In most stories the narrator is telling the story to an ambiguous “someone.” The fourth wall (the reader) is never broken and everything happens as if no one was watching, just like TV. But sometimes narrators break that wall and speak directly to the reader. Done well, it can make the reader feel like they’re listening to a story by a good friend. Done poorly, it jars the reader out of the story and reminds them they’re reading a story.
Tastes vary with any unusual device like this, but for me, it works best when it’s embraced and woven into the storytelling throughout as a strong narrator. A few comments here and there don’t work as well because I can forget the narrator is talking to me and when they do, it startles me. Of course, too many interruptions feels like a tour guide who won’t shut up and just tell me the dang history without his personal commentary.
One of my favorite examples of this technique done well is Pseudonymous Bosch’s The Name of this Book Is Secret. The narrator makes it very clear right from the start that he’s telling you this tale as a warning.
Why this worked for me is because the narrator is present throughout the entire story as a narrator. He’s not a character in the book. The voice and opinions are clearly his as an outsider relaying events. What he says to the reader helps move the story along and becomes part of the narrative.
The Book Thief was another that worked for me for the same reasons. Death is the narrator and he’s telling the tale, adding his own thoughts at various times.
An example that didn’t work as well for me is Brandon Sanderson’s Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great book, (well-written, hysterical premise, fun characters), but the narrator was a character in the story who talked to the reader as he narrated his own life. He constantly reminded me that I was reading a book, because there were actual reminders about what he’d had already told me about. With the interruptions I could never lose myself in the story, which was a real shame. It was just a style that didn't work for me.
While Bosch’s narrator was telling a story, Sanderson’s was commenting on the story he was living. That made all the difference to me in how intrusive it felt.
First Person Snafus
When you think about it, all first person stories are talking to the reader. The narrator is saying “I did this I did that,” so sometimes you can have sentences that feel like the narrator is addressing the reader when they’re actually not. The comments are more like rhetorical questions or musing to oneself.
It wasn’t like they’d shoot me for it, right?This is fairly common in first person, so it’s not technically speaking directly to the reader. If you see some of these slip into your pages, you’re probably fine.
But if you see things that are clearly talking to the reader (using “you” is a red flag here, as in “you might not believe this but …”) then you’re probably breaking that fourth wall.
How do you feel about characters talking to the reader? What books have you enjoyed (or not) because of it? Any adult examples to share?