Friday, October 19, 2012

First Line Friday: Breaking the Fourth Wall

Whaddya say, shall we break the fourth wall today?

Do what with the which now, you ask? Break the fourth wall- that imaginary barrier between the actors on a stage and the audience in the theater (or for our purposes, between characters in a story and the reader turning pages.) Oftentimes, narrators and characters don’t even acknowledge the reader’s existence. Other times they step right up and introduce themselves. “Call me Ishmael,” says Hermann Melville in Moby Dick.  “In a sense, I am Jacob Horner,” says John Barth in his lead off to The End of the Road

In both cases you’ve got a first-person narrator, so it’s somewhat natural to address the reader directly, or make personal asides. Still, it’s an interesting choice to shake hands with the reader rather than launch into the story or kick off some tension-building plot point. I happen to like it.

And look at the amount of character info you can convey in just one sentence packed with dialect and mannerisms and tone:
“You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter.” —Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” —J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
But you don’t necessarily need a first-person protagonist to make this work. Before he tells us “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time,” Kurt Vonnegut presents the reader with all sorts of personal vignettes, dirty limericks and the like in  his novel Slaughterhouse-Five.  How does that one begin?
“All this happened, more or less.”
And Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler  speaks directly to the reader because, well, it’s the reader that is the protagonist of that book. He makes that pretty clear in his famous, fourth-wall-breaking first line:
“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler.”
There are plenty of other examples, too. This kind of opener can set tone, introduce a character or frame the main story:
“This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” —from Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier
“For a long time, I went to bed early.” —from Marcel Proust, Swann's Way
“I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.” —from Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome
As it turns out, I don’t mind in the least if an author breaks the fourth wall. If anything it personalizes what I’m about to read, puts me on an equal footing with the author and treats me like I’m worth their story-telling time. Anybody else a fan? Anybody hate it?

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