Day 11: Break the Fourth Wall

Day eleven, your writing is absolute heaven, darling.

Yes I’m talking to you. Directly to you. Imagine that I’m staring straight through this screen and right into your eyes.

Gif of a llama chewing and then stopping to turn and stare at the camera

Bit intense, sorry. But that’s the crux of what we’re doing today: breaking the fourth wall

If you’re not familiar with the concept, it’s when a character in a piece of fiction connects directly with the audience. Imagine the three ‘walls’ of a theatre stage – the fourth wall is the invisible one between the stage and the audience. In most books/films/TV shows/plays, the characters/actors spend their time pretending very hard that this fourth wall is real. But sometimes they break it. They look out into the audience. They speak to the reader. They look to camera and send a little wink/nod/smirk through your TV screen. 

For example: 

Jane Eyre (“Reader, I married him.”)


Gif of Fleabag laughing and then looking to camera with a grimace

A Series of Unfortunate Events (the very first line reads: “If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book.”)

Gentleman Jack

Gif from Gentleman Jack of Anne Lister looking to camera and raising her eyebrows suggestively

The Book Thief (begins: “Here is a small fact. You are going to die.”

The Princess Bride (both the book and the film do a pretty good job of smashing down that fourth wall throughout)

Deadpool the comics and films are meta af

How I Met Your Mother

Most of Shakespeare and a whole boatload of stage plays, and about a billion other examples that I’m sure you can all add to in the forum discussion!

Gif of a portrait of Shakespeare winking

Smashing that fourth wall is such an effective trick (when used cleverly and sparingly), and also probably why the use of second person perspective (you) is so prevalent in flash fiction. It’s a bold, direct, often unnerving method of making the reader/viewer complicit in the story. It’s also a really good way to practice your characterisation and narrative voice.

But most of all, it’s a lot of fun to play with.

So here’s your task for today:

First, pick one of the following characters (or take a character from one of your works-in-progress if you prefer):

Next, have a think about where they are, what they’re doing and how they’re feeling. 

  • Are they reacting to something? 
  • Do they have a secret they need to share?
  • What do they think about their current situation? 
  • What do they want right now?
  • What are they hiding? 
  • Do they need to complain about something? 
  • Or do they have an inside joke they want to tell you? 

Grab your character, set a timer for 20 minutes, and let them talk directly to you for a while… This can be as stream of consciousness and utterly ridiculous as you like – if a narrative or some sort of story emerges, great, but if it just turns out to be a bizarre monologue, that’s great too. 

And when you’re done: how did it feel to break down that invisible wall? Did it free up your ability to share the narrative or did it feel like you were overstepping the bounds of the metaverse? Did it feel clunky or natural? Did it work for this particular character? Would it work for a character in another story?

Tell us all about how you got on in the advent forum and remember: this is just one more tool in your writing kit. This is all just PLAY. So have fun, experiment, and if you find yourself stuck in a scene or a story, try breaking the fourth wall and see what happens. You may not end up keeping it in, but a little direct-to-reader monologuing can sometimes be just what you need to break through!

Gif of a young couple in a car. The woman looks to camera and says, "Can you believe this guy?" 

The man asks: "Who are you talking to?" 

"The audience!" she replies.

Happy wall smashing!

Useful Stuff & Things:

If you want to play around more with perspective, try this cheeky little exercise next: Switch the POV

And an even more in-depth look at perspective, tense, point of view, and all that nitty gritty (and endlessly fascinating) stuff in this unit from Writing Short Fiction

You need the famous Writers’ HQ newsletter

Yes you do. Writing inspo, buttkicking, upcoming events and special offers, and the occasional bum joke. You know what to do – put your thing in the thing.