Thursday, July 13, 2006


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.

(blurting out)
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.


OnMeJack said...

What did you think of the use of voice over in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang?

Tim Clague said...

Lets just all remember 'The Wonder Years'

Danny Stack said...

Haven't seen Kiss Kiss Bang Bang yet, although I've heard good things.

Chris Parr (ukscriptwriter) said...

The Wonder Years is about the best example of how to use voice over that I can think of. I always remember having a tear in my eye during the closing scene of the final episode as the VO winds the whole story up for us.

I also love the VO of the narrator in the old Dukes of Hazzzard shows. Classic :)

James Moran said...

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang has fun with the whole concept of a narrator, I thought it worked really well.

Just remembered that Terminator 2 has a few bits of voice-over - it's not narrated all the way through, but Sarah Connor says a bit at the very start (about the machines coming to get her), then another bit in the middle ("he would die to protect John"), then again right at the end ("if a machine can learn the value of life etc"). I always forget about those, but they really are part of the whole experience.

James Moran said...

Had to go and check: once at the start, once at the desert hideout, twice at Dyson's house, then once at the end. Bizarre, it never occurred to me before that it had a voiceover, but it does...

Schmucks with Underwoods said...

"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"

Good point - what about those films that have no voice-over throughout the film then use it to tie everything together at the end! Can't remember the films but I remember thinking, hang-on, where the hell did this come from? Did I miss something here!

I enjoyed Kiss Kiss Bang Bang by the way. Check it out.

Thomas Rufer said...

Carlito's Way has a great ending voice over, very cinematic. One of the best.

And about those movies who seem to have voice over only at the end. I kinda like it a lot. It adds something. I am not sure anymore but I think "The Crying Freeman" has such an ending. I can be mistaken, since I only remember the end and the rest of the movie was action.

The Uncle said...

How about a film that's purely voice over? No spoken dialogue at all just V/O.

God knows how it would run and it would probably be rubbish.

BoughtAndPaidFool said...

I visit a few writers' blogs, and yours I like best.
Often times, I have struggled with other bloggers maligning V/O's to an extent I believed was unjustified. Your final paragraph exemplifies my feelings cap-a-pie.
Thanks you.

Personally I think V/O's standout in a good way when it's used in quirky manner. I like when Forrest Gump does the V/O describing his Vietnam days when Lt. Dan would say "Get down...Shutup!" (followed by Lt. Dan actually repeating Gump's V/O "Get down...Shutup!")
I also thought it really great and giddy in Godard's, Bande à part When the narrator's V/O describes how the character "once knew a man who walked like this..." CUT TO: CHARACTER WALKING WITH EXAGGERATED HANDICAP
Of course the V/O narration of each of the character's thoughts during the cafe dance scene was great, also.

Anyway, just really wanted to let you know how much I appreciate what you do here.

Anonymous said...

I love the Morgan Freeman voiceover in The Shawshank Redemption.

And of course, very long intro captions 'A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away etc' can give an audience a valuable running start into a movie.

Danny Stack said...

Thanks B&PF, that's what it's all about.

Anonymous said...

by far the most apectacular voice-over is that used in the Kenneth Branagh "FRANKENSTEIN".. it uses the prelude by mary shelly herself - and for a story based so strongly on the debate of morality - it doeas a superfluous job at setting it up for as as an audience.

Voice Over Talent said...

Bladerunner and The Dark City could both fall under the science-fiction-slash-noir category, however Bladerunner was more successful due to its grandiose visuals being so new at the time and The Dark City flopped due to its grandiose visuals not being such an appreciated spectacle as other films of its time plus the story failed to be engaging (most likely due to the voice-over giving away the big twist at the beginning of the film, effectively amputating its own legs it was to stand on).

Perhaps there are many films that could do with a make-over and dropping its voice-over all together. For example, I perceive How To Train Your Dragon would be ten times better without it. Another example is Kick-Ass.

((try to think of more examples later))