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For as much as people talk about “breaking the fourth wall,” you sure don’t hear them rushing to explain themselves afterward, do you? It’s one of those comments that gets dropped casually. You’re left wondering: What does breaking the fourth wall mean, anyway? Is it okay to break it? What is the fourth wall? And why no love for the first, second, and third walls?
We’ll get into all of that in-depth, but the short answer is that the term originally comes from theater. That is where I first came across it, in my—fancy Shakespeare voice—acting training, and is now one of those trope examples that crops up across multiple forms of media. (Although mostly stage and screen.)
When employed correctly and judiciously, it’s used to connect with the audience in a new and surprising way, but it can also be confusing if you don’t know what’s going on, or quickly get old if overused. It’s all about that fourth wall sweet spot.
What is the Fourth Wall?
Let’s start off with a fourth wall definition. The term “fourth wall” is a performance convention with roots stretching back all the way to the 16th century. There are three real walls that make up the set, and the fourth is an invisible barrier placed between the audience and the performers that allows the latter to pretend they can’t see the former.
Think of it as a one-way mirror that lets the audience serve as unseen observers to a slice of daily life, free to watch characters interact in ways that would theoretically change if they knew we were watching. Even though they do know we’re watching, and that’s literally the entire point of performance art.
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What is Breaking the Fourth Wall?
Breaking the fourth wall, then, is a situation when that barrier between audience and performers is punctured, usually temporarily. One or more characters make eye contact with us as observers or delivers a line or a monologue containing information intended only for us.
There may be no shattering of glass or crushing of brick involved in breaking the fourth wall, but when it comes upon you unexpectedly, it can be just as effective as any explosion. Take, for example, Fleabag, which has one and only one character break the fourth wall for its entire first season, but then explodes the trope in Season 2 in an extremely memorable (and Emmy-winning) manner.
The majority of dramatic history featured frequent, unremarkable asides to the audience. It only became a trope with the emergence of more naturalistic theater in the 19th century. Everyone still knows that an audience is watching, but erecting the fourth wall represents a joint suspension of disbelief engaged in by everyone involved.
Why This Story Device is Used
So what is breaking the fourth wall used for? It can have many uses, from the comedic to the dramatic. At its heart, it’s intended to give the audience information that’s being kept from the other characters.
It’s a more intimate version of a voiceover that is typically a big enough choice that it affects the entire work. This means that you won’t see it happen just one time in a movie or TV series. It should appear in a recurring pattern—or else risk standing out like a sore thumb.
Famous Examples of Breaking the Fourth Wall
It’s highly likely that the phrase “breaking the fourth wall Deadpool” is the phrase that brought you here, but there are plenty of other popular examples that illuminate the concept. Here are a few.
- Annie Hall
- Malcolm in the Middle
- The Wolf of Wall Street
- House of Cards
- Mockumentaries like Modern Family and The Office
- The Bernie Mac Show
- Saved By the Bell
- Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
- Phineas and Ferb
Other Famous Tropes
Now that the breaking the fourth wall meaning is clear, keep your eye out for some other famous tropes. You may notice meet-cutes from rom coms, audience participation in kid’s shows, “the chosen one” from fantasy, and red shirts from Star Trek.
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