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Thursday, May 30, 2013

Andrew Peters Guest Post: Breaking the "Fourth Wall"

Mr Must Read mysteries (or Musty, as we famous writers call him) has asked me to write a little something for you all on one of the techniques I use a lot in my brilliant books.  
                           Breaking the “fourth wall”

Goodreads 5 Star review “I really like the way he involves the reader, it’s like he’s sitting in front of you talking to you”

Goodreads 2 Star review “Not really my sort of thing, he keeps addressing the reader directly”

Well, my friends, it appears that you surely can’t please everyone, and one of the things I seem to do which divides opinion on my literary masterpieces is my habit of talking to people. Yes, you. Pay attention.

Maybe it starts with the fact that I’ve never thought of myself as a writer. Before last June I’d never written a story in my life, and certainly never attended a creative writing class or read anything at all about writing technique.  I had done plenty of story-telling, in comedy clubs, folk clubs and when making a living as an entertainer, so maybe that was what influenced me most when I decided to tell some stories via the Kindle machine.

That was what I wanted to do, not write things, but tell stories, and I never really gave much thought to how I should do it. I just thought up a situation, sat down at the computer and told someone about it. You. The reader.

I suppose it’s my Blues Detective stories where the reader's most important, as Otis King the narrator takes you into his world, shares his thoughts with you, helps you along with a clue or two, and quite often expects you to guess the answer before he does.

“Well, you’ve guessed it by now, haven’t you my dears? It’s hardly worth explaining it. What? No? Well, it’s a good thing you’re not trying to make a living in the detecting business. Allow me to elucidate...”

Otis is always at pains to point  out that he’s not writing a book, he’s making a report, and the effect I want is for you to hear his voice in your head, see things through his eyes, maybe even ask the odd question if you’d care to. He’s a helpful narrator too, always happy to gloss over the dull bits, like the coffees, meals and train journeys, but he’ll put them back in if he needs to pad a story out to novel length.

Much the same thing happens in “Joe Soap”, though here the narrator is quite happy to inform you that he’s writing a book, even if it’s one that nobody will ever be allowed to read. He even refers to the clumsiness of some of the construction, since he isn’t able to send it to his editor. Again he tries to anticipate your questions and explain himself to you at critical moments.

No, I don’t always do it, and there are ways to do it without being quite so obvious. In “The Barry Island Murders” the policeman narrator is telling the whole story to a newspaper reporter, who interrupts with questions and points of his own. Not that he’s allowed to speak in the book, you have to infer his contributions from Inspector Williams’ reactions.

I like this technique. It makes the whole story-telling business  a little friendlier. It makes for informality in the narration, and you get to join in with the story a bit. The narrator can use you as a sounding-board for his own opinions.  It can be lonely telling a whole story by yourself. Maybe I should just record them and then you’d really have the voice in your head.

I don’t claim to be the inventor of this technique. I’m not the best-read man on the planet, so I have no idea to what extent other people have used it. Charlotte Bronte did for one...“Reader, I married him”.  PG Wodehouse was prone to it here and there. Damon Runyon too. Maybe most first -person narrations have a little bit of it.

It gets used far more often in film and TV. Any of you remember “It’s Gary Shandling’s Show”? He’d sit down and tell the audience what was going to happen, before walking past the cameras and onto the set. Then there’s “Blazing Saddles”, where Sheriff Bart frequently talks to you.

The important thing about it is to be consistent. Once you start, you have to keep at it, as an occasional one will jar. Remember “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, where George Lazenby finishes the fight, stares at the camera and says, “This never happened to the other feller.”? Didn’t really work, did it? You think? I beg to differ.

Now, I’m not in a position to give you advice on writing technique, and this one has its limitations. You can really only use it with a first person narrator but then a first person narration is the only logical way to tell a story. The third-person idea is a literary invention.I can’t be doing with those telepathic people reading everyone’s thoughts. I mean, you can’t really describe anyone else’s thoughts but your own, you can only infer them from their actions. And all that dashing across to the other side of town to take a look inside the villain’s head? No, it can’t happen...only in books.

The other limitation, is, as you saw at the beginning, some people don’t like it. They much prefer everything kept impersonal. Me, I love it...to the extent that if I ever write anything else, it’ll take a mighty effort to avoid using it. Still, at least you’ll know it’s one of my books.

Andrew Peters is the author of the Blues Detective series of humorous mysteries, as well as the mystery/thriller novels Joe Soap and The Barry Island Murders.  His short story collections Solos and Monophonic are also available for Kindle.


  1. Thanks for having me!

    1. You're not a writer. Could have fooled everyone, not me. I figured it out.

  2. Thank you for dropping by! And come on back any time....I need all the help I can get in keeping this blog active.

  3. Well I for one love Andrew's books, and the way he writes. It's fresh and innovative.

  4. I love the first person narration and the direct chat with your reader, Andrew. I'm with the 5*

  5. Clear, crisp and without pretension. WYSIWYG with Andrew Peters, and no BS.

    Well done, this is using stage devices in writing, in a way, which I do understand and appreciate.


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