An aside (ah-side) is a literary term referencing a remark or passage in a play that is intended to be heard by the audience but not by any other characters. It is often spoken in an undertone or directly addresses the audience and serves as commentary that reveals the private feelings, thoughts, and reactions of the character who is speaking. Asides can occur in novels, short stories, memoirs, and poetry as well, but they are most commonly a theatrical convention in plays.
The term was first used in English circa 1300 and meant “off to one side.” By the mid-14th century, the term indicated “to or from the side,” and by the late 14th century, “away from a normal direction or position, out of the way.” The use of aside to denote “words spoken so as to be (supposed) inaudible” arose in 1727.
Why Writers Use Asides
While dialogue allows characters to communicate with each other, an aside shows what a character is really thinking by letting them speak aloud under the guise that other characters can’t hear them.
Asides accentuate characterization because they illuminate a character’s secret thoughts. They also make the audience engage more actively with the narrative because of the added layer of commentary. This device can make an audience feel more connected to a character who is sharing their commentary with them rather than any of the other characters. This creates a sense of complicity between the character and the audience.
Asides vs. Monologues and Soliloquies
These literary devices have a lot in common, but they are not interchangeable. While all three of these terms involve one character, that is often where the similarities end.
A monologue is a speech spoken by one character. Unlike asides and soliloquies, all the present characters can hear monologues; its purpose is to communicate directly with them.
A soliloquy is a long speech given by one character that only the audience can hear. It may be spoken directly to the audience or performed as if the character is alone and simply being overheard by the audience. A soliloquy is private, personal, and generally reveals a character’s secrets, internal struggles, or some other aspect of a conflict the character faces. Often no other characters are on stage during the delivery; if there are, they cannot hear it.
An aside is briefer than a soliloquy—often only one or two lines. While other characters are present, they cannot hear the aside. The speaking character is effectively stepping aside from the scene’s action and, rather than engaging with it, commenting on it to the audience. Asides are more direct and simpler than a soliloquy. Rather than exploring in depth a private, complex internal struggle, as a soliloquy does, an aside is a short commentary on the play’s events or the other characters.
The Effect of Asides on Narrative
Asides rarely affect the narrative flow of a literary work. Instead of changing the course of action, an aside illuminates a character’s thoughts, feelings or judgments. Asides can stress to the audience things to which they should pay attention; they also provide a better understanding of the greater complexities of events or a character’s emotional state. They also “break the fourth wall,” meaning they remind the audience that they are observing something fictional. The fourth wall refers to the barrier between the character and the audience—a book page, for example, or a television screen.
The Use of Asides in Written Works
While asides are used primary in plays, they also occur in literature. In these cases, the aside is enclosed in parentheses to indicate an independent comment rather than a seamless part of the paragraph. As a result, they are called parentheticals. According to Noah Lukeman’s A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation, “[t]he aside is a complete thought, so it cannot fit in the midst of a sentence. Thus it is given its own sentence, made possible by parentheses.”
An example of this sort of aside would be “I love living in New York. (Well, only the East Village. You wouldn’t catch me dead signing a lease in Midtown). The culture and excitement here can’t be beat.”
Asides in Pop Culture
Asides are common in pop culture. They generally add moments of humor, as well as help the audience connect more directly to the speaking character—who tends to be the protagonist. These characters break the fourth wall by looking at and speaking directly to camera.
In Marx Brothers movies, Groucho frequently spoke to the audience in asides. In Horse Feathers, he suggested that the audience “go out to the lobby” during his brother Chico’s piano solo—rather than sit there and listen to the impending performance.
The 1980s comedy classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off shares a similar use of asides. He regularly addresses the audience, even ending the movie with a post-credit scene where he tells the audience to leave because the movie is over. However, Ferris’s asides occasionally illuminate sadder truths about the other characters, such as when he confides to the audience about his best friend Cameron’s difficult family situation.
The Marvel character Deadpool relies on frequent asides in both the comics and movies to help balance the rampant violence with humor. For example, in Deadpool 2, while assembling a team of young sidekicks, Deadpool comments to the audience, “We need ‘em tough, morally flexible, and young enough to carry their own franchise for 10 to 12 years.”
Asides are also quite popular in television—most recently in the British show Fleabag whose main character frequently comments to her audience. Notably, in Season 2, her love interest begins to notice and hear her asides along with the audience.
Examples of Asides in Literature
1. Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
In the second chapter of Nabokov’s novel, narrator Humbert Humbert explains his past to the reader. This is an attempt to use his life story to illuminate why he falls in love with the very young Dolores Haze. While recounting his family history, he says:
My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightening) when I was three, and save for a pocket of warmth in the darkest past, nothing of her subsists within the hollows and dells of memory, over which if you can still stand my style (I am writing under observation), the sun of my infancy had set.
Nabokov uses parentheticals so Humbert can add supplementary observations beyond the straightforward chronological life history he is compiling.
2. William Shakespeare, Hamlet
In Act 1, Scene 2, the young prince of Denmark is engaging in dialogue with his uncle and stepfather, King Claudius. In this scene, only the audiences hears Hamlet’s aside, which sets up his feelings about his uncle:
KING: But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son—
HAMLET: [Aside] A little more than kin, and less than kind.
KING: How is it that the clouds still hang on you?
Hamlet informs the audience that Claudius is more than “kin,” as he is now a stepfather and not simply a “cousin” (a term in Renaissance English that refers to an uncle or nephew as well.) The prince is also asserting that the King is not a kind man, making use of multiple meanings for the word kind. Firstly, kind means “ancestral stock.” Claudius, as uncle and stepfather, is not a direct blood relative of Hamlet’s, thus not of his kind. Secondly, kind means “natural,” underscoring how Hamlet considers Claudius’s lust for his brother’s widow—Hamlet’s mother—unnatural. Finally, kind has the modern meaning of “considerate.” As such, Hamlet referrers to the insensitivity of Claudius’s rush to marry the widowed queen.
3. Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
At the beginning of Chapter 38 of Brontë’s novel, Jane Eyre describes her wedding:
Reader, I married him. A quiet wedding we had: he and I, the parson and clerk, were alone present. When we got back from church, I went into the kitchen of the manor-house, where Mary was cooking the dinner and John cleaning the knives, and I said—
“Mary, I have been married to Mr. Rochester this morning.”
Brontë has Jane break the fourth wall by addressing the reader in the first sentence. Immediately following this aside, the narrative resumes with Jane retelling her life story as normal.
Further Resources on Asides
Richard Nordquist wrote a useful article about asides in speech and writing.
Jule Romans, a retired English teacher and college professor, provides a handy guide to the difference between soliloquy, aside, monologue, and dialogue.
The Roving Knave video series has a fun installment about Shakespeare breaking the fourth wall with his use of asides.
- Fourth Wall
- Apostrophe / Direct Address