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Do You Call the Technique Breaking the Third Wall or the Fourth Wall?
1 I usually refer to it as the fourth wall.
2 I usually refer to it as the third wall.
View Poll Result. Please vote for one of the choices.
King in Yellow

In cartoons/comic strips/comic books when a character addresses the reader it is termed breaking the third wall. Comics are two dimensional and the third dimension is the distance to the viewer.

In the theater, which takes place in three-dimensions, an aside (where a character more or less steps out of a scene to address the audience) is termed breaking the fourth wall - moving outside the three dimensions of the dramatic space to embrace the audience.

In stories I prefer the term third wall. The page/computer screen is a two dimensional surface. I hear the term fourth wall often used and am not certain why some prefer fourth to third.

As a general rule of thumb I don't like the technique in stories. It is too much of a wink at readers to not take the story seriously, in my opinion. It can be done well on occasion for humor, in my opinion, but should usually be avoided. (In my first story at FF.N I hinted at breaking the third wall. When I rewrote the story a year later it was one of the things I removed from the initial version.)

12/24/2010 #1
campy

It's certainly a gimmick and should be used sparingly.

I never had characters address the reader, but I once closed a story (since removed) by having Ron wonder what they were doing back in high school when they'd already graduated. Kim responded that that had happened in the TV show and they were currently in fanfic. Then there was a sort of déjà vu reference to another writer's story.

12/24/2010 #2
SHADO Commander

In cartoons/comic strips/comic books when a character addresses the reader it is termed breaking the third wall. Comics are two dimensional and the third dimension is the distance to the viewer.

Just out of curiosity, but do you have an actual reference for the use of third wall? It seems highly inaccurate given that "breaking the fourth wall" doesn't refer to dimensions at all. Rather, breaking the fourth wall (a concept dating back to the 16th century, the term first having been used by Denis Diederot,) refers to the fact that a conventional stage set in a traditional proscenium arch type theater has sets with three visible walls and an imaginary fourth wall that the actors are supposed to perceive and react to, beyond which is the "invisible" audience. Breaking the fourth wall is not the physical motion beyond the edge of that space, but rather the act of the characters suddenly breaking with the tradition of the invisible fourth wall and actively acknowledging or interacting with the audience. In other words, it's not the fourth wall that has been broken, but the convention of the wall itself. Given that the term fourth wall has since been extended to cover film and animation as well, both 2 dimensional mediums that still present the image of a three dimensional world, I'm unclear as to why it wouldn't extend to comics, and a google search on "breaking the third wall" didn't turn up any actual references. (Though it does sound like something Scott McLeod would pull out of his a**.)

All that said, I believe the more accurate term for stories is for the characters to become "self aware," that is to say that the characters understand that they are characters in a play/story/etc., though if one wanted to keep up the wall analogy, it would more properly be to break the fifth wall, as in stepping past the separation between reader and author, or characters and reader (I think that it was Vincent Canby who came up with that one?)

12/24/2010 #3
Pharaoh Rutin Tutin

Without rehashing Shado's comments, I had long been aware of the "Fourth Wall" concept from theatre and literature experience. Somehow, in the chats and fourms, I became aware of people refering to the "Third Wall" without it setting of my Wrong-O-Meter* like a lot of little gramatical, historical, and scientific problems do when they show up in the stories, forums, and chat.

When you think of it, the idea of breaking a third wall only makes sense if you are on a triangular stage.

But as to the concept? Like so many things that "They" tell you are wrong, characters on the page or stage addressing the audience directly can be a very effective damatic or comedic tool if handled well.

*The Wrong-O-Meter should not be confused with the RonGo-Meter which seems to have grown silent in recent years arround here. Or for that matter the RonCo-Meter, but I'll let Mr Popeil tell you about that ...

12/25/2010 #4
King in Yellow

Just out of curiosity, but do you have an actual reference for the use of third wall?

Odd, when I Google the term "breaking the third wall" I get more than twelve thousand hits, and many (but certainly not all) of them are indeed exactly what I'm describing... In fact, I even find it used for theater: How many of them do you want me to list? I could do several hundred from what I found, but would prefer not to do that many.

I've heard third wall a number of times, and it was how I was introduced to the term. Can't be certain, but that etymology I provided could be from Scott McLeod – I'd need to check and see if I took it from there. (And will be a bit ashamed of myself if I did after all the warnings I give students about etymological fallacies.)

12/25/2010 #5
SHADO Commander
Oh, I see the redferences, but not a single academic one... And the author of the link you provided is absolutely incorrect in his use of the third wall in regards to theatre. On stage and in film it's fourth wall, absolutely and without exception. That said, the use of the "third wall" variant is so common on the interweb that there must be a fairly obvious common source, which is why I asked. The loss of a wall to describe the loss of a dimension... even thogh it misses the actual base of the term... is such a cutesy idea that I don't doubt that someone came up with it,
12/25/2010 #6
AmericanGecko

Maybe it's just because my chosen profession is in the theater, but I've always called it the "fourth wall".

As far as whether or not I've ever had a character to it, I try not to simply because I write like I'm seeing it on a camera that Kim and the gang aren't aware is floating around. Kind of Lakitu with his camera on the MarioKart games. I may zoom into their faces, but they never see me. (Gosh, that sounds perverted. XD ) Anyways, I think it depends on the type of story you're writing as to whether or not it's effective as a dramatic tool.

A.G.

12/25/2010 #7
DoofusPrime

I've always heard it used as "fourth wall" as well, and understood it as a reference to the invisible fourth wall separating the actors and play itself from the audience in theatre as SHADO was getting at, rather than dimensions. This is the first time I've heard the phrase "third wall". Not that I'm saying you're making it up or anything KiY. :)

In terms of using the technique in stories, I guess I basically think it works best for comedy, and more slapstick comedy at that, and even then it seems like people use it in a clunky way a lot of the time. I like it best when it's a passing and sometimes indirect reference. I think I've used it (at least in an obvious way) in one story so far, Slash and a Hack, which was a comedy one-shot that was already playing with unexpected setting changes and meta-humor and this and that.

12/25/2010 #8
King in Yellow

The thousands of references to "breaking the third wall" on the web are a demonstration I didn't invent it and that it is a well-established phrase. I was aware of the phrase before I became aware of "breaking the fourth wall" and the first few times I remember hearing of the fourth wall I assumed the writer simply had it wrong. (Which, I suspect, is the same reasoning behind the article I mentioned above which uses the term in talking about a play.)

I have no idea when I might first have heard either phrase. The first time I remember was in a history of comic strips (I have a basement full of them - ranging from the scholarly to the popular in terms of academic level and from the fifties until now in terms of when they were written.), specifically to a Dick Tracy sequence in the 30s. Chester Gould wrote/drew Tracy like a lot of fanfiction writers write - with no idea where he was going. The strip was known for fiendish death traps set by ghoulish villains. Gould put Tracy in a trap he couldn't figure a way out of. Finally Gould drew a strip where Tracy addressed Gould and demanded a way out, the artist's hand was shown erasing the boulder about to crush Tracy. The syndicate editor rejected it. Gould came up with some lame-ass coincidence to get Tracy out of the mess. Hopefully Gould learned a lesson and tried to think things through a little more in advance after that.

12/25/2010 #9
SHADO Commander

The thousands of references to "breaking the third wall" on the web are a demonstration I didn't invent it and that it is a well-established phrase.

No one is saying that you invented it and my question for a reference was because I have seen it popping up recently as well, but have never been able to find the source for the invention of this phrase. Your mention of dimensions as a base was one I hadn't heard before, and while your reference to how it related to "breaking the fourth wall" was incorrect... the origin of that phrase and the meaning of a directors admonition not to break the fourth wall is acting 101... it at least made some sense as to the origin of the third wall variant, so I was hoping you might actually have it in a reference text somewhere. The mere presence of something in a large number of Google hits isn't really a validation, any more than the fact that "ain't" is commonly used makes it a correct word, and this is especially true in this case because while it's true that the phrase does SEEM to come up in spades if you Google it, that's partially because Google automatically rolls all discussions of the fourth wall into searches for the third. This is easiest to see if you type "breaking the third wall definition" or "what does breaking the third wall mean," where you can see that it's actually definitions of the fourth wall that come up. On the other hand, Fourth Wall is the only term listed and discussed in every acting and writing book on my bookshelf, as well as:

The Encyclopedia Britannica

Websters Dictionary -

The Encyclopedia Dramatica

and, to go to less trustworthy web-based sources,

And, again, as I stated, there is not a single academic reference that I can find to "Breaking the third wall." I had thought earlier that perhaps it was something that the comic book industry had come up with but checking with my friends who write more comics than I do, I was assured that it's the fourth wall there too... and, in fact:

So, my question remains - WHO started using this term and exactly what did they really mean?

12/25/2010 #10
King in Yellow

It was DoofusPrime who gave me the little wink and nod about wondering if I had dreamed up the phrase after eating some bad cheese. I did check the Oxford English Dictionary, but it didn't have an entry for either phrase (at least the old 13 volume edition and the supplement). I've granted that fourth wall is the theater term, but the third wall term is out there for some other media and I gave the etymology I've heard for it which made the most sense to me. When I have a couple days I may need to go through some of the shelves of reference material I have on comic strips and their history and see if I can find some discussion of it. Urban dictionary... I think I give that one a negative rating for trustworthy. Wikipedia... mixed. There are many very fine entries there, and many decent entries. There are also some organizations like the Vatican, CIA, and Scientologists who have have been caught having staff members edit entries to promote their party-line, and a few random jokers who think it's funny to edit in lies and see how long they stay up

12/25/2010 #11
SHADO Commander

Um... it is in the current Oxford Dictionary

Third Wall is not.

12/26/2010 . Edited 12/26/2010 #12
Slipgate

It seems that this thread got out of control, but I will just say this...

I was surprised at the topic BECAUSE I'd never heard of a third wall at all. I've only ever heard of a fourth wall.

It's a very old term, as has already been said - "breaking the fourth wall" is from centuries ago. As for the existence now of "breaking the third wall," I would guess that centuries later, people who didn't know the original reason for saying "breaking the fourth wall" (and that it referred not to 3-dimensional productions at all) and assumed it had to do with three dimensions started using the term "third wall" to differentiate. People do make new assumptions as to why certain words are what they are when the original reasonings have been lost to esoteric knowledge.

I'd give other examples, but the forum would turn them all into asterisks. :)

Anyway, if the third wall terminology exists, I wouldn't use it, because literally today is the first I've ever heard of it, and I have no reason to bandy about two terms when one does the trick.

12/26/2010 #13
sweetPixiesmile

Wow, being on the other side of the world that doesn't offer free internet almost anywhere really cramps forum participation!

As with many of the other posters, the fourth wall is my experience; it's possible that with the huge popularity of the internet and with on-screen, self-created content, the term "third wall" is gaining popularity (please don't think badly of me when I say this!) due to ignorance (and I don't mean it to sound demeaning. Perhaps I should use... uh... lack of awareness?) of theatre and live performance arts. It also could be just an instance of an incorrectly used term that has gained popularity due to widespread lack of awareness of the preceding actual technical term.

Personally, I think it's a problem with the (arguably "de-" or "non-")evolution of the English language, since in some frames of reference, the term is nonsensical. For instance, I recently went to a 4D ride. Having a science background, I immediately thought of "time." My partner had to remind me that in movies, it meant sensory stimuli other than sight and sound (I thought this had fallen out of favour several years ago, but it seems to be a popular term in Asia.)

Language is changing and evolving more quickly than ever with the acceptance that anyone can make up a word to mean something. I still run into people that have definition confusion with the terms "vegan" and "vegetarian"! And having spent months building glossaries of terms to be used in technical discussions between industries (one of note, lawyers and IT specialists) I have an appreciation of just how confusing the English language is when crossing highly specialized industries or educating others due to lack of awareness.

I personally have a specific requirement where breaking the fourth wall is acceptable and that is the tone of the story. My first, favourite series that was forever breaking the fourth wall was the Samurai Cat series by Mark E. Rogers. It was a cheeky parody that was highly entertaining, and where the characters were not simply self-aware, but genre savvy AND medium aware since it was an unrepentant no fourth wall comedy (see tvtropes for those terms :D) To me, a serious story should NEVER break the fourth wall as it completely breaks too many audience engagement issues to count, all related to the suspension of disbelief. However, in a lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek story, medium awareness can become a very nice anarchic comedic device.

12/27/2010 #14
King in Yellow

While I won't rule out ignorance for the creation of the phrase third wall, ignorance being an amazingly potent force within society, I'll also hold out for the option that someone writing about an exclusively two-dimensional medium knew the fourth wall phrase in regard to theater and decided to modify it for something s/he was writing. Perhaps one of those amazingly patient researchers for the OED will be able to find the earliest references for some future edition...

One wonders how research is done when much of the evidence for new words is electronic and ephemeral. Was pwn deliberate or a typo which caught on? And was anyone ever expected to pronounce it or does it exist only in written and not spoken form (like the names of the jinx in L'il Abner or Superman's 5th dimensional foe - although for cartoons the writers had to invent ways for both names to be pronounced)?

12/28/2010 #15
sweetPixiesmile

I was thinking of the etymology, but I agree that a popularization of a typo/misquotation/paraphrase can still legitimately create widely accepted terms and definitions (as long as there is enough commonality in definition to create a distinct and commonly accepted word.) And really, I think it's that commonality and wide-spread usage that adds words to the English language. And now, with the speed of which information can be passed (sans context or inflection) these typos, misquotations and paraphrases can become widely accepted within time frames that were previously linguistically unheard of.

Come to think of it, I get the niggling feeling I've heard of the term "third wall" and with the sieve that is my memory, is quite likely, and I've just forgotten it.

BTOT: I don't mind breaking the third/fourth wall as long as it matches the tone of the content, that is, lightheartedness.

12/28/2010 #16
SHADO Commander

To me, a serious story should NEVER break the fourth wall as it completely breaks too many audience engagement issues to count, all related to the suspension of disbelief. However, in a lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek story, medium awareness can become a very nice anarchic comedic device.

Having realized that I never commented on the actual use of breaking the fourth wall, I'd have to say that I disagree with this. It IS definitely easier to break the wall in a comedy, and in a play or film than in a novel, and at exactly at what point it ceases to breaking the wall and become a form of narration is another question, so I'll restrict the examples I'm about to give to titles that are both "serious" subject matter works and generally cited as classic examples of breaking the fourth wall by mainstream critical thought. First and foremost is the Bard himself, as Shakespeare frequently addressed the audience directly, even in some of his most serious plays... Richard III being one example, but the most obvious and blatant case being the end of The Tempest, where Prospero literally asks the audience to set him free. On that note, whether you consider Peter Pan to be a comedy or a drama, the begging the audience to believe in faeries to save the life of Tinkerbell is both deadly serious and classic breaking of the wall (and keep in mind that Pan is one of the rare cases where the play preceded the book.) Thornton Wilder's Our Town also contains multiple instances of breaking the fourth wall, as does Priandello's six Characters In Search of an Author, Vonnegut's Happy Birthday Wanda June and Tom Jone's The Fantasticks. Moving from plays to to novels, Kundra's The Unbearable Lightness of Being is frequently cited, and while I haven't read them, I understand there's a character in the Dragonlance novels who frequently breaks the wall. In film, Sunset Boulevard breaks the wall with the famous speech by Gloria Swanson specifically talking to the "people watching in the darkened theater," while more recently, Fight Club and The Usual Suspects are considered wall breakers, as are moments in several of the Bond films "OHMSS - "This never happened to the other fella," NSNA "It's nice to have you back." Horror films have played on the wall trick a lot... Mr. Sardonicus' "should he die" audience poll being one of the most extreme examples, but House of Wax has an amazing moment where Charles Bronson crawls up onto the stage FROM the audience, and who can ever forget the staggering ending of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers where Dana McCarthy screams to the audience that "You're Next!"?

So, I don't write the device off. i've actually used it a few times in my professional work although not to date in any of my fanfic stuff. Sounds like a challenge to address though... hmmm.

12/28/2010 #17
Slipgate

KiY,

I sometimes have used Google as a quick check of a spelling if I'm deep in typing something - last time I did this was to verify the spelling of 'paraphernalia.'

However, I'm reminded of how it seemed like Wikipedia articles (a while back, I don't know about now) would get so obsessed with Google hit counts or Alexa ratings to decide whether a topic was notable or not, or which way of phrasing a term was notable. I became hesitant about jumping into the thread when I saw numbers being bandied about.

I believe my post covered the various possibilities - neologism derived from a new understanding of the term fourth wall that doesn't necessarily match its original intention - and there's nothing inherently wrong with a neologism. Otherwise we should all refuse to call 'So the Drama' a Kim Possible "movie" if you get what I mean. And people pointing out that the creation of "third wall" might be from ignorance of how "fourth wall" was originally used isn't really a dig at these people or at you. For example, I'm ignorant of many things medical. That doesn't mean that my misuse of a medical term is malicious or that someone telling me I'm ignorant of medical terminology is insulting me. :) You saw third wall first, and so much so that by the time you saw the term fourth wall you wondered if it was a mistake. That's fine by me.

12/28/2010 #18
King in Yellow

Oh, I wasn't thinking there were any digs involved. We seem to all be playing nicely here... So far anyway.

Neologisms are important... Can you imagine if they decided fifty thousand years ago that all the necessary words had been invented and no more were allowed? Our vocabularies would be restricted to "Fire" "Spear" "Food" "There's a saber-tooth tiger behind you." (They didn't use the word saber, of course, because they didn't have sabers. It would probably translate into English as 'big ** killing things'.) and "What do you mean, you aren't ready for committed relationship yet?" (I agree with those theorists who hold that women developed more complex communication skills early in pre-history.)

12/29/2010 #19
SHADO Commander

(They didn't use the word saber, of course, because they didn't have sabers. It would probably translate into English as 'big ** killing things'.)

Actually, they used the word 'zucchini,' which was so embarassing for the entire smilodon species that they soon died off from sheer mortification.

12/29/2010 . Edited 12/29/2010 #20
sweetPixiesmile

Actually, they used the word 'zucchini,' which was so embarassing for the entire smilodon species that they soon died off from sheer mortification.

And guess who invented that word? Why those who were ready for a committed relationship, of course!

^_^

12/29/2010 #21
SHADO Commander

And guess who invented that word? Why those who were ready for a committed relationship, of course!

Um, as in "Is that a zucchini in your loincloth or are you ready for a committed relationship now?" Yeah, I can see that.

12/29/2010 #22
sweetPixiesmile

Alright, now I'm, like, having zucchini confusion!

12/29/2010 #23
King in Yellow

Alright, now I'm, like, having zucchini confusion!

And hence the need for new words. One would want to know if a potential mate had a zucchini in his loincloth, or was ready for a committed relationship, or had a smilodon in his loincloth. The last of which, of course, would be a serious impediment to a long-term relationship.

12/29/2010 #24
sweetPixiesmile

The last of which, of course, would be a serious impediment to a long-term relationship.

Hmmm, I'm actually not sure about that; I'm sure there might be some who would find that... intriguing. Or in my case, a desire for a girl with long dark hair and a nice pair of clam shells. (I would have mentioned the smilodon sporting a zucchini under his loincloth, but that weirded even me out!)

12/29/2010 #25
SHADO Commander

Alright, now I'm, like, having zucchini confusion!

Wow. Zucchini Confusion sounded like such a great name for a band that I had to google it, and, well... I wasn't expecting what I got.

Warning - safe for work, but just barely

(And again, on a side note, is anyone else getting the groupon ads across the top of this forum that say BOOYAH!? Talk about targeted marketing!)

12/29/2010 #26
SHADO Commander

or had a smilodon in his loincloth. The last of which, of course, would be a serious impediment to a long-term relationship.

Perhaps, but the video would get a hell of a lot of YouTube hits.

12/29/2010 #27
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