The fourth wall and why it's relevant to content

The fourth wall and why it's relevant to content

What is the fourth wall and what does it mean to break it? In this article I share a definition of the fourth wall. Then I explain why I chose it as part of my business name and why it's relevant to content strategy, creation and marketing. Finally, I cover breaking the fourth wall with examples of this from different films.

I'm a graduate of Journalism, Film and Broadcasting. The journalism side has helped a lot with the writing and research aspects of my content-focused career. The film analysis side is where my main interests outside of work lie.

I've always been interested in the story about the story, such as how films are made. At University I studied Psycho (more on that in future articles), Blade Runner, Don't Look Now and many other films. We would discuss them in relation to:

  • narrative theories
  • semiotics
  • storytelling conventions
  • audience-centred approaches to media consumption.

The relationship between an audience and the media they are watching, reading, listening. to or using is fascinating. The ways in which media texts are constructed to evoke an emotion in an audience and create an experience for them is ripe for analysis. Sometimes the audience are even acknowledged directly and this is where we begin to understand the fourth wall and the effect that breaking it has on our connection to, and interaction with, the media and content before us.

What is the fourth wall?

The fourth wall is an imaginary wall that separates the story from the real world. In theatre, it is the invisible wall between the actors on the stage and the audience in the seats before them.

A graphic showing a three sided theatre stage, the audience in front of the stage and a line representing the imaginary fourth wall between the stage and audience.

In film, the fourth wall is the separation between what’s happening on screen and the audience in the cinema, at home or wherever they may be watching. The audience observe, as if not visible or known to the story and performance.

Fourth wall and strategic content services

Fourth Wall Content started as an idea for a blog. Within two weeks it became my new business. The blog was going to be a place where I could publish articles I'd previously written along with new content. All would be focused on deconstructing the media, semiotics, narrative devices, audience understanding and communication.

When I decided to setup a business and be a freelance content and communications specialist, the name seemed fitting for that purpose too.

Understanding an audience to make informed decisions has become a golden thread in my career, as:

  • an Audience Research Executive at the BBC helping content creators turn assumptions into knowledge
  • a lead copywriter for many website and multi-channel projects targeting specific audiences
  • a Head of Content planning, creating, distributing and measuring content for a community of practitioners
  • a content strategist ensuring content was an asset for the business and their audiences (the Core Model is a great tool for this).

All of these roles brought me back to understanding the audience. The BBC in particular was an eye-opening role in terms of the importance of understanding your audience, this is correctly a priority for the BBC, as they say:

Our research into human behaviour and psychology helps the BBC decide how best to serve its audiences in an ever-changing media landscape.'

Audience as a noun is more relevant to my work because I could be referring to readers, viewers, listeners or users. Regardless of the media type and channel, the constant is providing content for a specific audience in mind so they can get the information they need, complete a desired task or be educated or entertained.

Any work I do involves acknowledging the audience and understanding them. This includes internal organisational audiences such as subject matter experts and stakeholders. Plus, external audiences that clients are trying to reach, target and help. But rather than think of the audience as a sea of faces, it's important to get specific about their needs, challenges and circumstances. If we try and target everyone then the reality is we speak to no one. In the context of the fourth wall, we need to break down that wall.

Breaking the fourth wall

Breaking the fourth wall is a narrative device where the performers of stage and screen directly acknowledge that the audience is there. A narrative device 'becomes the guideposts by which you tell your story.'

It can be distracting when unexpected or not done well. It can be fleeting and subtle, in other cases, it's more obvious and explicit.

Some mediums embrace breaking the fourth wall and involving the audience. Pantomimes are a good example here where the audience are encouraged to boo, cheer and partake in the story unfolding before them. But it's expected that audience participation will happen at a pantomime, so it could be argued there is no fourth wall to begin with.

When we look to films for examples, breaking the fourth wall can be a surprise to the audience and it has the chance to pull them into the story or push them away depending on how it is handled. Breaking the fourth wall can be something as simple as an actor looking directly down the camera one time, or a core part of the stylisation of the film. This tends to be the case when actors talk directly to the audience regularly throughout a film and addressing the audience directly becomes a key narrative device in how the story is told.

Examples of breaking the fourth wall in films

There are many examples of when the fourth wall is broken in both film and television. Here are four for additional context, ranging from a glance to entire ongoing conversations between characters and the audience.

Psycho (1960)

Close-up of the character Norman Bates in the Hitchcock film, Psycho, looking directly at the audience.

The breaking of the fourth wall in Hitchcock's Psycho happens right at the end. Norman Bates sits alone. He slowly looks up and straight down the camera, staring the audience directly in the eyes. A subtle grin, no dialogue, a simple gesture which is very powerful for the audience.

Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)

Matthew Broderick as Ferris Bueller looks directly at the camera in a scene from the film Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

If you find yourself searching for examples of breaking the fourth wall in film, Ferris Bueller's Day Off will likely be on those lists and in the articles you find. And now I've added to the pile., but with good reason. Ferris regularly addresses the audience directly. This approach completely changes the relationship between the protagonist on screen and the viewer. They almost become embroiled in his school avoiding antics. The film would be very different without the fourth wall being broken and it sets up this narrative device right at the very start so the audience know what to expect from then on.

Amelie (2001)

Still from the film Amelie where the lead character is shown close-up looking directly down the camera to the audience.

Throughout the film, Amelie talks directly to the audience, practically confiding in them. Because of a clear separation between Amelie and others in her world, breaking the fourth wall feels more personal as the character shares insights like a whispering friend such as 'I like looking at people’s faces in the dark.'

Deadpool (2016)

A still image from the movie Deadpool. The main character has his hands against his masked face as he looks directly at the camera.

The fourth wall is broken several times in Deadpool. In fact, according to this Mashable article, it happens 23 times. It is done for comedic-effect which is a common use for the narrative device. It starts with the opening credits and immediately sets the tone for the rest of the film. It brings a whole new meaning to the 'buddy movie' as the audience are well and truly placed in Deadpool's world and with him every step of the way.

Those examples are by no means a comprehensive list. The fourth wall is also broken in Annie Hall, Alfie, The Wolf of Wall Street, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Wayne's World and so many more films and tv programmes.

Making decisions with the audience in mind

Once you're aware of breaking the fourth wall you'll start to notice it more often in older and more recent films and tv shows. Sometimes it works well and other times it serves as too much of a distraction, thrusting us out of the story which we had suspended our disbelief for. In all circumstances the purpose of breaking the fourth wall is to create a specific experience for the audience - to scare, amuse, or surprise. They aren't verbs we would necessarily want our websites, apps or other content to evoke in an audience. but we do want to tell relevant stories, in the most appropriate way with a specific audience in mind.

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