The Fourth Wall, or Secondary Belief

Pierce Mostyn trying to save his team from the denizens of Agate Bay.


Anyone familiar with drama knows about the Fourth Wall. It’s that invisible wall that separates the world of the play from the world of the audience. The Fourth Wall prevents the characters from knowing the audience exists, while letting the audience observe the world of the characters in the play.

In literature, this is known as Secondary Belief. The world of the story is separate from the world of the reader. And as long as the world of the story is believable — even though perhaps very different from the world of the reader — the reader will accept it and be entertained.

Magic acts, for example, work on this principle. The audience knows the woman is not cut in half, but accepts what it sees as real in order to be entertained.

In order for the Fourth Wall, or Secondary Belief, to work two things must happen:

  • The writer must make the fictional world believable
  • The audience/reader must accept the fictional world as believable.

The Burden of the Writer

How does the writer make the fictional world believable? That is the burden of the storyteller — to create a consistent world that, because of its consistency, is believable.

The operative word here is consistent.

For example, we know there are no such things as orcs, or hobbits, or elves, or a place called Middle Earth. However, JRR Tolkien created his world so that it was consistent and therefore appears real and believable to us. And we are thus entertained by the story.

The Burden of the Audience

The audience/reader knows when he or she reads a novel, or watches a movie, that the story or movie is fiction. It is not true. That is what it is called Primary Belief.

However, if the world comes across as realistic and consistent, and therefore believable, the audience/reader will choose to believe what is going on as though it is true. That is Secondary Belief.

If the writer fails to make the story completely believable, or consistent, the audience can choose to suspend disbelief in order to continue to be entertained.

However, once the audience can no longer suspend disbelief, the writer has completely failed.

The Storyteller’s Art

A good storyteller draws you in. Sometimes without you even fully knowing it.

Saki, in “Sredni Vashtar”, starts with a sickly boy, Conradin. Saki paints us a picture of Conradin that we find believable. Perhaps because the boy is like us. We learn of Conradin’s world and of his over protective aunt. And slowly, slowly we find ourselves on Conradin’s side in his struggle with his aunt — because it is also our struggle against authority. We believe because something similar has happened to us. The author has hooked us without our even knowing it.

But he couldn’t have done that if the world of the story wasn’t consistent and therefore believable.

A poor storyteller may hit all the plot points on the head and may pack the story with action on every page, but if the tale isn’t consistent within what we understand to be believable — we will feel the story to be artificial and not ring true. And sadly forgettable.

Recently I started reading a novel where the main character was bonded with some sort of sentient cat and even though they couldn’t stand each other they couldn’t separate because of their bond. That was difficult to believe, but I accepted it and continued reading.

But when the cat kills several people and the townsfolk just stand around and look at the dead bodies, don’t call the authorities, and don’t do anything against the cat and main character, who are outsiders, the writer lost me. Where is that a normal reaction to murder? Certainly not in my world.

In addition, the plotting was so wooden, mechanical, and obvious I found it too painful to continue. It was writing on par with a paint by numbers kit.

The key to telling a good story is consistency in the fictional world. There’s a reason for the old saying that fiction must be believable, whereas real life doesn’t.

We can except the inconsistencies in real life, even though they might not make sense, because that is how real life is. But we are intolerant of those same inconsistencies when it comes to fiction. The fictional world must hang together. It must be reasonable. That is just how we are.

The advantage of traditional publishing is that the editor at the publishing house will reject any manuscript that is unbelievable. We the reader are spared, for the most part, lousy stories. That isn’t always the case, but mostly.

Indie authors have no such gatekeeper — other than their readers. Even if the author uses an editor, there is nothing to make the writer incorporate the editor’s suggestions.

The biggest failing I find among indie authors is that their storylines, characters, and the world of the story lack consistency. They simply aren’t believable. Sometimes I can suspend disbelief, but most of the time the books are just too bad to do so.

Therefore my advice to would-be authors is to make sure your characters are consistent with themselves, that there are no gaping holes in your fictional world (in other words, that your world is consistent), and that your storyline flows naturally and doesn’t appear to have been written by the numbers.

We readers want to believe. You writers, help us to believe by being consistent.

Comments are always welcome. And until next time, happy reading!

Hey, look! Even Cthulhu is reading the Pierce Mostyn adventures! And you can too starting January 29.
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Agatha Christie came to loathe Poirot and finally killed him off. Doyle grew to hate Sherlock Holmes, killed him off, brought him back to life, and finally retired him.

Personally, I find it difficult to hate my children. Perhaps, though, they haven’t been with me long enough. I haven’t chronicled adventure after adventure to the point where I’m sick of the chronicling. To the point where I feel them to be too intrusive or where they’ve moved in and taken over. Hopefully, though, that day of loathing will never come.

However, even though parents aren’t supposed to have favorites amongst their children, I admit that I do. And the two who are my favorites have lived in my imagination the longest. They are Justinia and Harry Wright. That intrepid sister and brother team of private investigators doing their best to make sure the most exciting thing in Minneapolis and St. Paul is vanilla ice cream.

Why are Tina and Harry my favorites? I’m not sure I can say exactly. For I am certainly very fond of Lady Dru Drummond. My spunky, very modern journalist, who knows what she wants and does her best to get it. I very much like her 1950s alternative history world, with all those retro-futuristic gadgets and, of course, airships.

And what about Bill Arthur? My anti-hero turned superhero (well, almost) of The Rocheport Saga, who, after the apocalypse, does his best to stop at least a portion of humankind from descending into a new dark ages. Bill is very likable. He’s unassuming, makes mistakes and owns up to them, is devoted to his adopted and natural family. He is human, all too human. An ordinary guy in very unordinary circumstances. I like Bill and his world very much.

One of my newest children is Rand Hart. Rand Hart and the Pajama Putsch was an enjoyable tale for me to write and I enjoyed reading it as well. Who can’t love this slightly roguish professional gambler with the touch of ennui searching for the antidote to his loneliness? And there be airships here, too.

Or George? Poor George, in Do One Thing For Me, slowly realizing he’s descending into old age dementia, beset by the unending grief over the death of his wife and taunted by the promise Beth offers him. Or is Beth just a figure of his dementia?

I love all my children. I just love Tina and Harry more. Is it because I enjoy most writing up their adventures? Recording the sibling banter between them? Dreaming of what it would be like to live their somewhat dreamy lifestyle or to enjoy one of Harry’s fabulous meals? Perhaps.

Tina grew out Raleigh Bond’s Athalia Goode, with a dollop of my sister, and pinches of Modesty Blaise, Lara Croft, Nero Wolfe, and a sprinkle of myself to round out her creation. Harry is the faithful Watson and wise-cracking Archie Goodwin all rolled into one, with perhaps too much of myself included for good or bad measure.

Perhaps that’s it. I’m personally invested in these characters. There’s something of me in them that isn’t in my other children. Maybe that’s the reason that drives me on to write about their lives and their campaign to fight crime.

Book 3 in the Justinia Wright series, But Jesus Never Wept, should be out in time for your Christmas shopping pleasure. And if the Muse is kind I may also have a freebie story available for Christmas.

I’m 15,000 words into Book 4 and have 645 words written to start Book 5, which follows Book 4 immediately in the Justinia Wright timeline. Both should make their appearance in 2016.

Now that I’ve let the cat out of the bag, I’m hoping Bill, Dru, and Rand don’t get too sulky about it. After all, I do love them. They, too, are my children. Tina and Harry, though, are my firstborn. Hm. I’m a firstborn…

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