by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
The use of voice over in screenwriting has been hotly contested for years. Every writer would likely admit it risks confusing the audience when a disembodied voice speaks without context clues as to who’s narrating the story in front of us. Some feel voice over is a lazy method that allows the writer to simply tell the audience what a character is thinking rather than going through the difficult exercise of showing them.
Others feel it adds another layer to the story, giving the viewer a chance to experience both the inner world of the character as well as the outer world. In the film, Adaptation, Robert McKee famously shouts, “God help you if you use voice over in your work, my friends. God help you. That’s flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write a voice over narration to explain the thoughts of a character.” If we’re honest, McKee’s words ring true the vast majority of the time. Voice over has a well-deserved reputation because writers who lacked skill have used it so often as a crutch.
So, is it EVER appropriate? The revered Citizen Kane used voice over, right? What do we say about filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick who used the method in films ranging from Barry Lyndon to Full Metal Jacket? Here are three ways that voice over has been used to strengthen a script instead of diluting its visual power.
1. ADDING POETIC VOICE TO THE STORY
Some storytellers have a natural poetry in their voice. Many others THINK they have a natural poetry in their voice. Using a poetic voice over can elevate a script to high art, while using this method prematurely as a writer can leave a bad taste in a reader’s mouth. In Taxi Driver, the voice of Travis Bickle paints a cultural picture of life in all its loneliness. It causes us to more deeply consider his actions and search for metaphor in the story. We see a similar use of voice over in Apocalypse Now.
The voice over in A Scanner Darkly keeps the story faithful to the poetic nature of Phillip K. Dick’s writing in the literary work the film is based on. Jack’s voice over in Fight Club accomplishes the same purpose. These examples bring us to the next way that voice over is effectively used…
2. BRINGING THE SPIRIT OF A BOOK TO ITS ADAPTATION
Many of the most powerful stories to ever hit the big screen began in the pages of a novel or short story. A great number of good stories have had the ability to transcend the medium they were created in and find life in another medium altogether. Screenwriters will often honor the impact of the original work by using voice over to keep powerful words and passages from the source in play.
It could be argued that Red’s voice over in The Shawshank Redemption is one of the most memorable in all of film. It transcended the source material and brought perspective to the story that greatly reinforced the themes in Stephen King’s original Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. Gordy’s words have a similar effect in Stand By Me.
The voice overs in A Christmas Story and Forrest Gump have become cultural catch phrases enjoyed by generations of film-goers. The method has worked in adaptations across genres as well. Voice overs in Blade Runner and Dune exemplify their power in Sci-Fi. A Clockwork Orange and American Psycho exemplify their power in psychological thrillers. Even Election, High Fidelity, and The Princess Bride demonstrate their power in comedies.
3. PROVIDING THE AUDIENCE AN OBJECTIVE (OR NON-OBJECTIVE) VIEW
There are a number of ways to provide the audience a view that balances the story being told. Here are a few of the more common methods.
–The Unreliable Narrator
Unreliable narrators are most common in crime stories. They can be used as juxtaposition against what is being seen, demonstrating how skewed the view of the narrator is. This method is used in Goodfellas, Blow, Trainspotting, and Casino. The narrator can be a voice from beyond the grave, with an agenda about the actions we are seeing on-screen, as in American Beauty and Sunset Boulevard. They can also be used as a red herring to manipulate the audience into a certain way of thinking as in The Usual Suspects and Psycho. All the above mentioned narrators add to the depth of the story, but offer a perspective that is in some way unreliable or non-objective.
–The Storybook Narrator
Storybook narrators are meant to be the ultimate voice of objectivity. They have no agenda or “skin in the game.” They exist to tell the story. Using this method gives the story a particular feel or framework that does not work for every script. However, when used under the right circumstances, the results are impactful. Alec Baldwin’s voice weaves the characters in The Royal Tenenbaums together in a way that compliments Wes Anderson’s style. Ricky Jay’s opening monologue in Magnolia sets the stage for a world where frogs will eventually rain from the sky. More recently, Forest Whitaker’s voice frames the complex world of Dope so that viewers are able to enjoy the characters rather than trying to construct a landscape for the story.
–The Jester Narrator
Sometimes the narrator tells us what the character is thinking but cannot say out loud. This is a useful comedic device. It’s a method everyone relates to because we’ve all had thoughts in our head, worthy of a chuckle, that’ we’d never actually give voice to. Whether it’s Charlie working through his writing process in Adaptation, Bridget’s reactions to the men in her life in Bridget Jones’s Diary, or Cher’s absurd observations about the world in Clueless, comedic voice over inside the mind of the character can add a great deal to the audience’s overall experience.
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.