the beginning of the movie and later seeing how things came together. The movie was made so clever in many ways! 😃 Yes, your post is fabulous! You nailed it!

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  2. I’ve heard that the 4th wall is an effective device for actors to conquer their stage fright. I hadn’t thought of using it in a literary sense. Traditionally, speaking to the audience in a book is a big no-no, or so I was educated. But of course, rules are made to be broken. But surely it would have to be used throughout in a consistent manner, otherwise frequent changes of style or context could get quite jarring and take you out of the story… a bit like switching between past and present tense, or 1st and 3rd person. Great post, Sacha, I enjoyed it a lot, although I have no interest in going to see Deadpool myself. My boys are desperate to see it, but they are too young at 12 and 14. Unfortunately, despite the age limit, it seems to be marketed at them.

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    1. Supposedly comics break the 4th wall all the time. Also, I would be interested in reading chucks book (fight club) to see if it breaks the 4th wall or if that was added to the film. I suspect it is in the book, but something else to add to my TBR pile! Agreed about being careful with it though, it does jar readers, but I think its a cool tool, and not one you see often, so gives a sense of uniqueness. 😀

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  3. Your post has reminded me of something I have been trying to ignore. I have been wondering if the book I am writing would be better in the first person, something I have not done yet. I love the idea of breaking the fourth wall too, but it would have to be first person, wouldn’t it. I would value your opinion on my dilemma…

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    1. Haha, trying to ignore it! lol, sorry, shouldn’t laugh, but that made me smile cause I do it! I always ignore the hard stuff or things I don’t really want to do.

      Interesting. I would say that breaking the 4th wall would be a lot easier in the 1st person POV. I am sure it can be done written in the 3rd, but if you’re going too, then have a scout around for other examples first, so you can see how they have done it and whether you like it and feel it works. I also suspect, that if you already have a gut feeling your story needs to be in the first person, then it probably does. My gut has a habit of telling me stuff and its usually right. I mean I don’t know your story, so don’t want to suggest you re write it entirely. But if you’re already suspecting it should be in 1st POV, then why not try it and see what happens? Maybe just a chapter or two to start with?

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  4. I don’t think I can think of any 4th wall breaks in books, but I’ve seen it done in movies and tv shows. I enjoy it. I think it’s funny, keeps things light-hearted, and makes it a little more personal-able for the person enjoy the film or book.

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    1. Mary just mentioned that Jane Eyre does it, near the end when she says ‘Reader I married him’ Have you read Jane Eyre?

      Agreed though, it does keep things light hearted, its such a funny mechanism. Hard I imagine to get right in a book. I might have to try it one day, although its well daunting, feel like you need to be super clever to pull it off!

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      1. I have not, no.
        Though I am reading a book right now that breaks the fourth wall. The first person narrator mentions the reader a lot as she tells the story. She even questioned herself to be an “unreliable narrator” and how she learned about that in English class.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Interesting post. I can’t think of any examples right now other than Bronte in Jane Eyre when at
    the start of the last chapter Jane Eyre addresses the reader: “Reader, I married him.” I think it may be used quite often in chick lit with the narrator giving little asides to the reader.

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    1. Ah yes, I did see Jane Eyre mentioned in the lists of 4th wall breakers. I listened to the audio book of it as a kid, but haven’t actually read it. Shameful I know! I shall have to pick up some chick flick again and see what I find haven’t read any for an age.

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  6. I got into Deadpool in the 90’s when he first showed up and started the 4th Wall Breaking, so it’s interesting to see how things have changed. It’s become a lot more common and done for comedic shock value. Like the drunker brother of jump scares from the horror genre. So it seems people are using it like it’s the greatest trick in the world. I considered going it for my last book, but altered the usage so it comes off more as a character’s mental issue than him really being aware of his fictional side. Part of this is because several people told me that using a 4th Wall Breaking character means I have to use it A LOT. That fault wrong to me because then the reader would barely be in the story if they’re constantly yanked out. Guess this is an elaborate why of saying I whole-heartedly agree with #3. Also, I blame ‘Family Guy’ for the 4th Wall Breaking abuse.

    You mention soliloquies, which got me thinking about Shakespeare. I’ve usually said he used the 4th Wall tactic, but maybe I was wrong. The big example I’ve cite dis Pucks’ speech in ‘A Midsummer’s Night Dream’. This was directly to the audience, but would you say it’s definitely 4th Wall Breaking?

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    1. You read the comics? I have been thinking maybe I should try and read one, I really did love the film that much. Icy was saying that they used to break the 4th wall in 90’s TV all the time. Like Saved by the Bell and I think even Sabrina the Teenage Witch?

      I wouldn’t give it that much credit. It’s a cool technique, but not the greatest trick in the world! I’d prefer a decent plot twist!

      Interesting that people said you need to use it a lot. I’d actually say it was the other way round. Use it sparingly. If you look at most famous uses of it, like Fight Club or Deadpool films, its not overused at all. So yeah, I agree with you, it would yank them out of the story too much if it was used a lot.

      I love Shakespeare, but not so much I can remember exactly which speech you meant! I googled, spark notes: http://www.sparknotes.com/shakespeare/msnd/section9.rhtml

      Is this the right bit of speech?

      “Puck makes a final address to the audience. He says that if the play has offended, the audience should remember it simply as a dream.”

      That to me says 4th wall break. From memory a soliloquy is the characters thoughts, we hear, but the other characters don’t. Whereas a 4th wall break is the character directly addressing the audience. So for me, if I have the right section, I’d plump with 4th wall break.

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      1. I read the comics in the 90’s and early 2000’s before Deadpool became more mainstream. That sounded oddly hipster-ish. Anyway, I know him more from his early Limited Series and first comic run, which were very entertaining. So he’s become more of a true hero than he was back then.

        I agree that it’s a trick with limited use and shouldn’t be overused. The issue is that there are some popular things that seem to exist solely on 4th Wall Breaking. They’ve made it edgy, cool, and the core of comedy. This mixes with a lack of understanding from your average person that a joke stops being funny after the 5th time you hear it in 30 minutes.

        That’s the Puck speech. Good point on who the the character is talking to. One that is simply talking to themselves wouldn’t count.

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      2. Ah cool, I guess he’s one of those anti hero types. And I love an antihero. Did you see the other comment? Someone mentioned they thought the Puck comment was actually an ‘aside’ as opposed to 4th wall break.

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      3. I must have missed that comment, but I’ve thought the same thing. To me, an aside is a version of 4th wall breaking since both interact with the audience. For some reason, modern day translation of 4th wall breaking is that it has to be blunt, surprising, and comedic. I think it’s only thought of that way because comedies are using the tactic more these days.

        Deadpool is an antihero now. Like a Punisher type instead of Wolverine. Though he began as a straight villain, so I had that introduction.

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      4. I was taught that was a dramatic device called an “aside” where the character briefly comments or speaks directly to the audience but the other characters can’t hear or see it being done. Shakespeare used it in several places, I think. It was used to give the audience additional info or insight about the characters or plot.
        Here’s a WIKI link which gives some other examples in stage productions/movies.
        Interesting adaptation in literature. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aside

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Funny to think that Zack broke the fourth wall all the time in Saved by the Bell – I might have to write an article on the use of postmodern techniques in 1990s teen television! Deadpool breaks the fourth wall continually in the comics, and while the things he says make sense to the reader, they confuse the other characters, which helps add to the belief he’s mad. In fact, he’s the only one who realises he’s in a comic. It’s pretty intense and intellectual for a comic series!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. OMG Saved By the Bell! Haven’t heard that name for a long ass time! I used to love that programme! Did Sabrina do it too? The teenage witch? That was another I liked watching. How is your PhD going by the way? What are you going to do after? Lecture? I love thats how it rolls in the comic, such a clever tactic. Have you read the comic? I might have to see if I can get one, it sounds awesome. Thanks for telling me ❤

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      1. So is it linked to your PhD then? If it’s an academic paper? I had my masters paper published, but only cause they carried on the research, was super proud when it was, sigh… there I am reminiscing about uni again! Which uni are you affiliated to? Are you a researcher by day?

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  8. I loved all the 4th wall breaks in Deadpool, so funny! Apparently that’s his schtick in the comics as well. I’ve used it a couple of times in my new book, which is first person POV, but I agree it is something to be used sparingly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeh, I heard that too – same gig in the comic, Icy said that it confuses the other characters making them think he’s mad. Wicked cool trick if you ask me. I haven’t ever really read a comic though. Maybe I should. In fact. I think I will! Cool that you have used it, how did you find it was it easy or hard? I worry I wouldn’t make it convincing.

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      1. I haven’t ever read a comic either (other than Misty when I was a kid). And I used it in A Thousand Rooms – she’s telling the story of a disastrous date, then breaks a couple of times to make a point directly to the reader. So I think that’s breaking the 4th wall – god knows, lol, I’m pretty hopeless at all this!

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      2. Thank you 🙂 Yes, it was a nice note, and I know we can parse these things till the end of time but I am high fiving myself as well for it being a positive despite the rejection, as she was a long shot agent anyway 🙂

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  9. Well, that was interesting! I didn’t think I’d read this blog to the end, but I did. I never knew about the 4th wall, but it makes sense now. Have you seen ‘Miranda’ on TV? Is that an example of the 4th wall when she looks and talks to the audience? I don’t really understand how it works in books. I’ll have to have a look at some of the books mentioned…….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Georgie, that’s lovely feedback to know you didn’t think you would get to the end but you did anyway 😀 ❤ That's made my day! 🙂

      I haven't watched Miranda, but I have seen clips. I suspect, from the way you describe it, that yes, it is an example. If she's directly addressing the audience then it counts :D. Thanks for stopping in. 😀

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  10. I loved how it was used in House of Cards. It was suddenly as if you were a co-conspirator in Underwood’s manipulation rather than just a witness.

    I am looking forward to seeing Deadpool, but alas I may have to wait until it is streamable.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Do you know, I couldn’t stomach house of cards! I am not even sure I got through one episode. But I know what you mean, the technique is a good one, particularly the co-conspirator thing, it really draws the audience in. Deadpool is so awesome, try if you can for a babysitter while its still out. ❤

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  11. Funniest play I saw about five years ago was One man Two Guv’nors and that breaks the Fourth Wall. On stage that can be a crap device associated with farce – and I hate farce. Why I hadn’t noticed One Man was in fact billed as a farce I don’t know. I might not have gone and that would be a shame. But as you say here is it used (a) at the right times and (b) with hilarious effect.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting that you don’t like a farce, it was one and you still think it would have been a shame if you didn’t go. Do you not like the technique at all? What about some of the films or books mentioned – do they not cater to your tastes?

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  12. I tend to like it when either in a book, movie, or TV show breaks the 4th wall. It makes me feel like they are speaking to me, letting me in on a secret. 🙂 … Now, that book “House of Leaves”… I’ve tried reading this one so many times, but only get a little ways in, before, as you say, feeling a bit crazy. I like the way it looks inside, I like the subject matter of the book, but how anyone gets through it is beyond me. I want to try again! 🙂

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    1. Agreed it definitely does make you feel like they are speaking direct to you 😀 oooh I haven’t ever met anyone who has tried to read it. Its definitely a bucket list book for me. Has to be read, even if I’m not the same when I finish it! lol

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  13. Never heard of it before, but have witnessed it. I can’t say I’ve ever remembered a movie where it has occurred, so maybe that is one to think about, but what did come straight to my mind once I knew what it was is the comedy TV series, Miranda. She used it a lot and I loved it, yet my partner hated it and says it spoils the whole series.

    I guess the jury are out on it?

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    1. Yeah its a funny one, because I have seen it and hated it (house of cards) and seen it and loved it (dead pool) so I wonder if its more about its implementation than it is about the tool itself. *scratches head*

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  14. Great topic, Sacha! You really show it well, although I admit I kind of hung out at this level for a bit: “Imagine you are at the theatre, sat in velvet red seats shovelling over priced wine gums in your gob.” Okay! Sounds better than my crappy north Idaho theater with broken-down bucket seats, sticky floors and over-oiled popcorn that despite being awful is irresistible. I love studying movies for literary purposes (much shorter time involved and is visual).

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    1. hahahaha, ok, maybe velvet was an exaggeration. I actually think they are leather or plastic stuff with feathers or something. The floors are ALWAYS sticky, and our popcorns too dry! looool. Maybe its only the Royal Albert that has the velvet seats from my head! and Im not rich enough to visit there!

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      1. Best theater experience I ever had was watching Skyfall in our tiny, sticky-floored theater packed with Idahoans. There’s a scene where Bond goes back to the Scotland manor of his childhood and Kincaid, the groundskeeper, laments that he “sold all the guns to a collector in Idaho.” That theater erupted! We all connected with Bond and smiled with popcorn in our teeth. Better than velvet seats on a bare tush!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Not at all! I rather like it. I’m embarrassingly loud when I laugh – especially at comedies in the cinema. Plus I rather like a good audience clap at the end. I should have been American!

        Liked by 1 person

      1. I have sections of that story posted under Loleeta though the story is censored to death, something I need to correct.

        The style is influenced by Celine and especially Nathaniel West who did something similar in Miss Lonely Hearts.

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