Although much derided and maligned, the use of voice-over in film is often a necessary and justified technique that can compliment and heighten the on-screen drama. The worst voice-overs are when the narrator uses plain and drab dialogue to tell us exactly what we can see on the screen anyway. Or it may cross the line of foul exposition to tell us exactly who people are, what they are doing and why they are doing it.
The best voice-overs are when the narrator is either reacting to the on-screen drama, or filling in interesting parts of the narrative that the audience wants to know. Ray Liotta in Goodfellas. Kevin Costner in Dances With Wolves. William Holden in Sunset Boulevard: “Well, this is where you came in, back at that pool again, the one I always wanted. It's dawn now and they must have photographed me a thousand times. Then they got a couple of pruning hooks from the garden and fished me out... ever so gently. Funny, how gentle people get with you once you're dead.”
Here’s a generic example of how narration can carry the story but also add to the action to create humour:
John looks into Sarah’s eyes. The perfect romantic moment.
I wasn’t going to say it.
I was going to stand firm.
She had to be the one to say it first.
I love you Sarah!
But I couldn’t stop myself.
Some films overuse voice-over so that the narrator/protagonist is practically telling you the story every inch of the way. This is not ideal as it denies the audience from making their own emotional and visual attachment to the story. The narrator is telling them everything they need to know. It’s not good.
Ideally, the use of voice-over needs to be consistent. A lot of films will start off with a voice-over set up but then forget that they used the technique and the script will end without another voice-over in sight. This usually highlights the fact that the opening voice-over was for set up and exposition only, and didn’t have a valid dramatic presence. Some films get away with it but generally, especially for a spec script, you want to be consistent with a voice-over once you introduce the device to a story.
Structurally, the voice-over technique seems to work best when it’s used at the beginning, then at the transition at the end of act-one, then the midpoint of act two or the end of act two, and then during the last sequence of the final act. While this may seem like craft-by-numbers, it does work extremely well when the narration and story are properly in place. It usually strengthens or alludes to a theme or emotional resonance for the story, and the voice-over can be seen as a complimentary companion rather than an intrusive inclusion. Some scripts will start a voice-over half way through the film, or right at the end. The half way through technique rarely works while the end of the film approach can be pulled off, just about.
In scripts, voice-over is usually referred to in brackets:
It was a summer I’d never forget.
Not to be confused with Off-Screen (O/S).
I can’t hear you!
Danny comes into the room.
I said I can’t hear you.
Generally, voice-over shouldn’t be overlong or explanatory. It should play a vital role in the audience’s understanding and engagement in any given scene, and the consequent story that follows. It can be clever, witty, confessional, dark, wry, detached, whatever, but it shouldn’t be there just to plug the gaps of character or story. It should have a genuine and valid presence in relation to the style and structure of the script.
Sweeping dramas/epics are a natural home for the voice-over, as are romantic comedies. Other genres have tried with varied success, and some break all the rules but still pull off an engaging voice-over. John Dunbar’s voice-over in Dances With Wolves is long and explanatory in places but its charming simplicity and Kevin Costner's delivery makes it engaging and interesting, and the visuals are never flat or lazy during the discourse.
Voice-over does have a place and when done well, it’s terrific. It’s lazy voice-over exposition that gives the technique a bad rap, and unfortunately this is what we see/hear more and more, hence voice-over’s maligned reputation. Use it, by all means, but use it wisely.