What Is an Aside? Here's How to Use the Dramatic Device

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Photo Source: “The Office” Courtesy NBC

When a character onstage or onscreen quickly addresses the audience, it’s known as an aside. Both a dramatic device for actors and a literary device for writers, asides appear across mediums to give viewers a unique narrative perspective. 

Keep reading to learn how and why artists and actors use asides. 

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What is the definition of an aside?

Leonardo DiCaprio in Wolf of Wall Street“Wolf of Wall Street” Courtesy Paramount Pictures

An aside is when a fictional character breaks away from the events of the story to talk to themselves or directly to the audience. Most often used in plays, TV series, and films, asides are usually delivered as quick observations, reactions, or quips. They are only heard by the audience and not the supporting cast, giving additional insight into a character’s thoughts or emotional state without disrupting the story’s plot or pace. 

When the aside is directed specifically at the audience, that is known as breaking “the fourth wall”—the theoretical barrier separating viewer from performer. This action transcends the text and makes audiences feel they’re directly involved in the story by offering information other characters can’t hear.

Four purposes of asides

An aside can also be used to serve other purposes: 

  1. Narrative insight: Asides can bring audiences up to speed on complicated backstories or world-building facts without slowing the action. Rather than create an additional scene to call out who’s who and how things work, asides can be used to interject quick commentary that offers context as the story progresses.
    • Example: “The Wolf of Wall Street” allowed Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort to turn to the audience and describe exactly how he committed his financial crimes, giving context to the story’s plot.
  2. Foreshadowing: Asides can drop clues or predictions for the plot’s eventual conclusion, which makes the audience an active part of the developing story.
    • Example: In “Romeo and Juliet,” William Shakespeare gives many characters moments of foresight, including Romeo himself, who reveals aloud his worries that his relationship with Juliet may lead to a terrible end: “Is she a Capulet? O, dear account! My life is my foe’s debt.”
  3. Motivation: Speaking to the audience allows characters to get real in ways they may not be able to within the confines of the narrative. Characters can share inner thoughts and truths without consequence, showcasing their struggles and desires. Whether sinister or sincere, revealing what’s in a character’s heart brings audiences in on a secret. 
    • Example: “High Fidelity” follows John Cusack’s Rob Gordon as he tries to figure out where he went wrong in his past romantic relationships. Along the way, Rob continuously addresses the camera to confess emotional state during those points in his life.
  4. Humor: Asides also work as comic relief. A well-timed one-liner or sarcastic eye roll to the audience can help break tension or ramp up satire. It will also shed light on the character’s sense of humor and personality.
    • Example: Season 2 of “Fleabag” opens with Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s title character in dire straits, cleaning a bloody nose in a bathroom, before switching tones, turning to the camera, and saying: “This is a love story.”

Monologue vs. soliloquy vs. aside: What’s the difference?

Fleabag“Fleabag” Courtesy Amazon Studios

Asides, soliloquies, and monologues are all introspective moments when a character shares thoughts or feelings aloud. Monologues keep the character’s words as part of the action; all the characters in the scene can hear the contents of a monologue. An example is Jack Nicholson’s famous 200-plus-word “You can’t handle the truth” speech from “A Few Good Men,” which reveals his character’s motivation to an entire courtroom. 

The two major differences between an aside and a soliloquy are length and audience: 

  1. Length: Soliloquies are often long monologues in which a character bares their soul, pausing the story’s action so the audience can focus solely on their plight. A famous example is Shakespeare’s “To be or not to be…?” passage in “Hamlet,” which runs for 35 lines. An aside is much shorter—typically one or two lines—and can be used intermittently throughout the story. An example of a quick aside is when Ferris Bueller looks straight into the camera to deliver his famous line, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you may miss it.” 
  2. Audience: An aside is a direct address to the audience that other characters aren’t privy to, whereas a soliloquy is the act of talking to oneself, regardless of who can hear.

How to perform an aside

Malcolm in the Middle“Malcolm in the Middle” Courtesy Fox

Actors tasked with performing asides have to stay in character even as they break the fourth wall. Turning away from the action doesn’t mean turning into a different person, so maintaining that same energy and personality will keep the tone in place even as you defy convention. Because asides are used to deepen connections and understanding with the audience, actors must channel their characters to make the effect land.  

To stay in character, think of the audience as a scene partner, rather than a faceless void. Viewing the audience as an extension of the narrative can ground your performance—much like the way exchanging dialogue with a fellow actor affects your delivery. 

“The more you can focus on one person [in the audience], the better and more specific your [delivery] will be,” says Doug Fahl, actor and acting coach. “This helps you be able to adjust how you present. Just by changing the person you are talking to will give you a variety of different options to play around with when you’re performing.”

How to write an aside

Abbott Elementary“Abbott Elementary” Courtesy ABC

The creative choice to use asides will depend on whether or not they are appropriate for the writer’s or director’s vision. Some artists avoid asides to keep the fourth wall intact, letting stories unfold slowly without additional commentary or insight. Others may find asides fit with the quick script pacing or quirky personality of the project. 

Asides are an interesting storytelling device; they allow for immediate access to a character’s motivations and drive. Rather than wait for secrets to be revealed as the story progresses, this technique makes the audience an instant insider, quickly connecting them to who this character is and why (or why not) they should root for them. 

Asides also give the actors themselves deeper insight into the character they’re playing. Their secrets and emotions are explicitly written on the page, and this gives an immediate jumping-off point for you to deepen your performance. 

Even when asides make sense for the creative integrity of the piece, using them appropriately will make a difference. Tips for writing asides include: 

  • Consider the best method for delivery. There are many ways to clue audiences into pertinent story development; choosing the most impactful method to convey this information is key. If significant backstory is required to understand the plot, asides may be too short to fully engross the viewer. An example would be the opening narration that sets up the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy: Audiences need more than a few quick lines to understand the history of Middle-earth. 
  • Don’t overuse. If a character is constantly stepping out of the action to deliver side commentary, it may be harder for audiences to get swept up by the story. Asides should be thoughtfully placed for narrative impact, chiming in when the audience needs a fact or a laugh. While asides are used to great comic effect in “Wayne’s World,” the device would get old if Wayne turned to the camera after every single line. 
  • Keep them short. Because the story doesn’t wait for asides, their delivery should be short and sweet so characters can jump back into the action without missing a beat. Anything longer than a few lines will veer into monologue territory. 

In play scripts, an aside can be noted simply by adding [Aside] before the line begins. Additional stage direction may or may not be included. In TV and movie scripts, an aside is typically formatted using parentheses, along with a stage direction such as “[character name] looks at the camera” or “[character name] turns away.”

Examples of asides in theater, TV shows, and movies

Deadpool“Deadpool” Courtesy 20th Century Fox

Here are well-known examples of asides across mediums and what you can learn from studying them. 

Theater

  • “Othello”: Multiple Shakespearean plays use asides to reveal secrets, motivations, and emotions. In “Othello,” Iago acts like a loyal companion to Othello, but reveals his devious intentions with asides such as: “O, you are well tuned now! But I’ll set down the pegs that make this music, as honest as I am.” 
  • “Hamlet”: In Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet makes his distaste for his uncle, King Claudius, apparent by turning away from his relative’s introduction to mutter: “A little more than kin, and less than kind.” 
  • “Hamilton”: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical ends as Eliza looks out into the audience and gasps to herself. 

TV 

  • “Saved by the Bell”: Prankster Zack Morris hits “time out” whenever he wants to pause his life and comment on the action at Bayside High.
  • “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”: Will Smith’s leading character often looks directly at the camera with a knowing look or sarcastic expression to provide comic relief or insider commentary on a scene. 

Film

  • “Deadpool”: Superheroes are often too busy saving the world to offer much commentary, but Deadpool delivers down-the-barrel quips timed with nearly every punch and blow. 
  • “The Big Short”: Screenwriter Adam McKay uses asides to inject both humor and necessary background information to help audiences grasp complicated economic theories. 
  • “Friday”: Ice Cube ups the humor in this buddy comedy by repeatedly staring at the camera with looks of surprise, delight, and cynicism.