Monday, October 8, 2012

Fiction and Theatre: POV and Breaking the Fourth Wall

Good Monday,

NOTE: New addition to Media Mondays! See below.

On with the show.

For class this week, I had to read “Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti” by Geneveive Valentine. It was like pulling teeth for me. The book alternates between several POV characters, which wasn’t a big deal, and among those it goes between first and third person—also not a big deal. What made this story tough for me was the way it unfolded.

Before enrolling in Seton Hill, I was one of those writers who kept everything in suspense forever because readers love suspense, right? Right, but everything in moderation. I learned that you have to give your readers something. If you don’t, they get upset. That was my experience with “Mechanique.” I felt either like I was being pushed aside or given information as if from a text book. Many chapters began “This is what happens/this is what (character) thinks/this is how (character) feels.” *Whimper*

Valentine made use of another unorthodox fiction choice—second person. Normally I’d cringe openly at encountering second person in fiction, but, oddly enough, the chapters written that way were the only time I ever felt like I was really in the story. And so I will focus on POV today with media examples.

To illustrate my point, I will now dive a bit into my past. I did a lot of community and school theatre in high school and college (intend to get back to it but haven’t had a chance). In theatre, we have a term—“breaking the fourth wall.” The idea in theatre is that the stage is a room (even if the play’s action is outside). We (the audience) are able to watch these people in their everyday lives because one of the room’s walls has been made see-through. It is understood, however, that the wall is still there. The characters are simply on the other side of it.

Sometimes, the “fourth wall” is blasted through. Any play with a narrator breaks the fourth wall. The narrator speaks to the audience. Last week in my class post, I brought up first vs. third person. While this doesn’t immediately seem related, I’d argue that there are two types of “breaking the fourth wall.”

The first type is when someone outside of the play’s action talks to the audience—a narrator. Several musicals as well as the well-known “Our Town” make use of this. The narrator tells a story that comes to life before your eyes. This is like third person—theatre has long been considered its own form of voyeurism anyway. But the narrator is there to give information and extra story detail, much like the narrator in third person.

The musical “Into the Woods” makes use of a narrator for most of the show. In Act II, however, the narrator becomes a character in the story. He is blamed and brought into the conflict by the characters, who are bitter and resentful of the negative turns their lives have taken. The narrator is killed and the characters are left to bumble along, not knowing how the story ends. Thus the transition from third to first person is made. The narrator in first person is part of the action. In “Into the Woods” each character becomes their own narrator once the appointed one is dispatched with. Little George is his own narrator in “Mechanique.” If his passages were in first person present tense, he would be like the characters from “Into the Woods,” unaware of the direction of the story. As it is in first person past, he knows where things are going and even often alludes to that fact—saying that he was still young or hadn’t woken up yet. So instead of not knowing, he is implying that he does know but keeping the reader/audience in the dark to the point where, sometimes, it seems as if he doesn’t know.

Tangent—I found this particularly irritating, especially when he would drop the “I was still young” or the “I hadn’t woken up yet” lines. It’s like saying “There’s something coming, which you know because you are reading this fiction novel and something is always coming at the end of a fiction novel, but I’m going to remind you every so often because I can and because I have to keep reinforcing that I didn’t get it right away either. Don’t feel bad.” Grr…either say something important or don’t say anything.

K, back.

Second person—normally, I’d say it doesn’t work in fiction, but it was what kept me reading “Mechanique.” Another Broadway musical “Seussical” (a compellation of Dr. Seuss stories) makes use of second person in its opening number. The Cat in the Hat takes the stage and proceeds to sing “Oh the thinks you can think if you’re willing to try. Think invisible ink or a gink with a stink or a stair to the sky.” He’s quite clearly telling the audience what to think (imagine), but no one cares because the story is so colorful and the music is so fun. The same concept needs to apply to non-interactive second person fiction. For it to work the story needs to be so fun, so otherwise engaging, that the reader doesn’t care that it’s in second person.

As I said, it was the second person sections that kept me reading but not because the story was so entrancing. I just enjoyed the sense of interaction the second person sections gave me. “You go over here. You do this. You see this. You feel this way.” While similar to “This character feels/knows/understands this way,” there is a difference. In second person, I’m being told what’s around me but also being generalized. It’s as if “you” refers to a group of people—anyone in my position. It’s like interactive fiction. “You walk into the room. There is a jeweled box in the center of the floor. What do you do?” Incidentally, never open the jeweled box, but it’s that same idea. The “you” is universal. Thus, I’m not offended or put out by being told what to think/pay attention to.

Writer’s Lockbox

I felt as if I was getting away from the blog’s title. I needed something to make it fit. So I am adding “Writer’s Lockbox” to my Media Mondays. Carpenters have toolboxes. Writers now have lockboxes. What can be taken away to apply to our own writing from the media that I examine each week?


-Don’t get so caught up in suspense that you forget that your reader is trying to stay engaged in the story.

-Don’t use second person unless the story is engaging enough to warrant it. You don’t want your readers thinking what I was thinking: “When is the next second person section so I can feel part of the story again?” That’s bad.

-Don’t textbookify your information. “This is what happens when” sounds like something I had to read for chemistry class. “This is what happens when you mix oil and water.” I hated chemistry class.

See you out of the box,

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