When and Where to Break the Fourth Wall

Hey you. Yeah, you there, sitting in that black office chair that you bought at Walmart for twenty dollars. I am talking directly to you, so listen up.

See what I did there? This is a commonly seen practice in films, literature, video games and art known as ‘Breaking the Fourth Wall’ or ‘Meta-Humor’. But while this can be implemented in multiple forms of media, there is the underlying question “Should the Fourth Wall be broken frequently?” As many instances where the fourth wall has been broken effectively (ie: Mel Brooks Films), there has been moments where the fourth wall has been used as more or less, a throwaway gag (ie: Family Guy). Today we will not only be talking about Meta-Humor and Meta-Fiction, but how it works and why it works.

Origins of Meta-humor/Meta-fiction

If you want to check out the film, click here.

If you want to check out the film, click here.

Before we get too deep into the usage of the practice, let’s have a little background on everyone’s favorite form of meta-humor. The origins of breaking the fourth wall can easily be traced back to theatrical performances which the earliest usage being found dating back to early Greece with the playwright Aristophanes and his play The Frogs. The fourth wall was a phrase that was used to explain the imaginary wall that would separate the stage from the audience and whenever the actors would speak directly to the audience, it was breaking through the fourth wall. Over the years, this practice was used in other plays such as William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. Eventually, it would be implemented in other mediums such as film, where the earliest example can be seen with the movie Animal Crackers with the Marx Brothers (See the Above picture). Some of the more notable examples of the fourth wall being broken would be found in films such as Fight Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, books like Lemony Snicket’s novel series A Series of Unfortunate Events, and television shows such as Malcolm in the Middle.

Meta-Humor/Meta-Fiction is a practice that has often been used by characters to share with the audience their inner thoughts, to point out the flaws to story-lines, make references to other material that could be within the same/parallel universe, help establish the world around them, or a means to make a joke.

  • Characterization/Inner Thoughts – With Characterization and character building, it can be used to define a person’s traits, what they really think of others and relationships. In the novel and movie Fight Club, the narrator (Edward Norton) will frequently speak with the audience about Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) about his mentality, his views on the world, and personality.
  • Pointing Out Flaws to Story Lines – This is seen as a more humorous form of meta-humor where the writer of the story acknowledges that a plot device or story arc is ridiculous or questionable, even if it is out of place with the overall tone of the story. One example of this would be in the Kevin Smith film Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. The two ‘protagonists’ are talking to another character about a movie being made about their comic ‘Bluntman and Chronic’ and one of them asks, “Who would watch a Jay and Silent Bob movie?” before all three of them turn to the camera.
  • References to Other Material/Mediums – This is commonly seen more in films and television where the actors will make references to other material that they might exist within the same universe or that might not exist within it. This is also seen when actors portray one character in one film/show and then play another character in another film/show, then make a reference to the previous character. One of the hidden moments of meta-humor can be found in the classic film directed by Quentin Tarantino Pulp Fiction where Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) describes to Vincent Vega (John Travolta) about the television pilot she starred in about five female police officers each with a special skill. This is actually a reference to another film starring Uma Thurman by the same director known as Kill Bill.
  • World Building – This is prevalent in novels where the writer wants to help establish the world where the character lives in and how it affects him on a daily basis. This is often seen in novels such as Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.
  • To Make a Joke – The more obvious reason why to use meta-humor in any medium, it can be used to make jokes to the audience about certain situations, scenarios, or character’s actions. There are numerous examples where meta-humor and meta-fiction has been used to make a joke, just do a search on ‘meta-humor’ and you can come up with plenty of examples.

Why does it sometimes fail?

With the use of Meta-humor, it sometimes leaves the question of “Why does it work with some mediums and doesn’t work with others?” Well, in my opinion, the reason that meta-humor works in some cases rather than others is because of how much it is used and how it is used. Meta-humor and breaking the fourth wall are meant to be used sparingly in different mediums in order to let them sink into the audience’s mind and allow them to appreciate the humor. Even in novels and films that use meta-humor frequently such as Fight Club where the narrator is constantly talking to the audience work because it is woven into the story, making the audience appreciate it all the more.

The problem that I see with some films and television shows is that the meta-humor that they use is often used as a quick cut-away joke that does not allow it to sink in to the audience’s minds. Another problem that I see is that it in some mediums, it is used too frequently, making the joke less effective than if it was used sparingly.

Okay ‘Genius’, How do you use Meta-Humor/Fiction Properly?

The key to creating good meta-humor and meta-fiction is in the best of terms, use it either sparingly or go full out. If you want to make a book, film, or movie with a lot of meta-humor, then weave it into the story and make it a full piece of meta-fiction. If you want to use it once or twice in a novel, then spread it out in your work, don’t have it back to back such as one joke every few paragraphs.

Also, if you want to use meta-humor, make it consistent with the story and it’s characters, don’t throw it in just because you can. If you just make a character state that the story line is ridiculous or that something is wrong, then it can fall flat. You have to weave into the character’s personalities and have it be consistent with their thought process. For example, if one of the characters of your story is naturally inquisitive, then have them question why someone did one thing when they could have easily done something else.


Well, that is all have for talking about meta-humor and fiction for now. I hope that everyone enjoyed the editorial. Oh and Tom in San Francisco, I want to tell you that the cake in your oven is starting to burn.

So, what I am writing is a copy of another editorial which is another editorial about another editorial...

So, what I am writing is a copy of another editorial which is a copy of another editorial about a copy of another editorial…

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