If you’re not familiar with the fourth wall as a concept integral to storytelling, here’s the gist of it:
The fourth wall is the imaginary “wall” at the front of the stage in a traditional three-walled box set in a proscenium theatre, through which the audience sees the action in the world of the play.
The central idea of the fourth wall is that the characters inside the fictional world remain unaware of the audience, even as the audience sits only feet away. If the audience breaks into thunderous applause, or begins to throw rotting fruit, the actors continue to attempt to exist in their own fictional space, apart from the physical reality of the theater.
Although the phrase originated in theater, and has its literal roots there, the fourth wall exists in every storytelling medium:
The idea of the fourth wall was made explicit by Denis Diderot and spread in nineteenth-century theatre with the advent of theatrical realism, which extended the idea to the imaginary boundary between any fictional work and its audience.
In movies the fourth wall is most commonly broken when an actor looks directly at the camera, acknowledging both the mechanism of production and the presence of the audience. In fiction the fourth wall can be broken by having characters acknowledge the audience, but the fourth wall is not broken when the author or author-as-narrator does so. (The central idea, again, is that characters within a story remain oblivious to the audience. A narrator is, by definition, relating events to the audience, even if that character also appears in the story.)
The fourth wall is intimately connected to the issues of transparency and suspension of disbelief. For these reasons it is generally respected and reinforced by traditional storytelling, while creators interested in exploring a medium as a medium are often interested in breaking the fourth wall.
The acceptance of the transparency of the fourth wall is part of the suspension of disbelief between a fictional work and an audience, allowing them to enjoy the fiction as if they were observing real events.
In general, the fourth wall is easier to maintain if the audience has no means of accessing the performers. Fiction and film maintain transparency almost effortlessly, because the mediums are not presented live. Live television, and particularly live theater, require greater craft discipline, but there is such a long history of honoring the fourth wall in those mediums that techniques which do so are well known.
Blog fiction — which treats the internet and web sites as a storytelling medium — presents both new and unique obstacles to maintaining the fourth wall. More than any other audio-visual medium the internet inherently seeks to tear down the fourth wall, allowing author and audience to communicate directly, even in real time. The unprecedented, culturally transformative success of social networks speaks not simply to the success of the internet, but to communication as the internet’s basic premise — over and above uses such as the distribution or presentation of information.
From email to blog comments to blog posts commenting about other blogs, every aspect of the internet as a medium of expression involves give and take. Presenting stories that respect the fourth wall while exploiting the internet as a medium is a complex and uncertain undertaking, and may simply not work. In the next post I will present the first of several examples of this complexity, and talk about choices and assumptions I have so far made regarding the fourth wall.
— Mark Barrett