Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Editor's Notes #28: Parentheses in Fiction: Do They Break the Fourth Wall?

Breaking the fourth wall: this stems from a theatrical term. The "fourth wall" is where the audience sits—they're basically looking "through" it when viewing a traditional stage with three sides. If an actor spoke a line directly to the audience, he broke the wall, removing that separation.
I think one of the toughest things for a writer must be finding a way to say everything he wants to say while keeping the reader entertained and not bored or overwhelmed.

Sometimes, however, an author needs to pop just a bit more information into the narrative here and there, and there's some disagreement as to the best method of doing this. The one I'm going to focus on today deals with a character's thoughts.

In a first-person POV, every so often I come across a writer who uses parentheses in the thought process, and I've got to tell you, it bugs the crap out of me.
I didn't understand. All my brownies were gone, and Kat was the only person who'd been in my kitchen. (I'd known her for years and couldn't imagine her doing something so unthinkable.)
Why are there parentheses in the first place? This is not really any different from the rest of the thought, and it follows through with the "why" of my confusion about the brownies.

I've also seen things like this:
He saw the officer coming toward him, and recognized his old friend, Jim, from military school. "How in the world are you, buddy?" (He remembered spending holidays with Jim and his wife, going to his children's birthday parties, standing by him during loss, and more. They'd had too many adventures to count, lost track of each other over the years, and now here he was, assigned to the same base.)
In the above situation, by the time the "buddy" responded with "Not so bad," I'd already forgotten what the answer was in reference to and had to reread. And what about this?
I knew I had to check the basement to find the source of the awful stench. (I had noticed the smell days before and had tried to pretend it wasn't there. Why did I buy this haunted house, anyway? And what made me think I could avoid the basement for the rest of my life?)
More often than not, using parentheses for thoughts in a novel can be a negative experience for the reader. It's almost like the author is physically tapping you on the shoulder, saying, "Oh, and I forgot to mention this, but . . ."

Parentheses can have a more "formal" feel to them, whereas an em dash—most writers' favorite form of aside—is slightly informal in nature. Em dashes feel more like when you're talking to a friend . . . let's say an Italian friend . . . and she can't quite stay on track because she feels the need to add the odd detail here and there. Not bad, because you can still follow the story. But parentheses remind me of when someone puts a hand to the side of his mouth and whispers, "She's completely crazy, you know," while talking loudly in positive tones.

Breaking the fourth wall can be jarring, a reminder that you're reading and thus a pulling from story immersion . . . unless you're a character in Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair or any of his Tuesday Next novels—in which case, the characters are fully aware that they're characters in a book but they need to keep living their lives anyway. In his case, though, that's the way the story is designed, so it's more a whimsical tool rather than a diversion, cleverly done and entertaining.

In Fix Your Damn Book! How to Painlessly Self-Edit Your Novels and Stories by James Osiris Baldwin, his view is clear:
"Brackets/parentheses should be avoided as much as possible in fiction. You can get away with it in some kinds of novels (expository, experimental, some first-person point-of-view books), but they tend to annoy readers and editors if used too often or at all. You especially should never use them during dialogue unless you're planning to break the fourth wall. Replace them with commas or em dashes. Brackets in non-fiction are fine (within reason)."
Brackets (parentheses as they are known more commonly in the US) are found more often in business documents, so that might contribute to the overall feel of wrongness in fiction. A happy skimming of the Chicago Manual of Style can give you a good idea of how many things are great in technical manuals or propaganda, but NOT okay in fiction writing. Parentheses rank right up there.

As I was working on this blog post, in fact, my hubby, who has read G.R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series multiple times, showed me a passage he just happened to be reading in the third book, A Storm of Swords, and said, "Doesn't this look weird to you? Why are these even here?" and he pointed to this:
Then came some strolling pipers and clever dogs and sword swallowers with buttered peas, chopped nuts, and slivers of swan poached in a sauce of saffron and peaches. ("Not swan again," Tyrion muttered, remembering his supper with his sister on the eve of battle.) A juggler kept a half-dozen swords and axes whirling through the air as skewers of blood sausages were brought sizzling to the tables, a juxtaposition that Tyrion thought passing clever, though not perhaps in the best of taste.
Is it just me, or did any of you also picture Tyrion looking away from the feast and directly into a camera (or the reader's eyes) and saying that line? That one line in parentheses pulled me away from saffron and peaches and feasting, and it took more than a few lines to get me back to the story, rather than my awareness of the writing.

One person describes it as such: parentheses "joggle" in the same way footnotes "joggle," like someone bumping your elbow to get your attention; it's also described by others as "intrusive" and "jarring." Who wants their writing to be intrusive and jarring?

The answer is: no one. Authors want to keep their readers engaged and lost in the world they created. Period.


  1. I've never used parentheses in my stories. Promise!

    1. I think it's great that you took the time to comment in both places! I'd forgive a use of parentheses for that kind of support.

  2. I've used a lot of parenthetical phrases when I've written, but I don't think I ever slipped one into my fiction.

    1. Isn't it funny how often we instinctively just "know" when they're not welcome?

  3. At the same time Facebook and YouTube are now censoring opinions they don't agree with and calling them fake news, your blog has stopped showing up in our blog feed, which is why we never know when you post anymore.

    Coincidence? ...Probably. Either way, forgive our tardiness. It's everybody's fault but our own.

    So like you, I hate when people use parentheses (especially in first person... oh god, I'm already using them, AND in first person!) to describe entire backstory events. It's almost like they think that if they're talking about the past, they need to denote those with parentheses. Even G.R.R. Martin, apparently*. No. Bad.

    With that said, we actually love using parentheses as means of nonchalant explanation. We think they actually add to the joke. Example in Tuck Watley: I reorganized the Ramon noodles in my cart, nestling them beside the Spoom (the less expensive version of Spam), to make room for my bottle of mulk (imported from a lab in Nigeria, they legally couldn't call it "milk".) Maybe there's a better way to do that without parentheses, but we figure it beats killing the joke by saying something like...

    I reorganized the Ramon noodles in my cart, nestling them beside the Spoom, which is the less expensive version of Spam. I did that to make room for my bottle of mulk. This is imported from a lab in Nigeria, so they legally couldn't call it "milk".

    ...Which, I feel, is still funny, but it also kind of takes you out of the joke. I just personally find it funnier when Tuck throws in these little side notes as a ridiculous kind of "oh, by the way", like what he's telling you is completely normal and should just be glazed over as an insignificant detail.

    *Footnote (which I also hate, which I think definitely takes you out of the story, and I don't understand why some humor writers love to use these to make silly notes): I could go on and on about all of the writerly rules that G.R.R. Martin breaks in his novels, going to show that there really are no rules set in stone if your story is good enough

  4. Oh, my goodness, your comment is so good that it deserves a reply. And probably an award or money or something, but I'm equipped to give you a reply, so here I am.

    I hate footnotes! They make me angry. As far as G.R.R. Martin, my husband has read the series multiple times and has told me that I'd enjoy the story but I would have to brace myself, because I would hate the writing style.

    I think the way you used parentheses in Tuck Watley were done well and not a distraction at all. And I'm laughing all over again at the 75-cent store bargains.

    I would be a terrible person if I didn't share this, even though you've probably seen it:

    1. Well, shoot. It didn't work. Here's hoping it does this time. It's the link to Julian Smith's "Malk."

    2. This probably sounds dumb, but it was hard to get through G.R.R. Martin's series because my inner-writer kept sighing with all of the rules he'd broken that I'd heard countless agents and editors beat into my head over and over and over.

      "Never start with a prologue! Get straight to the point!"
      - The first chapter is 20-something pages, and follows characters who are not in the rest of the book. This chapter's only purpose is to set the location and a major event that will happen in the far-off future. That's about it.

      "Never use 'you' in your writing, especially when it's third person!"
      - 'The wind was so cold you could feel it on your bones.' He writes like this constantly.

      "Stay consistent in POV!"
      - Sometimes he uses omniscient third person, and other times he uses third person in relation to one character, sort of like looking over their shoulder. Listening in on their thoughts. But it changes from chapter to chapter, completely on a whim, and you really can't tell until you start reading if you're following someone or who it is.

      I'd go on, but I have to go drank my malk so I can get my daily culcium. (that was hilarious).


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