Parentheses in Fiction: Do They Break the Fourth Wall?

parenthesis in fiction

I like to use parentheses (you know, to share my extra thoughts and stuff). But only in non-formal situations (like blog-writing). In fiction, however, I avoid it like a plague. And I realize that may just be a personal preference, since I feel it would pull my readers out of the world I spent so long creating. So I thought I’d ask my editor, Lynda Dietz, her professional opinion on the matter. Here’s what she had to say:

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.

And there you have it! What are your thoughts on using parentheses in fiction? 

Please visit Lynda Dietz for more on writing from an editor’s perspective over at Easy Reader


S. Katherine Anthony


Images courtesy of

26 thoughts on “Parentheses in Fiction: Do They Break the Fourth Wall?”

  1. I really think they are out of place – I’ve read a couple of books where there were only a couple of uses and that was tolerable, but I’m pretty sure the technical function of brackets (lol) are to provide information that is related but not needed to the reader. Which can be very useful in non-fiction but is pretty much poison in fiction. In the above example LOL is not needed to understand my statement, often in academic writing parenthesis can be used to give a little side-note or piece of extraneous information that is interesting but not vital to the overall thesis

    Liked by 1 person

    1. (Damn, Thomas knows his stuff). I agree, there are far more interesting punctuations one can use to enhance the reader experience. ( ) these things feel like they violate the fourth wall.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I had an English professor, Raymond Rosa, wore a bow-tie and tweed jacket everyday, who used to say, “The only place parentheses belong is in a math equation.” LOL! I hear his voice any time I may be tempted to use them.

    My punctuation obsessions are ‘single quotes’… and ellipses. But I’m working on toning usage of them down… kinda. 😀

    Thanks for another great post. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment! Sounds like your English professor knew his stuff. 🙂

      I’ve got to warn you away from those single quotes, though . . . Chicago Manual of Style is not a fan.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve used them for one character, in deep third, but I’m told it worked for her because it fits that she’d actually think using parentheses. For others, like Alex, I use the em-dash (probably too much, lol). But it is so the kind of thing we have to think about and “normal,” non-writerly people don’t…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love, love, LOVE the em dash. You’re in good company. And I’m forever telling people, “I’m sure this is only going to bother me, and no one else will likely notice, but . . .”

      I’m getting a kick out of the non-writerly people being the normal ones. I’ve always thought of them as the abnormals.


    1. Thanks so much! I got a laugh out of this. I wrote them—all but the G.R.R. Martin one, anyway—and even I thought they were annoying. They were all based on things I’ve seen during edits, so I got paid to be annoyed, but still . . .

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Huh–never really noticed it in novels or stories (unless they were republishing a memo or other writing in the story that already had them in it), but I do use them quite a bit for myself in blogs and my journals and such. I’m gonna have to be on the lookout for that.
    If it’s supposed to be a private thought, wouldn’t italics suffice? That’s what I usually use. Parentheses, to me, are a direct communication between author and reader. Italics would do better as between the character and him/her/it self.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re exactly right: italics are the way to go for private thoughts, and most authors are great about using them. I don’t think use of parentheses is a bad thing in blogs or journals. Again, it’s mostly fiction where it really does shift the communication directly to the reader.


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