What is an Aside? Understanding and Appreciating this Dramatic Device

What is an aside? Learn how to identify, understand and use this powerful writing technique. 

An aside is a literary device used by playwrights and screenwriters to provide a window into a character’s inner thoughts or to share short comments that the audience can hear. Still, other characters on stage or screen cannot. Asides convey information or emotions that may not be apparent through action or dialogue. You might also be wondering, what is a colloquialism?

Defining the Aside: A Brief Overview

Defining what is an aside
Asides can serve various purposes in writing, such as revealing a character’s thoughts, providing comic relief, or foreshadowing event

If you’ve heard of an aside or seen it written in a script, you may be curious about what the term means. An aside is a brief remark or comment made by a character, either to the audience or another character, that is not meant to be heard by the other characters on stage or screen. You can think of it as when a person is conversing with one person and then turns their head or covers their mouth to address someone else in a manner the first person can’t overhear. Asides can serve various purposes in writing, such as revealing a character’s thoughts, providing comic relief, or foreshadowing events.

Use of Asides

Playwrights and screenwriters often use asides to create a sense of intimacy between the audience and the main character. By sharing their inner thoughts, the character invites the audience to share their perspective, fostering a deeper connection and understanding of the character’s motivations and emotions. Asides are also frequently used in other literary works, such as soliloquies, in which a character speaks their thoughts aloud while alone on stage, and monologues, where a character delivers a long speech to themselves, other characters, or the audience.

The Power of Asides in Storytelling

Asides represent a powerful and versatile literary device that can be employed in various formats, including theater, screenwriting, novels, and short stories. By providing insight into a character’s inner thoughts and emotions, asides can deepen audience engagement, enhance the narrative, and contribute to the story’s overall impact. By understanding the asides’ purpose, timing, and presentation, writers can effectively integrate this dramatic device into their work, creating captivating stories that resonate with readers and viewers alike.

Examples of Aside

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare
Some of the most famous examples of asides can be found in the plays of William Shakespeare, such as Hamlet and Othello

Asides have a rich history in literature and theater, featuring numerous works across various genres and time periods. Some of the most famous examples of asides can be found in the plays of William Shakespeare, such as Hamlet and Othello. In many of Shakespeare’s works, asides provide insight into the character’s thoughts, create dramatic irony, and engage the audience.

  • Hamlet – In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, the title character frequently uses asides to reveal his inner thoughts and emotions to the audience. For example, when Hamlet overhears Claudius and Polonius discussing their plan to spy on him, he comments in an aside, “How now! A rat? Dead for a ducat, dead!” This remark reveals Hamlet’s suspicion of their motives and his intention to take action.
  • Othello – In Othello, the character Lago uses asides to share his malicious intentions and manipulative schemes with the audience. By revealing his thoughts through asides, Iago establishes a sense of intimacy and collaboration with the audience, making his eventual betrayal of the main character even more shocking and dramatic.

Modern Media

Asides are often used in modern media to break the fourth wall. This term refers to the imaginary barrier between the audience and the characters on stage or screen. By addressing the audience directly through asides, characters can create a sense of engagement and immersion, drawing viewers into the story’s world. Two modern examples are:

  • House of Cards – In the television series House of Cards, the character Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, frequently uses asides to share his thoughts and plans with the audience. This narrative device provides insight into the character’s motivations and heightens the show’s tension and drama.
  • Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – The 1986 film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is another example of asides effectively breaking the fourth wall. Throughout the movie, the main character, Ferris Bueller, speaks directly to the audience, sharing his thoughts, opinions, and advice. In this film, the asides add humor and comic relief to the film.

Theater and Short Stories

While asides are often associated with theater and screenwriting, they can also be employed effectively in various other formats, such as novels, short stories, and poetry. In a short story, for example, an aside might take the form of a parenthetical remark or italicized text, which indicates to the reader that the text is taking place outside the context of whatever is currently happening. Often, in novels and short stories, the aside takes the form of an inner monologue, giving readers a glimpse into the character’s thoughts or feelings. Regardless of the format, asides are a powerful tool for revealing a character’s true nature or motivations while engaging the audience or readers in the narrative.

Integrating Asides in Your Writing: Tips and Techniques

The more you write, the more you will be interested in learning how to use asides in your work effectively. When you’re ready to start incorporating asides into your writing, consider the following tips and techniques:

1. Determine the Purpose of the Aside

Before introducing an aside, consider its purpose in your narrative. Whether to provide comic relief, foreshadow future events, or reveal a character’s inner thoughts, having a clear objective will help you craft a more effective and engaging aside.

2. Choose the Right Moment

Asides are most impactful when they occur at key moments in the narrative. Consider incorporating an aside when a character undergoes a significant emotional or psychological shift, or a crucial plot event occurs. Doing it this way can enrich the story and maintain audience interest at the same time. You might also be interested in learning what is present perfect tense.

3. Maintain Character Coherence

Ensure the aside’s tone, voice, and content are consistent with the character’s overall personality and goals. An aside should appear as a natural extension of the character’s thoughts and emotions rather than a  forced mechanism. An exception to this is when you are purposely trying to demonstrate duplicity of character when a character is purposely trying to appear one way to others. But, internally, they have contrary ideas, plans, or feelings.

4. Keep it Brief

Asides are usually brief and focused, so avoid overloading them with abundant information or specifics. Concentrate on conveying the most critical aspects of the character’s thoughts or emotions while keeping the delivery concise and powerful. You might also be interested in learning what is an epilogue.

5. Take the Medium into Account

Depending on the platform you are working with, you may need to modify the aside’s presentation to suit the medium. For example, in a theatrical production or film, an aside might be delivered through a direct address to the audience, while in a novel or short story, it could take the form of a parenthetical remark or inner monologue.

The Power of Asides in Character Development

An aside is a versatile literary device that can contribute significantly to the development of characters in a narrative, along with other techniques for establishing characters. By allowing readers or viewers a glimpse into a character’s inner thoughts and motivations, asides create a sense of depth and complexity, encouraging the audience to empathize with the characters and invest in the story.

Showing Inward vs. Outward Character

One of the key benefits of asides is their ability to highlight the contrast between a character’s public persona and their true feelings or intentions. This is particularly effective in stories featuring characters navigating complex social or political situations, such as the scheming Lago in Shakespeare’s Othello. By employing asides, authors, and playwrights can create multidimensional characters who are relatable, intriguing, and engaging.

Building Drama

In addition to deepening character development, asides can build tension and suspense within a narrative. For example, suppose a character’s true motives are only revealed to the audience through asides. In that case, this can create dramatic irony, where the audience knows something other characters in the story do not. This can heighten anticipation and engagement as the audience awaits the consequences of the character’s actions or decisions.

How to Use Asides

As powerful as asides are, knowing when and how to use them is crucial. As a writer, knowing when and how to use asides effectively can elevate your storytelling, enhance character development, and create a memorable experience for your readers or viewers. While asides can be a powerful literary device, using them judiciously and in appropriate contexts is essential. To determine whether incorporating asides is suitable for your narrative, use the following steps:

Step 1. Consider the Genre

First, consider the genre and style of your work. Asides are more commonly employed in specific genres, such as comedy, drama, or works that feature a strong central character. Suppose your story naturally lends itself to asides. In that case, it can be valuable in engaging the audience and providing insight into the characters’ inner thoughts and motivations. However, in genres where asides are less common, such as thrillers or certain types of science fiction, it may be best to refrain from using them to maintain consistency in tone and style.

Step 2. Meet Audience Expectations

Next, think about your audience and their expectations. Different types of audiences may be more receptive to asides, while others might find them jarring or distracting. For example, a younger audience might appreciate the interactive humor and lightheartedness that asides can bring to a story. Meanwhile, an audience seeking a more immersive and escapist experience might prefer a narrative without asides.

Step 3. Establish Narrative Voice First

Once you’ve decided that asides are appropriate for your narrative, it’s crucial to implement them effectively. Begin by establishing a clear and consistent narrative voice. If you’re writing a novel or a play, ensure that the asides are distinct from the rest of the text, either through formatting (e.g., parentheses or italics) or using a separate voice or tone. In visual media, such as film or television, asides should be easily recognizable as separate from the main action through direct address or visual cues.

Step 4. Use Sparingly 

Also, remember that asides should be used sparingly and with purpose. Ensure that each aside serves a specific function in your narrative, such as developing character, building tension, or revealing essential plot information. Overusing asides can dilute their impact and cause the audience to disengage from the story.

Step 5. Respect the Structure

Finally, be mindful of the pacing and structure of your narrative. Asides can disrupt the flow of a story if not implemented carefully. Ensure your asides are well-timed and strategically placed so they enhance rather than detract from the overall narrative.

Looking for more? Check out our guide with essays about Macbeth!