The term “breaking the 4th wall” started with theatre and the concept that the stage was a room with an invisible wall that the audience peeked through to see into the characters’ lives. A character could break the 4th wall by talking to the audience directly, making eye contact with them, or otherwise mentioning that he or she was part of a play.
Despite its origin on the stage, the 4th wall can be used and broken in just about any format of a story (Warning: spoilers).
Yes, books can break the 4th wall, especially books with narrators (after all, that’s the narrator’s job). For example, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit breaks the 4th wall when the narrator talks directly to the audience – for example, right after Bilbo eavesdrops on the trolls: “Yes, I am afraid trolls do behave like that.” This is a commentary to the audience directly, which breaks the 4th wall. In fact, there is a period of literature where this style of narrative conversation is extremely common (including authors such as C.S. Lewis and E. Nesbit).
Charles Dickens often used s similar device. A Christmas Carol starts by breaking this wall to explain that Dickens doesn’t really understand the simile “dead as a doornail,” but he’s going to use it anyway.
“Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”
Stephen King uses this device blatantly in his Dark Tower series with a kind of authorial narrator. This series also has a graphic novel version, which seems appropriate since graphic novels and comics often use this technique. Most often, the narrator does it, but Deadpool’s pretty famous for doing this himself.
Books without narrators can also have a character make a comment about being fictional, being in a book, being watched, etc. Terry Pratchett and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr, are somewhat known for this, but it can happen in any style of book. In fact, even children’s books are known to break the 4th wall. A perfect example of this is The Monster at the End of This Book by Jon Stone (a personal favorite).
Back to where it all began. On the theatrical stage, there are two types of speeches that are commonly used to break the fourth wall: soliloquies and asides. Soliloquies are speeches a character makes alone onstage where it is assumed that the character is either talking to him/herself, or the character is talking directly to the audience. Whether it breaks the fourth wall or not depends entirely on that acting choice.
An aside is a comment that is said with other people on stage who don’t hear it. Asides almost always break the fourth wall because they’re usually used to talk directly to the audience. Sometimes (in a particularly cheesy production), actors might even put a hand by their mouth while everyone else freezes. Shakespeare uses these frequently, and modern scripts are kind enough to point them out to the reader.
KING CLAUDIUS: Take thy fair hour, Laertes; time be thine,
And thy best graces spend it at thy will!
But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son,
HAMLET: [Aside] A little more than kin, and less than kind.
If we weren’t savvy enough to catch on to the fact that this line is heard only by Hamlet and the audience, the editor has added the word “aside” in brackets to tell us so. In this aside, it’s as if we can see into Hamlet’s inner thoughts (and his bitterness about the fact that his uncle married his mother…). Every Shakespearian play uses asides to guide the audience through the intricacies of the plot, and the technique works extremely well.
And asides and soliloquies aren’t limited to Shakespearian plays. Dramas, tragedies, comedies – hundreds of plays use this technique with varying success.
They also use narrators. Our Town by Thornton Wilder famously guides the audience through years with the help of the narrator whose job is to break the fourth wall and speak to the audience. Urinetown: The Musical begins with a shattered fourth wall as Officer Lockstock and Little Sally not only introduce the idea of the musical but also discuss how to kill a play quickly.
LITTLE SALLY: Oh, I guess you don’t want to overload them with too
much exposition, huh.
OFFICER LOCKSTOCK: Everything in its time, Little Sally. You’re too
young to understand it now, but nothing can kill a show like too much
LITTLE SALLY: How about bad subject matter?
OFFICER LOCKSTOCK: Well-
LITTLE SALLY: Or a bad title, even? That could kill a show pretty good.
Then, of course there are the plays that use narrators and regular characters to break the 4th wall. My favorite example of this is Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods (WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD). This show features a narrator who leads the show fairly peacefully through the first act. Not quite halfway through the second act, however, the characters begin talking back.
Narrator: Sorry, I only tell the story. I’m not part of it.
Red Riding Hood: That’s right.
Witch: Not one of us.
Baker: You’re always on the outside.
Narrator: Well, that’s my role! You must understand, there must always
be someone on the outside!
Steward: Well, you’re going to be on the inside now.
Narrator: You’re making a big mistake!
Narrator: You need an objective observer to pass the story along!
Witch: Some of us don’t like the way you’ve been telling it.
Oh, the comic possibilities. We realize the rest of the actors have broken the 4th wall when they all turn to look at the narrator (usually, characters ignore the narrator). So much meaning is conveyed in that simple, defiant act. As great as this device is as an idea in a book, breaking the 4th wall can be such a wonderfully visual act, as well – and comedy gold.
Speaking of visual acts, in movies, all an actor or actress has to do to break the fourth wall is look into the camera. Even if the character doesn’t talk to the camera, that eye contact is enough (some call this an aside glance.).
For the art of the silent glance, it’s hard to beat the early television comedians: Buster Keaton, Oliver Hardy, Jack Benny, Johnny Carson, Bob Hope, Red Skelton, and so on. Even Bugs Bunny imitates their habit of glancing at the audience in shared humor or disbelief. Yes, they all speak to the audience during some of these asides, but there is a magic in how much can show through eye contact.
This same technique is used at the end of Amélie, during the training chaos of Robin Hood: Men in Tights, and when the passenger next to Kevin won’t shut up in Home Alone 2, to name just a few examples.
Other movies do entire narrations into the camera such as Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, Fight Club, Mary Poppins, Happiest Millionaire, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. If you recognize these titles, you know what drastically different genres and audiences they have, yet they all use this technique effectively.
But good as those are, my two top movie-makers for breaking the 4th wall are the Muppets and Mel Brooks.
The Muppets break the 4th wall in pretty much everything they do. In The Muppet Movie, Kermit tells Fozzie to let the band read the screenplay instead of explaining what’s already happened and boring the audience. In The Muppet Christmas Carol, Gonzo (as Charles Dickens) and Rizzo (as his doubting, comic-relief sidekick) narrate the story until it gets too scary and they leave the audience to their own devices. In one of their new commercials, Ms. Piggy has to stop talking because she got distracted by Nathan Fillion.
Mel Brooks also likes to throw in some wall breaking into all of his movies. In Blazing Saddles, there are plenty of aside glances and lines said to the camera, but the most obvious break is when the fight scene breaks through their studio and into the one next door to interrupt a black-tie musical number before eventually heading to a theatre where the movie Blazing Saddles is playing.
Besides the aside glance mentioned earlier, Robin Hood: Men in Tights also has characters reading the script, cameras breaking through windows, swords stealing donuts from people offstage, and lines acknowledging the Robin Hood trope: “Because, unlike some other Robin Hoods, I can speak with an English accent.”
Last, but not least, no 4th wall discussion could be complete without mentioning Spaceballs. This movie has running into cameras, talking to the audience, merchandise for the film, and a mention of Spaceballs II: The Search for More Money. Lest I forget, they also watch a VHS of Spaceballs in the movie Spaceballs.
Now, that’s breaking the 4th wall.