Chances are, if you’ve spent any time in the writing world, you might have heard someone talking about “breaking the fourth wall." t’s just one of the many weird words that makes up the screenwriting world. Today, we’re gonna break down exactly what breaking the fourth wall means, how to use it when we’re writing, and some of the best examples that you can use as inspiration for your own work.
To understand this terminology, we must look to the past. The phrase dates back to when the theater was the main form of entertainment. Imagine yourself sitting in an audience and watching a play. Most sets are made up of three walls, one at the back and two at the sides. There's also a fourth invisible wall that separates the audience in the seats from the characters on stage. This keeps the audience and the characters separated.
So, now imagine how a writer might go about breaking this invisible wall down. If the fourth wall keeps the audience and the characters separate, then breaking the fourth wall means making a connection. This usually means that the characters within a story tacitly acknowledge their situation. I don't mean the story situation, but their literal situation as characters in a story.
That's pretty weird, right? But when it's done well, it can really drive home some important points.
Just to be clear, some of you might know about something called a distancing effect that was explained by a German dramatist called Bertold Brecht. The distancing effect and breaking the fourth wall are not the same thing. Breaking the fourth wall isn't the same as Chekov's Gun.
The distancing effect is when something happens in a story that knocks the audience out of their immersion and makes them think about the story more critically, but that doesn't mean the characters acknowledge the audience. So when you're breaking the fourth wall, all pretense of immersion is knocked away.
This is the critical question. Here are three essential effects you can work into your scripts when breaking the fourth wall.
Sure it's a simple objective, but it's nonetheless effective. Generally, an audience intends for the unsaid things about a drama to stay unsaid. After all, if the characters within the story can't even suspend their disbelief, how can we?
If things do get a little too unbelievable, a knowing wink and nudge from the creator can let the audience know that everything's still under control, and you don't have to worry. If the key to comedy is pointing out the unexpected, then breaking the fourth wall is an essential tool in every comedy writer's arsenal.
Although every writer under the sun will encourage you to deliver exposition in the most subtle way that you can, sometimes a story is just too complex, and a direct address to the audience is the best option.
Imagine you're writing a story about a complex period in history with hundreds of different political and social factors affecting what's happening in the story. Sure, you could try and subtly figure them all out. Alternatively, you can just outright say exactly what needs to be said so that the audience is on the same page as you.
Yep, that's right. Remember that little bit of text that appears at the start of the period film that sets the stage for what's to come and gives you the essential facts? That's breaking the fourth wall in a subtle way.
Our job as writers is to get an emotion out of an audience and make them think about a complex subject if we can. Sometimes we can leave things in the subtext, but sometimes calling the audience out can achieve a potent effect.
Imagine you're writing a script about a significant societal problem that everyone's ignoring. Now, imagine that the characters reach out and lay the responsibility at the audience's feet at one point in the movie. That's like grabbing the audience by the neck and wrenching them into the story. It's no longer something fictional; it's very real and hits them right where it hurts.
Here are some examples where films and TV have broken the fourth wall to great effect.
You could even argue that the defining characteristic of Deadpool as a character is his ability to perceive the audience and crack jokes about what's going on in his story.
Without his ability to confront the audience, he might be just another wise-cracking superhero with little else to define him. However, he has a relationship with the characters on screen, and he has a real and shifting relationship with the audience. Is it any wonder why there's so much affection for him? Even if he is sometimes an unreliable narrator.
The very fabric of the movie breaks the fourth wall. Check out the opening credits to the first Deadpool movie and read closely to get some good gags.
On an entirely different note, 12 Years a Slave has one of the most subtle and powerful moments of breaking the fourth wall I've ever experienced in a film. For the unaware, 12 Years a Slave follows Solomon Northup, a free man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the 1800s United States.
What follows is a truly grueling story full of barbarity and desperation. However, a modern audience might think this isn't relevant to them. Didn't it happen hundreds of years ago?
That's why, in the final act of the film, after witnessing so much awfulness, there is a quiet moment where the camera is close up on Solomon, who looks around at his desperate situation. His gaze slowly settles on the camera, on us. For a brief moment, the character looks at us, the audience, in the eyes, and suddenly we realize that this wasn't that long ago at all.
Screenwriter Adam McKay is another frequent user of breaking the fourth wall. McKay did what no one else would dare to do in The Big Short and made a fast-paced movie about the 2008 financial crisis, a subject riddled with jargon and concepts that require a lifetime to understand.
So, if you're McKay, how do you still tell an emotional story while keeping the audience on board with the complex action on screen?
Well, by breaking the fourth wall. Ryan Gosling plays Jared, a real slime-ball who frequently addresses the audience throughout the film and breaks down the essential jargon so that they can follow. At one point, even Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez show up to talk about some of the more complex topics.
And it works. Sometimes direct addresses are the best way to communicate complexity.
Breaking the fourth wall is a key tool in the screenwriter's toolkit. If the story suits it and the need arises, don't be afraid to break that fourth wall right to the ground. Instead, find some of your favorite examples of the fourth wall, figure out how they do it so effectively and use the best parts in your own story.