What Does Breaking the Fourth Wall Mean?
Whether it's a character like Deadpool cracking jokes, Ferris Bueller talking to us in the shower, or the late Ray Liotta as gangster Henry Hill explaining himself to us in a courtroom setting, breaking the fourth wall is a unique way to bring the audience into the story.
You can utilize this type of storytelling on the stage, in movies, on television, and even in books.
Here we present a simple breakdown of what it means to break the fourth wall, examples of them from movies and TV, and how storytellers can enhance their stories by doing so.
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What is the Fourth Wall?
The "fourth wall" is that imaginary "wall" between the performers and audience of a movie, TV show, or play. While the audience can "see through" this wall and observe the actors' performance, the actors cannot.
Breaking the Fourth Wall Meaning
A fourth wall break occurs when a performer acknowledges the presence of the audience, the camera, or any other observer. This is usually done by looking directly into the camera and/or addressing the audience directly.
It is a dramatic technique in theater, film, television, and literature where characters display an awareness that they are in such a work.
The narrative practice of breaking the fourth wall has been around for centuries. The original term was born from the theatre in the 1800s, where box sets were constructed with three physical walls that could be manipulated for any production needs, with the fourth wall being the imaginary wall between the stage and the audience.
If you've ever watched Saturday Night Live or seen behind-the-scenes footage of sitcoms being shot in front of a studio audience, you've seen box sets that have three walls used to convey a structure the characters are houses within as the story comes to life. The fourth wall is that invisible implied barrier between the story and the audience.
In the origin of this technique in the theatre, when certain plays had characters addressing the audience directly, they were breaking the fourth wall.
Examples of Breaking the Fourth Wall
Breaking the fourth wall is one of the most unique narrative techniques in film, television, and theatre today, giving writers and directors a chance to directly connect with the audience in a more intimate way. The experience of the fourth wall being broken allows the audience to become something beyond just a mere observer. The story and characters become more personal to the audience because of the direct interaction through the imaginary fourth wall. And the technique can work in any genre and on any platform.
Read More: The 5 Differences Between Traditional and Archetypal Storytelling That Screenwriters Need To Know
Comedic Fourth Wall Breaks
Deadpool brought the technique to the forefront of blockbuster filmmaking by means of comedic delivery. What could have been a straightforward superhero movie with comedic levity (i.e., Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, etc.) became something highly unique and original (for its time) for the genre.
Decades before that, in the 1980s, comedy icons like Mel Brooks and John Hughes broke through that imaginary fourth wall for laughs.
Mel Brooks's Spaceballs played up the fact that their film was a silly Hollywood production by showcasing fourth wall breaks to point that out for laughs.
Whether it was having one of the characters killing a (fictional) film crew member...
...or hilariously acknowledging that the characters are very aware that they are in a movie — at least for a moment of levity.
Who could forget the timeless John Hughes classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which prided itself on creating a relationship between the title character and audience — usually for great laughs.
For the audience, there's a burst of fresh energy when Ferris turns to the camera and addresses us.
Romantic Comedy Fourth Wall Breaks
Even romantic comedies take a swing now and then with the fourth wall break bat. Woody Allen's Oscar-winner Annie Hall unexpectedly broke the fourth wall barrier in one of the most iconic moments of cinema.
The cult classic romantic comedy High Fidelity had John Cusack's protagonist speak directly to the audience while sharing the Top Five things he missed about his ex-girlfriend.
Read More: 5 Ways To Bring Back the Romantic Comedy
Drama Fourth Wall Breaks
Dramas sometimes utilize the technique to inform the audience of the more detailed inner thoughts of characters. Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas had excellent narration to do so, but then it used a creative fourth wall break to showcase that his narration was perhaps him talking on the stand during his trial — or perhaps his inner thoughts during the trial that he shares in motion while the court around him is frozen in time as he addresses us.
Scorsese utilized the technique in other films of his as well.
In Oliver Stone's JFK, we get the most subtle glance from Kevin Costner's Jim Garrison as he makes a plea that it's up to us to find the truth.
Another subtle glance to the audience is utilized in Call Me by Your Name.
Horror/Suspense Thriller Fourth Wall Breaks
Funny Games manages to break the fourth wall in a very original way by having the villain of the film find a remote control and rewind the movie to correct a mistake that he made.
Sometimes, simple narration can break the fourth wall within a scene as well. In American Psycho, the feature character Patrick Bateman narrates his inner thoughts as he faces and observes various other characters.
In the opening of Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, we get the chilling stare of the film's central character.
Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho had one of the most memorable early fourth wall breaks.
Read More: 3 Low-Budget Horror Movies To Inspire Your Scary Screenplay
TV/Streaming Series Fourth Wall Breaks
As we mentioned before, breaking the fourth wall is a technique that many platforms can use. Television and streaming platforms have been using it for years.
Children of the 1980s and 1990s will remember Saved By The Bell and Zack Morris's timeouts, where he addressed the audience. The recently rebooted series followed suit as well.
Will Smith rocked the technique in his hit 1990s series, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
The current hit series Fleabag performs the fourth wall break masterfully.
And Marvel's She-Hulk prides itself on its hilarious fourth wall breaks.
Break The Fourth Wall Wisely
While we've clearly proven that breaking the fourth wall can be an effective technique to make a movie, TV series, play, or book stand out from the rest, tread carefully.
When used incorrectly, breaking the fourth wall can also become a gimmick that falls flat and slows down any possible momentum that the story has going for it.
With that in mind, we'll leave you with the ultimate master cut of fourth wall breaks. Break wisely...
Read More: 4 Reasons Why Screenwriters Should Break the Fourth Wall
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, and Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner, the feature thriller Hunter's Creed, and many produced Lifetime thrillers. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies and Instagram @KenMovies76.