Hey you! Quick question! What do Hamilton, The Emperor’s New Groove, and The Office have in common? Or have you noticed any similarities between the movies Annie Hall, Fight Club, and Goodfellas? Aside from being Grade A entertainment, they all break the fourth wall — a storytelling technique that predates Shakespeare, and continues to be embraced by generations of filmmakers, playwrights, storytellers, and video production companies (yours truly included).
The phrase is based on the physical layout of a stage. Walls 1, 2, and 3 exist as backstage/set, stage left, and stage right. The last wall, the “fourth wall”, is the front of the stage and is the imaginary wall separating the fictional world on stage from real life.
When an actor is in character, they are pretending that an audience does not exist–otherwise, they would break the illusion created by the magic of television/film/theater.
When a character faces the camera and addresses the audience directly, we feel included, like they are letting us in on their deepest secrets and welcoming us into their world.
If the audience’s suspension of belief is broken–even for a second, the fourth wall will come tumbling down. But more often than not, breaking the fourth wall is an effective technique used to engage with the audience, let them in on a secret, provide information, or build a heightened connection. Audiences appreciate and enjoy personal conversations and relationships, so when a character faces the camera and addresses them directly, it feels like they’re letting the audience into the world of the film or play.
For fun, take a look at the opening monologue of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Ferris breaks the fourth wall multiple times in his explanation of what he is about to do. In context, he is skipping school for the ninth day in the same semester—and shamelessly showing us his entire secret game plan. This automatically makes him a likable character. From this opening scene forward, we’re on Team Ferris (Ferris Bueller v. The School Principal). If the kid was selling something, you just bought it.
Deadpool is another great example of this technique. In this case, the act of breaking the fourth wall is used as a storytelling tactic. Deadpool’s origin as a character leads his comic book readers to always question whether or not he is insane. By breaking the fourth wall, he is consciously aware that he is in a book filled with pictures, while all other characters completely accept that they are in fiction as if it were reality. Check out all the times Deadpool broke the fourth wall in the video below.
Tips on breaking the fourth wall
Breaking the fourth wall must be done in a conscious and precise manner to reap its full benefits. When executed in an amateurish manner, it can immediately alienate the audience from the main plot and characters and pull them out of the fictional world.
Here are a few tips that will create a fully immersive experience for the viewers when the fourth wall is broken:
- Be bold: Dare to take bold steps for heightened emotional response.
- Be funny: Use it for creating maximum comic relief.
- Be consistent: Break the fourth wall in the right way so it neither feels overwhelming nor underwhelms you with its lack of consistency.
Below are a few contexts in which media can break the fourth wall:
- A commercial that directly states that the point of the spot is to get the viewer to buy a product
- A narrator in a story pointing out that the book doesn’t have a happy ending or instructing us to close the book and stop reading entirely
- An ad asking readers or viewers directly if they’ve seen a product like theirs before
- An ad that asks thoughtful questions that might have room for discussion, rather than just a direct call-to-action that baits an action from the viewer
Why should you break the fourth wall?
By breaking the fourth wall, you create more intimacy between the actors and the audience, and it helps strengthen their relationship. It also acts as a comedic device to trigger laughs. The audience engages and participates more when the fourth wall is broken the right way.
How often should it be done?
There is no hard and fast rule of when you should break the fourth wall. However, whenever you choose to do it, you don’t want the audience to question your decision to use the trope. It should flow naturally and feel like an inherent part of the movie’s structure irrespective of what is the desired outcome. When done too frequently without any real purpose, it can disrupt the pace of the movie and drag the audience out of it.
How it can benefit a scene?
Breaking the fourth wall benefits a scene in numerous ways.
- It is an effective technique that increases audience participation and builds on a heightened connection.
- The audience feels included and gets to enjoy personal conversations, secrets, and relationships.
- Elevates your storytelling and adds emotional heft.
- It is used for building trust, to create humor, and take us deep into a pivotal character’s psyche.
- Communicates vital information.
- Adds a sense of urgency to the scene
- Invokes a sense of fear among the audience
So why are we telling you about this? Well, how special do you feel when you’ve been singled out to be given a message? Pretty cool, right? We like to harness this technique to make your video really pop. Want to get in close with your audience? Break the fourth wall!
In your next script, commercial, social media video, or other types of media, try calling out to your audience. Give them an opportunity to feel connected to your characters, your story, and the cause you’re fighting for. It could be just the right approach to communicate your core message. Sound complicated? Don’t worry, we will help you out! Let us know your ideas and Start Your Project today!