It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

Breaking the wall, breaking the wall


There comes a moment in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997) when Paul, one of the two young men who has invaded the holiday home of a middle-class Austrian couple, turns to the camera and winks at the audience. Breaking the fourth wall is shocking because the compact between film-maker and viewer, or writer and reader, is suddenly revealed as completely artificial and based wholly on trust. Yet that compact exists only as a matter of expectation, because that’s the way stories are. We know the book we are reading, the movie we are watching, is an invention, a fabrication. There might be elements of fact to it – that street in New York really does look like that, for example – but the people whose story we are following, they aren’t real, if we visit New York we’re not going to bump into them, we’re not going to reminisce with them about the events of this story which they experienced and we witnessed… That’s how fiction works.

Kim Stanley Robinson has said that he considers exposition to be “just another narrative tool”. Exposition is important to science fiction and fantasy. Genre stories may take place in entirely invented worlds, ones in which the reader has no actual knowledge or experience, no built-in map to help navigate it and its societies or technologies… And so the author must explain those fabricated details. Otherwise elements of the story may not make sense, or may in fact be completely impossible to parse.

Of course, in most cases, this information is already known to the story’s characters – they know how to navigate their world. This is why the “As you know” conversation, where one character explains something to a second who already knows it because the reader needs to be informed, is the most egregious form of exposition. No one actually does this: “I’m just off to the supermarket, which, as you know, is a large store that sells a variety of foodstuffs at competitive prices.” Even successful authors still use “As you know”. They shouldn’t. It’s a failure of craft. It is also, when you think about it, breaking the fourth wall.

If a narrative is tightly limited, constrained the POV of the protagonist, why should the author need to explain anything? The character already knows it, or has come to terms with the fact they do not need to know. Not everyone who travels by air in 2015 understands how jet engines work, so why should everyone who travels between stars need to understand how FTL works? The problem with exposition is that it can only work by breaking point-of-view. In other words, exposition breaks the fourth wall.


Not an issue, of course, if the narrative is written in third person omniscient, but that voice is much less popular now than it once was, and almost non-existent at the more commercial end of popular fiction. It might also be argued that omniscient POVs pretty much straddles the fourth wall anyway – and there are certainly examples in literary fiction where an omniscient POV is used to make explicit the fictive nature of a story.

And yet… immersion requires a level of knowledge about the world of the story to work, and without a narrative angel sitting on the reader’s shoulder whispering exposition, how is the reader to truly immerse themselves in an invented world?

The point here is not that exposition is necessary, but that it is crude. It is not the techniques used for exposition that are crude – “As you know” conversations, wodges of explanatory text aimed directly at the reader… Exposition itself is crude. It breaks the fourth wall, it exists only because the reader is aware, consciously or subconsciously, of the reader-writer compact. Without the reader’s acceptance of the fictive nature of the story, exposition could not exist. It would make no sense.

That compact, however, is a real thing. And it is possible to make use of it in ways that fiction normally does not. In Apollo Quartet 2, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, for example, I set out the clues to a puzzle which I knew the protagonist of the story could not solve. But the reader could. I did so by using a a device which is so blatantly expositional it can only exist outside the story: the glossary.

In Apollo Quartet 4, All That Outer Space Allows, on the other hand, I decided to do things differently. I had originally intended to write it firmly within Ginny’s point of view, and rely on a general air of familiarity – ie, the USA in the 1960s – to allow the reader to accept those aspects new to them. But I also made some artistic decisions specific to my story – such as naming Ginny’s husband Walden, because All That Outer Space Allows was partly inspired by Douglas Sirk’s 1955 movie, All That Heaven Allows, in which Thoreau’s polemic is prominently mentioned – and it occurred to me that there was no need to rely on the reader’s extra-textual knowledge to spot that connection… Because I could break the fourth wall and make the link explicitly. So I did.

And once I’d done that, it occurred to me there were other aspects of my novel that could be “enhanced” by the sort of commentary open only to the author or a critic. Not to explain the purpose of a scene – that surely should be obvious – but to give some indication of why a particular scene might exist, or indeed provide what would normally be extra-textual knowledge in order to strengthen the novel’s argument.

There is, it has to be said, a fine line to be trod here. Particularly with science fiction. How… porous should the fourth wall be? If well-handled exposition allows the world of the story to leak out into the narrative, and badly-handled exposition is akin to a series of windows in the wall… I chose to build doors in my fourth wall. All That Outer Space Allows is a novel about writing science fiction, and so it seemed especially apposite to draw attention to the fictive nature of the story by breaking the fourth wall and commenting directly on the narrative. And doing so in, and as part of, the narrative.

4 thoughts on “Breaking the wall, breaking the wall

  1. When I think about “exposition” in science fiction, I also recall the other term folks use, which is much more to the point: “info dump”.

    While some might consider Mr. Robinson’s stance on the subject above reproach, I think it excuses a lazy, non-literary mindset. Genre readers might be tolerant of sloppy writing, creaky syntax, etc. but I think those who are more widely read and aesthetically demanding are frequently disappointed when they dip into science fiction or mystery novels (for instance)–the QUALITY of writing just isn’t there.

    Historically, the field of science fiction has been the home of some spectacularly bad authors, including (worst of all), Isaac Asimov. In his time, ol’ Ike was revered–to the extent that fans voted his execrable FOUNDATION books the best series of all time (remember that, kids?).

    I think it’s time for the genre to grow up, for its practitioners (and readers) to spend more time in the Literature section of their local library, expending less effort making sure the science is state-of-the-art (at least until next week, that is).

    Exposition does irreparable harm to that “fourth wall” you refer to and it’s because the work always plainly shows: leaking seams and sloppy mortar destroying the suspension of disbelief.

    “The multi-generation spaceship is about to depart for Andromeda…but before it does, let me devote four full pages to explaining how the engines work…”

    One of Elmore Leonard’s rules of writing is: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip”.

    Science fiction fans would be well-served if more of their favourite authors heeded that sage advice.

    • I think you’re being a little unfair on Stan Robinson. I don’t necessarily agree with his position on exposition (um, I could have phrased that better), but in a novel like Aurora, part of the point of the novel is the exposition. And it can be fascinating.

      Readers are more likely to skip things they already know, which suggests to me it refers more to repetition than exposition – how many times do you have to remind a reader of something? At what level are you pitching your prose? How does the writer view their ideal reader? Does the writer need to tell the reader something every 15 pages or every 50?

      Having said that, I’m more interested in how exposition breaks the fourth wall, and the ways writers can explore that relationship, than I am in finding ever more slick ways of embedding exposition in text. Take, for example, Henry Green’s Loving. It’s set belowstairs in a stately home in 1945, an enovironment thanks to Downton Abbey that is not especially unfamiliar to modern-day readers. Yet Green refuses to addres his reader. Even the relationships between the charatcers have to be puzzled out from the test, there is no exposition to lay it all out for the reader. I think it’s brilliantly done, but I do wonder whether a modern-day reader of commercial genre fiction would have the patience or perseverence to put up with something similar…

      • “…I do wonder whether a modern-day reader of commercial genre fiction would have the patience or perseverence to put up with something similar…”

        I wonder about commercial genre readers PERIOD. Onerous, dim-witted species.

        Mr. Robinson isn’t the only SF writer guilty of info dumps–the tendency is endemic in the field. But he’s a high profile author who attempts to rationalize it as a literary device, and that, I think, is ridiculous.

        • I think he’s exploring the form rather than being lazy or ridiculous. Whether it works or not is another matter, but I give him credit for attempting that exploration. Which is not the case, I have to admit, of the bulk of writers of science fiction.

          Not every writer of any genre interrogates how their genre operates. Not every writer feels a need to – they’re happy with using the tools they have, they don’t need to figure out how they work. I like exploring those tools, and I will think better of writers who do the same. But not every driver of a car has to be an auto mechanic as well.

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