Breaking the Fourth Wall

Photo of a hole in drywall within a house.
by Lujia Zhang/Unsplash

Yesterday, I posted a review of Horrorshow, and I wanted to follow that with a post about another aspect of the novel.

This post has a spoiler for Horrorshow, so if you plan on reading it, you might want to stop reading here.

(Well, the post’s title is big clue, but try to forget that.)

Moving on…

In that book, just beyond halfway through it, the main character (Riley) starts coming to grips with the notion that he could be a character in a novel. I’ve learned that the phrase to describe the situation is “breaking the fourth wall.” The Free Dictionary gives a background how that got started:

“Taken originally from theater, in which the fourth wall describes the invisible ‘wall’ that stands between the audience and the stage.”

I can’t remember when I first heard about the concept, but it’s a fascinating one. The idea that a writer can develop self-awareness in their characters, so they realize (or are told) that they’re within a story.

A helpful video on “metafiction” is on YouTube: Understanding Metafiction (Literature, Films and Video Games).

The movie Stranger Than Fiction (2006) explores the idea when Harold begins to hear, inside his head, a narrator describing his life. I enjoyed that movie, and it planted a seed in my mind to eventually write a metafictiony story.

Years later, I heard the Radiolab episode, “The Real Don Quixote” (2015). The show’s guest Bruce Burningham (professor at Illinois State University) talks about how Miguel Cervantes broke the fourth wall in the sequel of Quixote’s adventures. In Part Two, the character Sampson Carrasco tells Don Quixote and Sancho Panza about the Part One book and drops the news that they’re characters.

The episode set the brain gears turning, then I wrote a flash-fiction piece “Characters in a Story,” in which two characters chat about the suspicion that they are, yes, characters in a story. Maybe funny in an absurd way, but too much like a writing exercise.

I came up with a broader story, and that flash-fiction piece is within it: Other Lives of the Boothbys

Cover for Other Lives of the Boothbys, with the title included within other text that's not important and grayed out.

Bradley Boothby has also seen Stranger Than Fiction, and he feels déjà vu when he walks by the building for Randolph-Turley Publishing Company. Bradley doesn’t think he’s a fictional character, but he feels he is somehow connected to a story published by that company. So Bradley takes the step of entering the building and talking with an editor to see if, somehow, his name is included in one of their books.

That meeting sets off a series of events. Included in those, the editor Jack Schneider and the writer George Foulkes write passages of books inspired by Bradley’s quest. Jack Schneider takes a crack at writing scenes of two characters forming a deeper relationship. George Foulkes starts a new story in which another writer is visited by his characters from a post-apocalyptic world.

I had fun writing Other Lives of the Boothbys, trying to come up with how different people could be inspired, then act on that inspiration. All of the writing process wasn’t fun, as self-doubt continued to pop up. I wondered if people would find the book boring. But in the end, I was pleased with the story, and I’m proud of it.

Tomorrow, I’ll post an excerpt from the book. Ah, the suspense…

But if you can’t wait for 24 hours, you can read an excerpt from the novella’s beginning here (I posted it last year).