Breaking the 4th Wall: This Storytelling Tool’s History and How to Use It
Let’s talk about the “breaking the fourth wall” narrative device and its popular uses. Here’s how to incorporate it in your creative work.
Breaking the fourth wall can be a great storytelling technique that gives us a bit more insight into the characters on screen by including the audience in on the action. Let’s dive into where the narrative device comes from, its popular uses, and how to incorporate breaking the fourth wall into your own work.
What Is the Fourth Wall?
As a viewer, we want to forget we’re observing fiction and, instead, be sucked into the world presented to us on screen. Breaking the fourth wall flips this convention around, pointing out that we’re the viewer simply observing the events on screen. The term has its origin in the theater world, long before TV or film and was coined by Molière, a 17th Century French playwright and actor.
Think of a scene as a room. On stage, we can easily see three walls—the background, stage-left, and stage-right. The fourth wall is the audience’s view, invisible, but present to view the play in front of them. The narrative is basically taking place within a box the audience is peering into.
It may be easier to use an interrogation room as an example. A two-way mirror within the interrogation room would symbolize the fourth wall. The audience is behind the glass viewing the interrogation taking place, while the investigator and criminal are in the room — unbeknownst to who’s watching their conversation.
Breaking the fourth wall takes the concept of “the wall” to another level. Within standard conventions, actors never acknowledge the existence of the audience, the play, or scene. Instead, they focus all of their attention on the fictional world they’re in. Breaking the wall turns this normal convention around and has the actors recognize the audience or the narrative directly, as if they know they’re being watched. This could be through addressing the audience directly, speaking about the plot as if they’re watching it with you, or making a comment that they’re aware they’re in a fictional piece.
It’s important to differentiate fourth-wall breaking from the narration. Narration is similar in that characters are speaking to the audience, but lacks the important difference in addressing the medium or breaking convention. A disembodied voice speaking over a scene would be narrating. A character within a scene turning to the camera and giving us their insight would be fourth-wall breaking.
Popular Examples Within Cinema
The term has now transcended its roots in the theater world and can be applied to several mediums — from TV and movies to comic books and video games. One of the earliest examples of breaking the fourth wall within cinema is the 1918 film, Men Who Have Made Love to Me.
The main character, Mary MacLane, discussed her multiple love affairs directly to the camera, as if she’s having a one-way conversation with the audience. While the original film has been considered lost, below is a remake of one of the scenes and how it was told. (Fleabag vibes anyone?)
Many filmmakers have used the fourth wall as a common motif within their work. Comedy giants such as Mel Brooks and Monty Python routinely break the fourth wall within their works. The technique is often used as a tongue-in-cheek comedy device to show characters are in on the joke or elevate the absurdity of a scene to another level. Woody Allen’s early films make liberal use of breaking the fourth wall. Allen uses this technique in Annie Hall to have his characters be more relatable and likable for the audience. This doesn’t stop with simply addressing the camera, but breaking realistic rules such as bringing a famous film director into his scene to win an argument.
Amélie, American Psycho, Fight Club, and The Big Short serve as a few modern examples. Within Amélie, we’re taken along for the ride almost as another character. Whereas in The Big Short, breaking the fourth wall stops the movie to give us external information concerning Wall Street and the market. Getting creative with the convention is what makes these uses stand out.
Sometimes entire franchises are built around a character breaking the fourth wall, like Deadpool. The character Deadpool is fully aware of the medium he’s living in. The 2016 movie Deadpool routinely references the film’s production, actors who portray other superheroes, the film’s budget, superhero tropes, and the likelihood of a sequel.
Incorporating the Technique in Your Own Work
There’s a fine line you have to walk when using this technique within your work. Breaking the fourth wall at the wrong moment (or too many times) makes the effect feel cheap and inauthentic. It could feel like you’re leaning on a storytelling crutch rather than an effective tool. The last thing you want to do is distract from the story.
Does your main character really come off the page? Breaking the fourth wall tends to work better when the main characters have a lot of charisma. Examples would be Ferris Bueller, Deadpool, Fleabag (Fleabag), Jordan Belfort (The Wolf of Wall Street), and Narrator/Tyler Durden (Fight Club). That’s not to say these are “good” characters, free from immoralities, but they undoubtedly have charm.
This can work as a two-way street. Fourth-wall breaking helps us connect a little better with characters and empathize with them, while being charming makes us like them. These two character-building tools can play off one another. Charisma adds to likability. Likability allows for fourth-wall breaking, which leads to a better connection. A positive feedback loop. If your protagonist’s charisma doesn’t capture the audience, it may be best to move past breaking the fourth wall with their dialogue.
When the technique is used within comedy, it’s useful to point out the absurdity of the situation or subvert our expectations. Mel Brooks has dozens of awesome examples of this in his films. His use of fourth-wall breaking in Blazing Saddles highlights the common tropes and cliches built into the Western genre and just how ridiculous they can be. Just like our example above, in regard to characters, using the technique as a one-off joke or without an explicit purpose can come off as a cheap joke. Think about how the device can improve your comedy or serve to highlight a specific purpose.
If you’re considering using fourth-wall breaking within your film, consider what purpose it serves and how the technique will help you reach that goal. For instance, in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, we’re connected with our protagonist from the beginning. The entire film is told with Ferris Bueller being the center and bringing us along for the ride. His conversations with the audience allow us to connect with him as a character and be pulled further into his world.
Breaking the fourth wall with fiction has a long, rich history within movies and other mediums. Popular TV shows and movies are still relying on this technique as a way for their protagonists to speak directly to the audience. Don’t be afraid to experiment with the device in your own work, just make sure it fits your story and serves a purpose.
Cover image via 20th Century Fox.