When you're watching movies or TV, there is a wall that separates the audience from what's happening on the screen. We call this the imaginary "fourth wall." So what happens when a character is breaking the fourth wall?

We all have favorite TV shows, video games, and movies that do this, but I'm not sure as filmmakers, we all understand why this works. And also how you'd put it onto the page.

Today I want to go over breaking the fourth wall. We'll find the definition and meaning. Plus, we will look at some examples and even learn how to write a character breaking the fourth wall. This is one of my favorite plot devices in all of storytelling.

So let's dive in.

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Breaking the Fourth Wall Definition and Meaning

The fourth wall (or 4th wall) is an acting convention in which an imaginary wall separates actors from the audience. While the audience can see through this wall, the actors act as if they cannot. In film and TV, the wall is represented as the screen. In live theater, the fourth wall is where the stage ends and the audience begins.

The other three walls are on both sides of the stage and then the back of the stage.

The History of Breaking the Fourth Wall

Theater critic Vincent Canby described it in 1987 as "that invisible scrim that forever separates the audience from the stage." But the idea of the fourth wall dates back even further than that, even if it wasn't named.

As we mentioned above, classical plays from Ancient Greece through the Renaissance have direct addresses to the audience such as asides and soliloquies. And in film, Mary MacLane's 1918 silent film Men Who Have Made Love to Me, MacLane actually interrupts the vignettes to address the audience directly and to talk about the story.

In TV, the fourth wall was routinely broken by Bugs Bunny in many a Looney Toon cartoon. But even with all of this, there are so many more examples of this across the film and TV landscape. And across genres too.

Breaking the Fourth Wall Examples in Film Bugs Bunny breaking the fourth wallCredit: Warner Bros.

Breaking the Fourth Wall Examples in Film

We've already talked about several examples, but I wanted to knock out a few of the most famous instances of breaking the fourth wall.

One movie that did it so audaciously recently was Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street. In that film, Leonardo DiCaprio addresses the audience, taking them through an insane money laundering and cheating scheme to fix stocks and exploit the poor. It's done with humor and directness that draws the audience in and allows them to feel like they are participating in the highs and lows.

Classically speaking, the romantic comedy, Annie Hall, also has its lead character talking to the audience. He brings us into the world, and talks about how the romance is progressing and even falling apart. We learn a lot about the values and hangups that cause friction as well as the emotions that allow people to be close.

Another excellent comedy that does this is Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Again, our titular character runs us through what's going on inside his head as an epic day skipping high school unfolds.

Breaking the Fourth Wall Examples in TV

It's not just movies where characters break the 4th wall. It happens on TV a lot, and it's a way to buck conventions and ingratiate the audience to the world. One of the ones that felt revolutionary at the time was Malcolm in the Middle. We had this kid talking to us about what it was like coming of age in a poor family. We saw all the family drama, got some of the backstory, and really felt like part of this special world.

Another landmark TV show that uses this format is Fleabag. The show is notorious for interacting with the audience, which immediately sets the show apart from everything else on TV. Almost every conversation in the show is interrupted by this device.

The audience becomes so used to it that we feel like we are a part of the show, a friend that's being let in on an intimate conversation. But as the show goes on, we start to understand why this fourth wall break exists. It is through her closeness with us that the main character remains distant from people in her world. She remains partially absent and protected from her conversations with other characters because she knows we are there to listen without response.

Another recent TV show using this strategy is Winning Time on HBO. Even though this is the story of the Lakers in the 1980s, the show is not shot like a traditional docudrama.

Instead, there's a bunch of mixed media, and many different characters break the fourth wall to tell us about their lives and backstory and to fill us in on the beef we see on the court. There's a lot of depth that goes into this version, treating the subjects of each episode like talking heads who take a beat in the scene to chat with us about what it was like being part of history.

How to Write a Character That Breaks the Fourth Wall

When it comes to putting your own version of these ideas on paper, breaking the wall is not easy. You not only have to acknowledge the existence of the audience, but you also need to figure out the dramatic reason your story works best with the fourth wall being broken.

In a movie like Deadpool, the answer is that since it is a metacommentary on comic book movies, it might be okay for the characters to then treat the voiceover like the perfect time to address the audience along for the ride. It also helps that in the comic book, the character of Deadpool does the same thing.

These turn-to-the-camera moments need to be earned, even if they are hilarious or heartfelt. When talking to an audience, think about what you're bringing to the table with this suspension of disbelief. If you are breaking the fourth wall, it's not that hard to format. If you are tearing down that imaginary wall, make sure it adds to the tone and storytelling.

You want to use the action lines of your script to say the character is breaking the fourth wall. And then maybe use a parenthetical above the dialogue to indicate which lines are breaking the fourth wall, and which are not. Check out this page from the Deadpool script where they just use "to camera" to indicate the breaking wall.

Breaking the Fourth WallDeadpool script breaking the 4th wall exampleCredit: Fox

Summing Up "Breaking the Fourth Wall"

Whenever you create a fictional world, you set the rules. If you want to have an imaginary world where the fourth wall is broken, go for it! Remember, as long as you have a reason for the breaking and as long as it feels natural, it's probably really fun. You don't have to be making a comedy to do this either. Your characters can be serious or dramatic, and reveal deep emotions.

The point of breaking the fourth wall is to engage the audience and steep them in the storytelling you've laid out. The best way to learn how to do it is to try it. Now stop reading and go test it out on your own!

We're excited to see where you take this advice!