by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
For good reason, writers in the early stages of their development are encouraged not to use voice over in their scripts. One of the key reasons even seasoned writers are weary of doing so is that it breaks the fourth wall between the audience and the performers. However, it’s undeniable that some of the most loved and well-written stories break the wall between the viewer and those doing the viewing. Here are a few examples of effective ways to break the fourth wall.
1. EMPLOY A STORYTELLER
In Robert Zemeckis’s new film, The Walk, the protagonist breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly throughout the film, acting as narrator. While remaining a risky move, the device works because we have someone as engaging as Joseph Gordon-Levitt to watch and uncommonly good writing to listen to. Some writers are good at dialogue. Others are wonderful at describing scenes and actions. Still others can use prose in their work to great effect. Few can master all these approaches. You should know what sort of writing you excel at before attempting to craft a script guided by a storyteller who will directly address the audience.
While the character in The Walk only talks to the audience while on top of the Statue of Liberty, other films feature characters daring to turn to the camera and address us in the middle of a scene. John Cusack’s character in High Fidelity masterfully and humorously moves between the role of storyteller and protagonist. Uma Thurman opens and closes the Kill Bill saga by addressing the audience directly. She remains our storyteller throughout the course of the narrative. Wes Anderson uses unseen storytellers in films such as The Royal Tenenbaums and The Grand Budapest Hotel. They break the fourth wall and we never even notice.
2. BOOKEND YOUR BREAK
Since choosing to break the fourth wall can take your audience out of the experience momentarily, you might choose to use the device sparingly. Films like American Beauty use a disembodied narrator only to set up and conclude the action, with perhaps one exception in the middle. Kevin Spacey narrates his world to move us into the story quickly. He lets us know that he is speaking to us from another world. At the end of the second act, he reminds us that he is dead. And finally, wraps up the major themes of the story at the end. Using this bookend approach keeps us from constantly interrupting the narrative by breaking the fourth wall.
3. DISGUISE THE BREAK
In Bruce Almighty, the writers cleverly created the protagonist as a TV news reporter so that he could look at and address the audience directly from time to time. At the end of the film, he further breaks the fourth wall by giving the film audience a wink and speaking directly to us. Disguising the break also allows Steve Carell’s character to look directly into our eyes while he delivers a hilariously memorable breakdown.
Breaking Bad uses a similar technique for dramatic effect in it’s pilot, allowing Bryan Cranston to look directly into a camera and address those he loves. This puts us in the position of Cranston’s family, though we haven’t met them yet. We feel deep empathy as the character seems to be talking right at us. Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick rotate back and forth as storytellers in Election. They will often pause the action to fill us in on the backstory of the moment we are witnessing. Their tour through the minds of the characters and their backstories actually makes our narrative journey more colorful, rather than taking us out of the story – a perfect disguise. Kevin Smith also has the characters involved in the backstory address the audience in small vignettes in Chasing Amy. The audience becomes pseudo-documentary filmmakers interviewing these subjects about what they know the characters have done previously in their lives.
As with most advanced techniques, breaking the fourth wall usually only works when used sparingly or as a major device in the story. There’s not much middle ground in this arena. Addressing the audience directly can powerfully draw them into the story. It can also alienate them and make your story feel less than cinematic. Watch what’s worked in the stories you love. Then, go out and put your own creative spin on it.
Need more examples? Check out this great compilation from Jacob T. Swinney:
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.