Direct Address: Breaking the Fourth Wall

October 27, 2009
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DIRECT ADDRESS: BREAKING THE FOURTH WALL

By Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

November 1, 2009

"Barnes not only addresses the reader,
he asks him to enter
the story. . ."

—Shapiro

You might think that direct address to the reader–that is the author actually acknowledging and communication with the reader–went out with the Victorian novel. Maybe that’s because the technique had been done with a heavy hand, telling the reader what to think as in this passage from A Christmas Carol:

“No! Far be such miscalled philosophy from us, dear Reader, on Christmas Day! Nearer and closer to our hearts be the Christmas spirit, which is the spirit of active usefulness, perseverance, cheerful discharge of duty, kindness and forbearance! It is in the last virtues especially, that we are, or should be, strengthened by the unaccomplished visions of our youth; for, who shall say that they are not our teachers to deal gently even with the impalpable nothings of the earth!”

But I found direct address done so invitingly in a short story called Complicity by Julian Barnes in the October 19, 2009 New Yorker, that it got me thinking that it’s not time to bury this technique.

Barnes not only addresses the reader, he asks him to enter the story by answering questions he poses. Here are some examples:

“Have you noticed mothers and daughters at parties together, and tried to work out who is taking care of whom?”

“Have you ever played that game where you sit in a circle and close your eyes, or are blindfolded, and have to guess what an object is just from the feel of it? And then you pass it on and the next person has to guess? Or you keep your guesses to yourselves until you’ve all made up your minds, and then announce them at the same time?”

Your parents never warn you about the right thing, do they?”

No one says, `Feel this piece of parmesan, do they?’”

I’m sure you’re all intrigued about this story by now.

". . .this technique would be absolutely the death of a story if all these questions didn’t relate to the theme and the plot. . ."
—Shapiro

I’m sure you’re all intrigued about this story by now. But this technique would be absolutely the death of a story if all these questions didn’t relate to the theme and the plot. But they do. And perfectly. By questioning the reader, the author not only gets you into the protagonist’s mind, but into your own storehouse of memories as well. You are engaged, practically married by the time you get to the end.

In playwriting, the technique of addressing the audience (rather than the reader) is called “breaking the fourth wall.” The actor steps right downstage, looking out over the audience, and speaks directly to them.

One of the most famous examples of this is Puck’s direct address in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

If we shadows have offended,

Then think but this and all is mended.

That you have but slumber’d here

While these visions did appear.

 

Here is an example from a contemporary play, The Clean House by Sarah Ruhl. Lane, a physician, talks to the audience:

It has been such a hard month.

My cleaning lady…from Brazil…decided that she was depressed one day and stopped cleaning my house.

I was like:

clean my house!

And she wouldn’t!

We took her to the hospital and I had her medicated and she

Still wouldn’t clean.

And—in the meantime—I’ve been cleaning my house!

I’m sorry, but I didn’t go to medical school to clean my own house.

 

We rarely see direct address in contemporary films, but Woody Allen uses it often. Annie Hall, for example, begins with Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) facing the camera and addressing the audience. His three-minute monologue introduces his childhood. With the adult Alvy’s voiceover, we see his mother bringing the young Alvy to the family doctor to discuss Alvy’s conviction that since the Universe is expanding and will ultimately end, there’s no need to eat or do one’s homework.

Allen has continued using direct address in his films. His most recent film, Whatever Works, Larry David, of Curb Your Enthusiasm, playing a Woody Allen-esque alter ego, begins with a conversation he has with the audience.

Poets use this device as well. May Swenson invited the reader to participate in her poem, The Shape of Death, with a question that could be interpreted not only as a direct address to the reader, but a question to herself as well. A literary two-fer, so to speak.

What does love look like? We know

the shape of death. Death is a cloud

immense and awesome. At first a lid

is lifted from the eye of light:

there is a clap of sound, a white blossom

belches from the jaw of fright….

Emily Dickinson also direct address in this first stanza so piquantly, never pounding the reader on the head, rather creating intimacy.

I’m nobody! Who are you?

Are you—Nobody—too?

Then there’s a pair of us!

Don’t tell! They’d banish me, you know?

 

Caveat: At its best

". . .direct address can establish a strong connection between the character or subject matter and the audience. . ."
—Shapiro

Direct address can establish a strong connection between the character or subject matter and the audience by evoking an emotional response. But when poorly used, it comes across as cornball or even desperation. The audience either doesn’t react or boos or closes the book.

What is the ingredient that makes it work? Genius, I’m afraid. 

"I might have to write hundreds of words, scores of pages, until I find my beginning. "
—Shapiro

 Oh, if only there was a formula for the perfect beginning, I wouldn’t be above following it. But one thing I always tell myself for comfort is that I might have to write hundreds of words, scores of pages, until I find my beginning. And even then, the beginning might turn out to be the ending. To find your beginning, keep writing

About
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

 

 

 

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) and has published essays in NYT (Lives), Newsweek (My Turn), et. al. Her essay, ESS, ESS, is just out in FEED ME: WRITERS DISH ABOUT FOOD, EATING, WEIGHT, AND BODY IMAGE, ed. by Harriet Brown (Random House, 2009). She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry. She teaches Writing the Personal Essay at UCLA extension.

 

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