Erasing the Fourth Wall: Form and Dream Logic, in Cartoons and Writing

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about narratives that escape their own structure—broken fourth walls; dream logic; any time a work’s medium and message cross streams while remaining accessible. As a reader and viewer I’m nearly always delighted when this happens, from Ferris Bueller’s direct address to the camera to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s frenetic asides to the audience in Hamilton this spring. When it works it feels like a wink from the work's creator, and when a story is already charming or engaging, there’s nothing better than being made to feel a part of it.

I don’t know if this happens more often in cartoons, where reality is surreal to begin with, but I seem to run into it most there. In a recent episode of Steven Universe (“Chille Tid”), a dream sequence sends the characters back into a black-and-white multi-cam sitcom, where the world seems to dissolve into nothingness at the edges of a soundstage set. Over the course of the episode, this limited world too unravels into increasingly abstract dreamspace. This isn’t the first time Rebecca Sugar’s show has tried to convey psychic space in visual terms—most notably in “Rose’s Room,” in which an entire world is constructed and then falls apart based on a character’s thoughts.

Rose's Room

Steven Universe has also flirted with the trope (one that never gets old for me) of self-aware cartoon characters, conscious of the hand of the cartoonist and of the fact that their world only exists as/if it’s drawn. There’s a special delight—and fear, sometimes reading as excitement—in seeing the implied total breakdown of the medium, with characters marooned in a purgatory completely empty of context or background.


(The urtext for this gag, of course, is “Duck Amuck” and Daffy Duck’s first pleading, later enraged appeals to “whoever’s in charge here” [has it been too long to say “no spoilers”?] to give him a world that makes sense.)

This seems to happen much more often in visual and performed media than in writing, perhaps because it has to. Why take the time to dismantle a structure you can work within? But first-person narratives from neurodivergent or very young characters come close—James Joyce, William Faulkner, and Virginia Woolf come to mind, as do the sections of Jayne Anne Phillips’s Lark and Termite from Termite’s perspective, or those of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections that are filtered through Alfred’s Parkinson’s-ridden brain. Second-person and collective first-person narratives achieve similar effects, no matter whose brain or brains they inhabit.

I suppose that all these pleasantly fractured narratives work by frustrating audience expectations, and perhaps we have less concrete expectations of prose than we do of animation—especially once a world’s aesthetic has been established. But there’s no reason that supposed formal limitations on written work can’t be exploded as cheerfully as those on visual art. Something to think about, during the week's drafting and beyond.