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.
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.
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:
The Grand Budapest Hotel
A Clockwork Orange
A Scanner Darkly
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
The Big Lebowski
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Stranger Than Fiction
The Royal Tenenbaums
Blast of Silence
Which one is your favorite? Will you try to make your own film with voiceover? Let us know in the comments.