The ‘fourth wall’ is a term from the acting world. It comes from the fourth ‘wall’ that actors pretends separates them from the audience. When they talk directly to the audience, they are ‘breaking the fourth wall’.
The fourth wall in writing
In writing, breaking the fourth wall means addressing the readers directly. There are a number of ways of how to do this, and some pitfalls. I’m going to go through some of the ways to it, but there are probably more.
By first person viewpoint
In the first person viewpoint, remember from my previous post, the writer is already relaying the story as if to a reader. Addressing the reader directly is natural, because you are already addressing them. It can be a very useful tool to characterise the narrator character. One of the allures of the first person viewpoint is that it allows the viewpoint to be unreliable and biased, so you can do interesting things with the character. Breaking the fourth wall can be an extension of this process.
Be aware though, breaking the fourth wall can pull the reader out of the story. It also slows down your pacing, the same way that a flashback does, because the action in the story comes to a halt while the narrator talks to the reader.
I came across Jeff and I was instantly annoyed. He’s unmannered, filthy, and stupid. You know the type, always looks like he’s just coming home from tilling the field. Always picking his nose. This should stay between us, but if I could wring his neck, I would.
You can see that the above piece characterises not only Jeff, but also the narrator. It also stops the action. In the first sentence, the narrator comes across Jeff. The rest is not moving the story forward beyond that.
By third person viewpoint
In the third-person, the characters are not the narrator. In first person the narrator is also a character in the story. In third person, they are not, so you are drawing attention to yourself. This is still a useful tool, but note that you are still slowing the pacing like in first person. An example.
Wendy came across Jeff, and was instantly annoyed. She thought Jeff was unmannered, filthy, and stupid. Jeff found her intimidating. He looked at her and felt himself shrivel. Little did they both know that they would end up together. It’s a strange world, wouldn’t you say?
In the last two sentences, the reader is talked to. The second-to-last one is reasonably indirect, but the last one is not. I don’t like this way of drawing attention to the writer, but that is a matter of taste. Just be aware that you’re doing it, and that you’re not accidentally breaking the fourth wall.
Third person characters talking to the reader
This is a bit of an odd one, but technically possible. Instead of the writer talking to the reader, a third-person character can do so. I think the effect is somewhat disturbing, because you’re actually making the reader part of the story. Interestingly, it does not affect pacing, because you’re not pausing the story. An example:
“Hey, you,” Jeff said. “Yeah, you, reader.”
“Who are you talking to?” Wendy asked.
“Are you enjoying my story,” Jeff said. “I certainly am not, so please, read a little faster.”
Another way that the writer can communicate with the reader, is through footnotes. This is something reserved mostly to comedy. A very nice example is Good Omens. The difference between footnotes and inserting the comments directly into the story, is that they are less invasive for pacing. They still draw attention to the writer, although not as obvious as directly addressing readers.
I’m not certain this final technique is really fourth wall breaking. You can add references to the story that the characters might not understand, but the reader will. An example:
John looked at the contraption. It was a device from before the apocalypse. It looked like a coach, with four wheels and windows, only it was made of metal, and there was no way to attach a horse the pull it. If you opened a hatch at the front, you saw the strange metal innards, which must have done something important, when it still worked.
In the example, John doesn’t know what he’s looking at, but as a reader you’ll recognize it as a car. This type of reference is usually reserved for science fiction tales, but there might be examples in other genres that I can’t think of at the moment.
Breaking the fourth wall can be done in a number of ways. It can be used to characterise, to get a laugh, or to increase intimacy with the reader. In other words, it’s a tool all writers should have in their toolbox. Use sparingly, though.