Understanding How We Deepen Fiction

Being a writer is quite an arduous process and a fascinating endeavor, nonetheless. Once we discover the impulse to put something down on the page, we find that there are layers and layers of work. Perhaps the most gifted of writers have little struggle, but for the rest of us mortals, it takes much trial and error to understand the complexity of our task.

Over the years, I have enjoyed editing others’ work in workshops, conferences, and even privately. In the early days, my feedback was largely line edits, as that’s what I understood fiction editing to be. Over time, I started to think about plot and motivation: was there a clear cause-and-effect? Were the characters’ reasons for doing things legit, based on what was on the page? And naturally, this tied into scene and scene length. Where did I feel there was a bit missing, where something needed to be expanded? What darlings need to be killed? (A lot of writers err on the side of putting in too many details, and often they do not serve the plot or the main thrust of the story.) Was the writer setting us up properly at the beginning of the story or piece of fiction for things to unfold in the way they did throughout the work?

And in my own writing, I came to understand importance of the quality of prose. A good friend of mine from my MFA program spent hours laboring over her sentences. We would send each other a sample of our work weekly, and I understood from her that it wasn’t enough to simply tell the story from the images in my head: variation in my sentences and what I put on the page was extremely important. Due to my earlier training in the social sciences and academia, I was used to observing and writing down what I saw. This had its advantages, in that my characters were never flat, and I always received positive comments on the their complexity and on the realism of my stories. However, the cost was I had to think about the nature of my prose, which sometimes seemed simplistic and flat. Who were the master stylists among writers? Who had a great command of the language and used diction to their full advantage? Toni Morrison is one author who immediately comes to mind, as well as Oscar Wilde.

Dialogue was another part of craft that I picked up on by analyzing the masters in addition to my social science training and powers of observation. Robert Boswell, one of my MFA advisors, had me write craft essays (called “annotations” at Warren Wilson) on this, and I learned that what mattered was not only realistic-sounding dialogue, but also the structural purpose it held. For example, in Flannery O’Connor’s “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” dialogue was deception; the characters were constructed through dialogue that was very much at odds with their personalities. Good dialogue in a piece of writing makes it feel real. The characters come to life, we can relate, and the reader is engaged. Playwrights must have a strong sense of this, for their works are based entirely on dialogue. Same for opera: everything is told through the libretto.

As my understanding of writing became more sophisticated, I started to understand more about that elusive concept called “emotional resonance.” Earlier in my writing career, it sounded like a slippery, ambiguous, subjective term (which one could argue still is). But I got a better sense of this intangible thing over time and especially when working with my final Warren Wilson advisor, the renowned Joan Silber. When the reader grasps the themes and characters from the beginning, they anticipate certain feelings and emotions to be evoked. Then they ask, “What feels real or true to this character or situation? Would the character really do X? Or shouldn’t there be more expansion here, so we see how the character reacts to Y?” In my own work, a novel retelling of a classic, I changed a significant element of the plot with one character, putting her pregnancy before marriage, because it affected what was going to happen through the whole novel. I jokingly told my advisor that my realization of this was a WWJD–”What Would Joan Do?”–moment, that she would have made such a suggestion while I was writing. Even outside the scope of retellings, this is an important yet subtle technique, for the best writing incorporates this without the reader ever knowing. Consider two examples (spoiler alert!): The Story of a New Name, where Lenù sleeping with the father of the boy she is in love with is shocking but fitting, or Jane Eyre’s flight from Mr. Rochester after she finds out he is married. They feel right with the tone of the novel and the character.

I could go on and on about what makes fiction deeper, as I feel this post is superficial and doesn’t even scratch the surface of what I want to say. Besides, numerous books and articles have been written on this subject. But I choose to write from my own experience because it has been a surprising, sometimes frustrating, yet always- fascinating journey that will continue for the rest of my life.

Breaking the Fourth Wall

I recently saw a production of a modern one-act opera that I will not name, lest I put my own operatic career in jeopardy. One of the things I found very distasteful about it was that it frequently broke the Fourth Wall — the theater expression for addressing the audience directly, when an actor breaks the invisible line between performer and viewer and dispels the illusion that the viewer is buying into. The reason I found this very problematic in the opera is that it became a poor substitute for truly engaging the viewers in an organic way by drawing them into the interactions of the characters on stage. The characters did not act together much, but spoke at the audience, and therefore I was turned off. It felt like they were delivering lectures about their circumstances to the audience rather than letting us see for themselves. In other words, the classic literary cliché of they did not show, but tell.

This raises an important question: when is it helpful to break the Fourth Wall? When is it useful or engaging?

There are numerous examples of when it is successful. One rather nonsensical example, but an extremely strong one, is “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” Ferris frequently addresses the audience with his opinions, explanations for his schemes, and even ends the film by shooing us away. Why does it work? Because Ferris is filling us in with little details, backstory, or comments that we would not get otherwise. Since the film is set in real time, moving linearly into the future, with no flashbacks, we want to know a little bit more than what we see on the screen. Also, the film is about Ferris, and in his point of view, so he is our narrator and our guide. What happens between the characters confirms Ferris’s opinions; when he breaks the Fourth Wall, it is also placed very strategically. Contrast this with the breaking of the fourth wall in Ingmar Bergman’s stunning film “Autumn Sonata.” it is extremely distracting that Viktor has to narrate the story to us, it is overkill. The acting between Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullman is so moving the film should simply speak for itself.

In literature, especially literature from earlier centuries, the narrator frequently addresses the reader. Who can forget the classic line “Reader, I married him” from Jane Eyre? This slightly self-conscious breaking of the Fourth Wall engages us because it analyzes our sympathies with Jane. She has confided in us and taken us on a journey with her lifelong struggle, and she wants to deliver her good news to us directly. It is slightly meta-fictive, calling attention to itself as metafiction does, though metafiction would not truly exist as a genre till a century later.

We do often indeed see an indirect sort of Fourth Wall-breaking in theater and opera, and there are numerous examples. Internal monologues are often delivered to the audience, as are arias, such as “Hai già vinta la causa” from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. The angry, cuckolded Count Almaviva is singing with no one else onstage, but we the audience are there to listen. Here, it works to break the Fourth Wall, for the Count is telling us how he feels and what he wants to do. We are his sole confidantes for his supposed vendetta. This information is secret, for he would not dare reveal his romantic/sexual humiliation to any others in the opera, for it would shatter his pride. Granted, it is ultimately the director’s choice as to whether the Count will address the audience directly, but it is a very good choice to do so. The same goes for Shakespeare. Hamlet can potentially address us audience members in “To be, or not to be…” Granted, in both situations, with this indirect breaking of the Fourth Wall, an equally impactful effect can be felt as the performer does not make direct eye contact with single members of the audience as would happen in a true breaking of the Fourth Wall.

Where we see the Fourth Wall broken the most in our modern performance arts is in standup comedy. Many comedians choose to engage members of the audience, heckling them, asking them questions, and drawing comedic fodder from them on the spot. But even so, the comedian must still maintain a continuity of the theatrical illusion that s/he is presenting; s/he must remain in charge. Finally, one of the funniest uses of breaking the Fourth Wall in comedy was on the television program “Three’s Company.” Certainly not highbrow, and undoubtedly formulaic, cartoony, but vastly entertaining and well done. We buy into the illusion of the hapless roommates and their romantic adventures, misunderstandings, and comedic crises. Anything to disturb this would call attention to itself and the artifice of such an absurd show. However, the screen presence of rubber-faced actor Norman Fell (as Stanley Roper) turning to the camera with a slightly lunatic grin after making wisecracks about his wife Helen is a hilarious use of breaking the Fourth Wall. It only heightens the humor and adds to the absurdity of the show, and gives and gives a roundedness to the cranky character whom we dislike as much as “the kids” upstairs.

When used properly, we love it when the Fourth Wall is broken because it makes us feel like we are conspiring with or allied with the character on stage to get us more involved in the story.