Pondering the 4th wall

By Limor Shiponi


The Fourth Wall is a term to describe the invisible wall between the audience and the actors on-stage. Storytellers tend to say that in storytelling this wall does not exist; That we create direct communication with our audiences and therefor a wall can not stand there. The fourth wall is invisible, even in classical theater it is not really there. So why was this concept created? is it useful? does it solely have to do with interaction? does it really emphasize the fact that we are looking at something ‘not real’? is theater not real? and in what ways does this differ than storytelling? we tell a lot which is not real, so?

I can only ponder as a storyteller. There is something there. I wouldn’t call it a wall, it feels more like a flexible screen or film, a biological diaphragm. It’s also not fixed in one place as if stretched over a frame, it moves around with me. It’s inside me in a way, in my eyes but it is also outside of my body, most of the time in front of my eyes but I can also sometimes feel it around me.

Maybe it is the feeling of awareness. I look at it all the time when I tell a story, that is where I see the story happen, but it’s not flat like a screen in the movies. I also see the audience through it. I look at them, I talk too them but there is something there. Is it in between us? It’s like driving a car – I see the view and the road, I see the dashboard and I am in the scene in action. Passing through time and space is a sort of vehicle but this vehicle does not separate me from what I see it only contains.

This feeling allows interactions. Something moves from me to the audience and back from them to me. Constantly. The same motion happens between me and story. Sometimes I am story but this feeling is still there. There is oneness and there is a separation. Sometimes I use this separation as a trick, walking through it while demonstrating I am doing so. But in anycase I can’t call it a wall.

Just my pondering and I’ll be happy to read yours too.

15 thoughts on “Pondering the 4th wall”

  1. There is very often a fourth wall in storytelling. It’s between the characters and the audience, just like in traditional theater. The fact that there’s this extra person between the characters and the audience is somewhat irrelevant to the overall concept of the fourth wall.

    Whenever I have a character directly interact with an audience member, or vice versa (which I often do in my pursuit of fully participatory storytelling), I consider that to be “breaking the fourth wall” just like in theater.

    The author of a play tries to connect to the audience with their words. The director of a play tries to connect to the audience with their staging. The actors in a play try to connect to the audience with their performances. The storyteller is often all those things and as their person is often the very stage upon which the characters play, it suppose could be said that the storytellers themselves are the fourth wall.

  2. It occurred to me that a better way to describe the role of the fourth wall is that it separates the character’s reality from the audience’s reality.

  3. Which happens inside the teller – if you are the teller.
    If you are in the audience it looks as if sometimes the storyteller is a character or makes you see a character projected upon her/in your mind, and sometimes she is ‘just herself’. It looks like a shift in the storyteller. What do you think it allows?

    Hello Corvus!

  4. Hi Limor, I discovered your blog a while ago and I’ve been following via RSS since. Clearly, since I’ve clicked through and commented, I enjoy what I’ve been reading!

    I think that, from an audience perspective, if it looks like the storyteller is shifting into and out of character (and as someone with a performance background, I think it almost always should!) it reflects the storyteller’s change of focus from the role of author, or director, to that of actor.

    Most frequently, I suspect, if the storyteller breaks the fourth wall it is because they are inviting the audience to immerse themselves within the reality of the tale, not forcing the character out into the audience’s reality. When a storyteller’s character directly addresses the audience, they are most likely addressing characters they see within their own reality, not a bunch of modern-day folk sitting about the storyteller. This is certainly a manner of breaking the fourth wall.

    I have, while storytelling with people actively playing characters within a consensual reality, had certain characters crane their necks to peer behind an audience member and make comments about the actual audience member’s appearance (posture, clothing, facial expression, etc), rather than the character’s appearance. It’s a powerful tool which forces the audience into a position to more instinctively approach the imaginary world as a real one, but it should be used sparingly I feel.

  5. Inviting the audience into the world of the story is what it feels like to me. Yes, stepping out of it and creating a feeling of full reality out of the story is a greta trick but as you wrote – should be used sparingly – otherwise it feels to the audience like shifting gears to often. It also has to performed in good timing.

    Interesting is the use of the words ‘author’ ‘director’ and ‘actor’ in this context. I’m trying to find words that feel for me closer to my experience as a storyteller. I’ve never been an actor and there for free in a way from using terminology that comes from theatre. I’m looking for the storytelling versions of those concepts. ‘Performer’ could be one (not sufficient), ‘re-creator’maybe, ‘deliverer’? ‘narrative tour-guide’? – these are only ideas unsettled. Words like ‘weaver’ or ‘tailor’ are also good but they too come from other fields. Maybe that is alright but I feel this has not been thought through. I’m not at all sure I need one word per concept but pondering is good in any case 🙂

    I’m especially interested in understanding what this unseen wall allows. For me it allows the devision of the various circles of attentivness a storyteller carries. When I tell a story they all work together but being aware of the different circles allows me to practice greater ability in mastering each one of them.

  6. Hey Limor

    You added a link to my site for my blog and podcast – The aRt of Storytelling with Children – so I came to check out yours and I find myself fascinated and keep returning. I think you have one of the better storytelling blogs out there.

    As for the coveted “Fourth Wall” – I do love those stories when the audience gets so drawn into the story when you bring in a crowd of people and – feed them lines. Or ask them to respond to a character who wants to talk to them. Sometimes I have them try to work out a solution like in “New Pots from Old” or have the audience think about what is important to them and try to give a character suggestions on how to over come an obstacle.

    Of course in scary “Jump” stories – there is a whole different level of audience involvement that can be really fun to take advantage of.

    Thanks for the Link.

  7. Welcome Eric,

    Thanks for visiting and commenting in the discussion. The word ‘coveted’ made me think ‘coveted?!’ but then I realized there is something in it. If a storyteller can sense this place – the 4th wall – not as something which isolates but as an axis for action – that means she has freedom to juggle the situation. That means she feels comfortable with her skills, stories, audience, the moment etc. – everything which is involved in the here and now of telling a story as well as being well prepared.


  8. Question:
    What is the word (which ends with ‘ism’) that describes the tendancy or practice of bringing an occurrence in reality into the story? Like if someone’s phone rings and the teller goes ‘..and suddenly the king’s phone rang..’

  9. Sometimes I will have a character (including ‘the storyteller’) step outside the ‘frame’ or fourth wall to make a meta-comment on the story directly to the audience. This can be surprising and quite effective as a way of momentarily underscoring that we are all engaged in a process together. I find this choice works best with humorous asides: my role models in this regard are Groucho Marx and Bugs Bunny. Both of them could subvert the frame of a story with a sidelong glance toward the audience and a slight lifting of an eyebrow (wisecracks optional), then slide seamlessly back into the narrative. On the other hand, the demolition of the fourth wall as employed in ‘serious theater’ (e.g., Eugene O’Neill or the Becks) is too ponderous and confrontational an act for most storytelling to successfully contain. It’s like the rock-concert cliche where the house lights are briefly turned on so that the band and the audience can plainly see each other joined in a ritual in the real space of the performance venue. If you left the house lights on for an entire set, the magic of that ritual would be washed out by the glare of the mundane.

  10. Hi Marc and welcome!

    Suddenly I think the ‘4th wall’ in storytelling is set by the audience and not by the teller. Maybe there are two? one between the audience and the story – like watching a virtual movie and one between the teller her-self, being sometimes part of the story (but being aware it is an imagined environment) and sometimes out of it or even on the same side with the audience. Maybe it is better not to use the name ‘wall’ at all in this context but rather levels of awareness or of observing?

  11. In the first example, I would suggest that that the wall is built by both audience and storyteller.

    In the second, I would suggest picking a new term. I personally think it’s a mistake to muddy the concept by applying it to the storyteller’s perspective.

  12. Maybe – relations or perspectives? It’s not only a visual experience, a point of observance. Those are different levels of involvement too. When I teach or coach I use the term ‘circles of focus and respondence’.

  13. Interesting discussion. I do not come from a performance/drama background, so I don’t have that frame of reference.

    As an audience member at a theatre performance or movie, I am a watcher. I observe the action of the characters onstage or on film and react to what I see and hear.

    As a storytelling audience member, the space is more amorphous. I am in the story, living it in my head as I hear the words spoken/sung by the storyteller. I may watch the teller for visual clues (body language, facial expression, etc) and listen for aural clues (tone of voice, inflection) and use those to build my own mental images of the story, or I may close my eyes and listen only to the voice to create my story.

    As a storyteller, the above is my goal for my audience. How that compares to an actor’s goals I can’t say. What is interesting to me is that after a performance, many audience members will feel a personal connection to me, a connection built through the stories we shared. I wonder if this happens in theatre? I have not experienced it myself, but I wonder if it happens for others?

  14. About actors I would not know. It will be interesting to hear.
    So it seems that the term ‘the 4th wall’ is not really relevant in storytelling as a prethought concept. It is more of a temporary device that appears and can also be used intentionally but it is not a necessity.
    What happens in storytelling is a synergy of interconnections in action and those are made of various elements which change constantly to recreate the experience of the story.

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