Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!
Breaking the fourth wall. Everybody knows what that means, right? Typically it’s used to describe film because you’re filming in a box with only three sides. The fourth side is the camera. Actors don’t usually look directly into the camera, and you wouldn’t want them to. But why is that? Some stories are best told through an omniscient narrator. You want the audience to know all things, to see all sides of a conflict. Other stories are best as a first person narrative, where one character’s viewpoint is dominant. In either of these cases, the fourth wall is best left unbroken (unless your name is Deadpool and then you just do whatever the #@!$ you want). Generally speaking, the reason you don’t want to break the wall is because you don’t want the audience to remember that they’re an audience. You don’t want to pull them into the story only to yank them roughly back out with some uncomfortable eye contact.
Recently there has been a resurgence in the documentary style of filmmaking. Shows like The Office (British and American versions) and Modern Family are excellent examples of this trend. Most of the time you’re just watching the characters’ antics, but there are brief periods where individuals or pairs of characters address the camera directly. When a character says something ridiculous, the silence that follows it is so much more appealing than a laugh track. Cringe as you watch Ricky Gervais make off-color jokes, which are met by utter silence, and give the camera what he thinks is a conspiratorial wink. Now go watch an old episode of Full House and tell me any of those jokes are funny. I am sure you see what I mean. The format works great for real documentaries or fake ones, but it isn’t right for everything.
My point here is that sometimes authors break the fourth wall without even noticing they’ve done it. You’re reading along, getting into the story, immersing yourself in the fictional world, and then suddenly one small word choice reminds you that there is a man behind the curtain. It is jarring, and does a disservice to both the story and the reader.
I’ll give you an example of what I mean. I took a Magazine Editing class in college. Bill Nemitz, the famous (or infamous) liberal newspaper editor and columnist taught it. We had several articles to write for the class, many of which centered on our personal experiences. One student whose name I don’t recall wrote a piece, the subject of which I also don’t recall. But guess what I do remember about it? I remember that feeling of being involved in the story, and then suddenly being ripped out of it. I even remember the phrase that ruined it for me:
“The only word I can think of is…”
That may not seem like a big deal to you. You may be asking yourself what’s wrong with that, exactly. It’s not that he said “I.” People say “I” all the time, and many stories are written in the first person. Naturally, his article was, being based on a real experience and all. The problem is that he told me he was searching for a word. Do that in private, on your own time, buddy! There are things called thesauruses that will help you with that. Don’t make it part of my experience. As an author, especially of a story based on part of your own life, you should be the expert. As a reader, I should have zero doubt about your ability to tell this story that only you can tell.
Usually the ways in which an author makes themselves known are more subtle, but they are no less distracting. One phrase I don’t like to see in print is “at this point.” It’s something you say to a friend when you’re telling them about your recent drive-thru debacle, when the combination of someone paying their bill in nickels and your caffeine deficiency made you tear out of the line and over the curb, trailing shrubbery and swear words. It’s what someone says to you at a party when you’ve been cornered for 45 minutes and you’ve been told “to make a long story short” so many times that it’s made the story longer. Then you go and tell your friends about it and say, “At this point, I was ready to stab him with my swizzle stick.” It is not a phrase you ever really read, and that’s for good reason. It’s anti-immersive and only serves to remind the reader that they’re merely an observer of a story, not part of it.
Another peeve of mine, but which turns up a lot in the work of new authors, is a tendency to point out cause and effect. For instance: Jane’s husband Dick has just put a dirty dish in the sink, which is right next to a dishwasher that is empty. (This example works for dirty laundry too, or recycling, or virtually anything that has a specific home but which almost never finds its way there once in the hands of a supposedly domesticated male.) Jane is ready to leave for work, and she sees the dirty dish and she is angry. Do I need to tell you what she’s angry about? If I do, you might want to work on your reading comprehension.
In any case, what happens often in a new author’s work is that they will say, “Jane saw the dirty dish in the sink, next to the dishwasher but alas, not inside it. She was angry at that.” “Jane’s husband Dick made a funny joke. She laughed at that.” “Jane criticized Dick’s choice of checkered jacket with striped tie, and he scowled at that.” Do you see the problem? As a reader I don’t need to be told what the cause is of the reaction I’m seeing BECAUSE IT IS A REACTION. There has been no other stimulus, so there is nothing else that could be causing it.
And there’s a funny little phenomenon that happens in concert with this, which is that new authors will simultaneously try to explain every action and reaction to the reader, but they will leave out important things like dialogue attributions and action that is happening while dialogue is taking place. So you, the reader, are meant to infer everything that happens between Jane’s action and Dick’s subsequent reaction.
“Jane saw the dirty dish in the sink, next to the dishwasher but not inside it. She was angry at that. She turned to Dick, who had just come into the kitchen, and shouted at him for being so lazy. Dick started the car and drove away.”
Dick either teleported to the car, or he crossed the room, grabbed his jacket and car keys, and he walked out into the frozen January tundra to get away from his nagging wife. On the one hand, dear reader, you are considered incapable of inferring that Jane’s foul mood is due to Dick’s ridiculous inability to put something where he knows it belongs. On the other, you are expected to know the author’s thoughts and vision for his characters, despite the fact that humans haven’t cracked the science of telepathy yet.
I am being terribly snarky, so let me just explain a couple of things. First, no actual husbands have been harmed in the making of this blog post. The example of Jane and Dick is a fictional one, and I haven’t had cause to snap at my husband for poor dirty dish etiquette. Having said that, I stand by my comment about “supposedly domesticated males” because the two that I have lived with (and others I have known) would have trouble finding their own ass with both hands if their wife put it in a cupboard and “hid” it behind a jar of pasta sauce.
The second thing I want to make clear is that I know nobody intends for these little quirks of new authorship to happen. Writing is never perfect on the first go-round, which is why I have a job. Despite what you may think, I’m not angry about these things unless I see them in actual print because that means someone with the same job title as me supposedly looked the thing over before it went out into the world. I know the person who suffers for poor editing is the author, not the editor. It’s true for both films and for writing. An editor, if their work is shoddy and they’re left to their own devices, can ruin something that has great potential. It’s a shame, and it shouldn’t happen, but unfortunately it does.
If you are an author, new or otherwise, and you’re not happy with the work your editor is doing, you must speak up. I often think there are many relationships that could be repaired with the simple addition of more honest communication. This is painfully true for family, but also for business arrangements. Your editor is there to give you constructive feedback, but feedback is supposed to be a loop for a reason. You don’t have to agree with or accept their suggestions without discussing them first. Your work is yours, and it is therefore deeply personal regardless of the subject. Stand up for yourself and for your writing, and stick to the things you feel make it truly yours…but don’t be a tyrant. The criticism you get from a reputable editor is meant to help you, because without you there is no work.