voice over narration actor

Voice-over Narration and Why People Hate It

Voiceover narration has always stirred up controversy in the screenwriting world. Many screenwriters, script readers, and other Hollywood experts seem to hate it and call it lazy writing. But if voiceover is such a no-no for aspiring writers, then why do so many good movies use it? To get to the bottom of the voice-over narration debate, we took a look into what voice-over does for a story and how it can drive your film’s plot.

voiceover narration

Why voiceover is controversial

Whenever screenwriters claim that there’s some kind of absolute rule in screenwriting, people across the internet pick up their pitchforks. Surely there can’t be a rule other than “write an interesting script,” they think. They figure that such an “expert” must be a hack who hasn’t ever seen Apocalypse Now!

Taylor Sheridan, who wrote Sicario, Wind River, and Hell or High Water, says that when he started studying screenplays, he realized shouldn’t be guided by an arbitrary rulebook.

“I just realized that nobody knows what they’re doing. Our business says, ‘Give me the script that checks all the boxes,’ but the films that resonate usually don’t do that,” he told Vulture. “Think about GoodFellas: It could be a textbook on how not to write a screenplay. It leans on voice-over at the beginning, then abandons it for a while, then the character just talks right into the camera at the end. That structure is so unusual that you don’t have any sense of what’s going to happen next. And to me, that’s the goal of a screenwriter: to allow audiences into a world where they can’t predict what’s going to happen.”

Maybe people have grown tired of voiceover because so many terrible scripts and films use it poorly. It’s also hard to argue that any particular story or movie requires voiceover. “Show, don’t tell” is an old writing adage that will prove useful for any aspiring screenwriter.

Why have a character tell us about what’s happening in voiceover when you should SHOW us what’s happening with visually interesting shots and action sequences? You also don’t want to slow down the pace of your story with too much voiceover. You want voiceover to feel natural and seamless in your scenes.

Also, avoid using voiceover solely for exposition. You should be able to weave your story into dialogue, plot points, and visuals. You might not need the voiceover and be using it as a crutch. Be honest with yourself! Make sure you can justify why you’re making this controversial screenwriting choice.

Finally, if multiple people read your script and tell you they don’t like the voiceover, it might not be because they’re inflexible voiceover haters. Maybe it just isn’t working in your particular screenplay.

voice over narration

When voiceover is appropriate

Think of voiceover as more than just a person telling us the story or giving us their specific opinion. It can be a complex stylistic element that helps create the tone and atmosphere of your film. It can also provide a perspective that the character isn’t free to share in front of other characters; perhaps they are confiding in the viewer.

Alternatively, the character could be commenting on the story in the future, providing some distance, and demonstrating how much they have grown over the course of the story. This style of voiceover is often linked to the film’s theme since a character might suggest a message, lesson learned, plot connection, or insight about the film.

Finally, voiceover might also add some humor or irony if what we’re seeing on screen is at odds with what the narrator is telling us (the show Arrested Development is a masterful example of this style of voiceover).

Be creative with how you use voiceover. It doesn’t have to be spoken by the main character. For example, a minor character or perhaps a supernatural character we never meet could provide an unexpected point of view.

Some great movies that use voiceover

If you’re a fan of voiceover, you’re certainly not alone. The following classics and modern hits all employ voiceover:

Apocalypse Now

Adaptation

Oblivion

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Memento

Carlito’s Way

A Clockwork Orange

A Scanner Darkly

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

The Big Lebowski

Sunset Boulevard

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Fight Club

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Stranger Than Fiction

The Royal Tenenbaums

Trainspotting

Blast of Silence

Raising Arizona

Which one is your favorite? Will you try to make your own film with voiceover? Let us know in the comments.

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Amanda

Amanda Pendolino is a Los Angeles-based screenwriter and script analyst who reads for studios, producers, and distributors around the globe. A former talent agency assistant, she has collaborated on both TV and film projects with various producers, directors, and actors. She enjoys silly comedies, stuffy period pieces, travel, live music, yoga and ice cream.

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2 Comments

  1. First off I would like to say great blog! I had a quick question which I’d
    like to ask if you don’t mind. I was curious to find out how you
    center yourself and clear your head prior to writing. I have had a difficult time clearing my thoughts in getting my thoughts out.

    I truly do enjoy writing however it just seems like the first 10 to 15
    minutes are wasted just trying to figure out how
    to begin. Any suggestions or tips? Many thanks!

  2. I am a a believer in voice-over but not always, it can be a good way to get across story points especially if there is a jump cut in time. Also can be a good way to introduce characters without taking too much story time. VO I think can be effective if it’s not too excessive. All the films that were cited here have good VO and it, personally “Apocalypse Now” was my favorite, common Martin Sheen doing VO is about as good as it gets.