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In fictional content, the idea of breaking the fourth wall is complex and requires delicacy. However, when done right, it can easily relay a message that would otherwise be difficult to portray. Breaking the fourth wall dates back to Shakespearean literature and is still prevalent in modern television and movies. Let’s take a quick look at this concept of architectural ruination.
To break the fourth wall means the fictional characters recognize that they are part of a story. In a play, they may step away from the scene and discuss information and feelings that relate to the plot-line for the audience but unbeknownst to the rest of the actors in the play. In a television show, it happens when a person talks to the camera revealing that they know they are being filmed. In movies, it is most frequently done with a voice-over giving the audience some pertinent information.
Breaking the fourth wall through some form of aside or voice over is a great tool for content creators. In most situations it is done for comedic relief. Take the movie “Stranger Than Fiction” for example, the entire plot hinges on the concept of breaking the fourth wall. The audience is enthralled by the character’s recollection that his life is being narrated, and to go even further, he hears the narration. Breaking of the fourth wall in this example sets up several punch-lines and drives the entertainment for the whole movie.
Another example is the popular show “The Office.” This show is a mockumentary look into the mundanely entertaining lives of a group of employees. Although the characters themselves have always realized they were being filmed, the real breaking of the fourth wall came in the final season when they began to tie the film crew into the plot-line. The producer Greg Daniels was asked about this decision in a recent interview.
Daniels: I felt like if we’re going to break the fourth wall, let’s have a reason to do it. Let’s not just do it for the sake of doing it, so I wanted to make sure it had a bearing on Jim and Pam’s story line. (tvguide.com)
This show has been on for nine seasons and Daniels went on to say that they contemplated introducing the crew into Season five’s plot, but thought that it wouldn’t add value that early on. Season five was the peak of this series and by the final season it had slowly lost steam and fans. Because many people were growing tired of the series, breaking the fourth wall was done in order to add some spice back into the somewhat stalling story.
Breaking the fourth wall is a great tool for developing a character. By using this technique you can essentially tell the audience how that particular character is thinking, which takes a lot of the assumption out of the equation. Since I grew up in the 90’s my all-time favorite example of breaking the fourth wall is “Saved by the Bell.” Zack Morris would call time out and freeze scenes mid-action just to talk to the audience either to describe his feelings or just to throw out a quip. The purpose, whether intentional or not, was to open the window into the character’s mind and strengthen the connection between audience and character. Another more recent example is “House of Cards.”
The term “breaking the fourth wall” has and will continue to be a prevalent strategy in fictional content. If used correctly it can be the focal point of a plot, a saving grace to a story, or an effective character development tool. If you are thinking of implementing it into your work take heed of the examples above.