Voice-over, An Amateur Move?

by limebirdlaura

One of the things that I heard about 8 quatrillion times in various screenwriting classes was —

Unless you want to look like an amateur, do not include voice overs (V.O.) in your script.

Sure, I get it, why say things in a Β voice over when visually you can show whatever it is you’re trying to convey to your audience. Film is a visual medium after all, and what you are writing on paper must ultimately lend itself to that visual medium.

But…what if you do it and it works?

They will say still do not do it, it will be the sure mark of an amateur if you do. They will tell you it’s lazy writing, and unnecessary.

Can you imagine the movie The Shawshank Redemption without Morgan Freeman’s V.O.? The story itself would still probably be told without his narration, but it’s just so much better with it!

Here is the end of the film, so – spoiler alert, don’t watch this if you’ve not seen the movie and want to keep the ending a surprise.

The Shawshank Redemption

Just imagine this clip without Red’s (Morgan Freeman) V.O. Visually you can still see what is going on, Red packing, travelling, etc. You can put two and two together here to see what he is doing and where he is going. However, the addition of his V.O. adds so much to the story here, and to Red’s character. This is one scene that never gets old to me. I’ve seen it dozens of times and still no matter what, when Red starts whispering “I hope”, I burst into tears.

Another one of my all time favorite movies, Fight Club, is also a great example of using the V.O. well. Edward Norton plays the Narrator in this movie, who never actually gets a real name. He narrates his thoughts to us. Without them we’d still have a story, but it wouldn’t be as interesting.

Sin City is another good example of the V.O. done right.

Sin City

In this clip Mickey Rourke’s character Marv’s V.O. doesn’t take away from the story – we can still see he’s angry and hurting – but it adds to the style of the movie here. It’s very stylized and Marv’s V.O. adds to the action, rather than taking away from it or distracting us. It could have been written with Marv standing at a tombstone reciting these words – but that wouldn’t have been nearly as epic!

These are just three examples of many good uses of the V.O. in screenwriting. Take the V.O. away from any of these movies, and you’d still have a movie. The story would still be told. But add the V.O. in and you get so much more out of the movie. These are pro screenwriters using voice-overs amazingly. It doesn’t have to be the tell-tell sign of a lazy writer or an amateur. It can be done well! Sure, it really shouldn’t be done all the time because it might not work all the time, but don’t be afraid to try!

What are some of your favorite voice-overs? I know there are a lot of stinkers out there with V.O.s too…and I’m sure you will tell me in the comments. Right? Right! Right.

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30 Comments to “Voice-over, An Amateur Move?”

  1. Ohh really thought provoking post Laura, I love learning more about screen/script writing, it’s always been of interest to me. Hmm, I probably would have given ‘Fight Club’ as an example, as I like the narration in that.

    Ohhhhh what about ‘A Clockwork Orange’?

  2. Totally agree with you! V.O.s have to bring something extra to the movie rather than being a lazy way of getting in exposition, but, when done well, they can take the movie to another level.

    For me, one movie has to be “Blade Runner”. I read a few weeks ago (sorry can’t find the link!) the letter that some of the money men sent to Ridley Scott during editing. They hated a lot of it, one thing they really criticised was Deckard’s V.O. However, for me, the V.O. puts the drab futuristic setting firmly into the camp of the 40s and 50s ‘noir’ movies that often featured a hard-bitten private dick who shared his thoughts with us through V.O.

    Interestingly, the screenwriter (Hampton Fancher) pictured Robert Mitchum as Deckard and wrote his dialogue with him in mind. Robert Mitchum, of course, was one of the top ‘noir’ stars (and, seven years before, had returned to that type of role in “Farewell, My Lovely” – the re-make of 1944’s ” Murder, My Sweet”).

    • I’m so glad you mentioned Blade Runner! I spent a couple days (sporadically) looking for a good example of the Blade Runner thing with and without the VO. I’ve heard people go either way on whether they like it or not. Some find it fits the style of the film, others feel it takes away from the special moments.

  3. Oh, and before anyone says it… while the 1975 “Farewell, My Lovely” was an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s 1940 novel of the same name, I think that there were also clear links to the original 1944 film adaptation (so I feel justified in calling it a re-make πŸ˜‰ )

  4. Lolita gets my vote for voice overs used in films. Nothing to do with it being my favourite book and getting that amalgamation of wonderful writing and visuals… πŸ˜‰

    • Thanks for the comment Laura (great name by the way !!) That’s how I am with Fight Club, it’s one of my favorite books, so I feel a bit biased!

  5. Nice post, Laura. I think you hit the nail on the head when you say voice-overs “[add] to the style of [a] movie….” That’s what it’s all about, really – style. As Dennis alludes to in his comment, a V.O. can give a visual work a more precise perspective. In writing, of course, perspective is easier to tell because of voice. In film (or comics, another half-visual medium), the primary voice is not always as clear. A V.O. can quickly and easily enforce that perspective.

    One reason why I think Darabont’s choice of V.O. in The Shawshank Redemption works so well is because it’s Andy’s story, but it’s told from Red’s point of view. In the movie, the mystery of Andy’s crime remains a mystery…but Red doesn’t really care, anyway. It’s about the relationship that forms between these two men. You can’t tell the story in quite the same way without making some sort of concession for Red’s voice. And Darabont knows when to shut up Red, such as in the scene in the halfway house.

    Text in film has the same trickiness issue. When you show text on the screen, that’s lazy. But, sometimes, the immediacy required to tell a story succinctly and well necessitates the use of text. If you’re setting a scene in the White House, you can have an establishing shot of the White House, and most people will understand. Quantico is not instantly recognizable to the mass population, though, so you might need that text (or V.O.).

    Overall, I cringe when directors, writers, or editors don’t understand the value of a visual medium. But, sometimes, voice-overs and text-overs can work well.

    • Thank you so much for the comment Mayumi! That’s how I feel, it has to be adding something to work. I agree as well about the text popping up in films.

  6. I’d say those who preach the rules of writing should just relax. Your examples just blew the arguments against using V.O. out of the water, rather easily. In fact, I’d say just the mention of Shawshank should have the preachers taking back their words.
    Some things work for one script but wouldn’t sit right in another, looking ‘amateur’ is just not knowing when to use V.O. or flashbacks, another ‘faux pas’ in some people’s eyes, or even dream esquences.
    If something works, it works, end of.
    Not that you can please all of the people all of the time, of course…
    Trust your judgement.
    Jams N. Roses
    http://jamsnroses.wordpress.com/

    • Thank you Jams! I do think that a lot of times these things can be faux pas, but I just hate the blanket “DO NOT DO THIS” statements. I makes me want to go do it anyway just to say “neener neener look it can be done!”

  7. Well that’s a problem. The script I’m working on, my first and only so far, begins with a voice over. πŸ™‚

    • I wouldn’t say that’s a problem at all! I would say stick with it if you feel it’s right and that it works. You could take it out of your script and see if you still have a story and if you don’t, then maybe work some more in the script that way your V.O. is working best.

      • Oh, I probably won’t change anything at this point, but it did generate an idea for how I could make the script much more elaborate (and longer) by utilizing flashbacks to show the background that’s revealed in the voice over.

  8. Interesting post. I had a screenplay written with a court scene. The protagonist was snswering a magistrate’s questions. During the character’s answer… there was a montage of images with his VO being spoken. It wasn’t the entire film. Anyway, it never sold and I only kept it SW Guild Reigistered for 12 years. But it is the basis of my novelized version … fleshed out as an ebook. Thanks for this …. I liked your Shawshank refetence. Yes, that worked. But, too

    • Thank you Tim! I did try a V.O. once…and was told to take it out. But in my case it probably wasn’t working very well as it was so I did end up adjusting it. I do love Shawshank, I think it’s one of those magic combinations that never happen – the perfect script, the perfect director, the perfect actors, etc. Anyone other than Morgan Freeman doing Red’s V.O. may not be nearly as amazing as it is with him.

  9. I believe V.O, like anything else has its time and place. Not all movies need V.O. In screenwriting is better to show than tell and if you believe adding v.o will take it up a notch then most definitely! But if a writer just add the v.o because they feel that this is better that showing through action then think twice.

    But when you are just trying to get your foot in the door it’s better to play it safe and show the reader, director, etc that you can tell a story through action and without v.o. Chances are they’ll be more interested that way.

    Of course this is just my view. πŸ™‚

    • Thank you Eva! Now that I’ve scrolled down through the comments I think I said the exact same thing to someone above, that it has a time and place. Definitely don’t need them in all movies — well unless we end up completely mindless as a world!

  10. “I hope.” ! Defines the entire story for me, personally.

  11. Voice Over is hard as hell to pull off, but when it works, it works. The truth is that most people who use it really aren’t using it correctly and are often being lazy, which is why it’s often viewed as amateur. If your gut says you should use it, though? I say go for it.

  12. What a great post–I have seen Fight Club too many times to count and have to agree with you there. In grad school I got to take a class with director Myra Paci and one very interesting thing she did was show us a couple very different versions of her film Searching for Paradise (http://myrapaci.com/searching.html), one with a full voiceover and one with no voiceover and scenes re-filmed and altered. In that case, I felt omitting the voiceover caused the director to work harder and the film seemed stronger overall. I agree it’s case by case, but I think the voiceover can sometimes be a stand-in for the visual narrative of the film vs. enhancing it, and that’s where directors have to careful. All of this I can say having never picked up a camera myself!

    • Thank you for the comment Laurel! That is really cool that you were able to look at the film in both versions. I don’t know if it’s the lateness of the hour (2:40 am here) But I’m trying so hard to think of a V.O. that just really stinks up the whole film and I can’t do it! I do totally agree though it’s not for all films at all.

      • LOL, at 2:40 a.m. might be the best time to find a rerun of a film with a bad voiceover on cable networks. The ones with the bad voiceovers are the ones we don’t remember–that makes the point pretty well!

  13. I was also going to say Blade Runner, it’s one of my old favorites. I like a good voice over, and find them really helpful sometimes! Directors don’t always communicate their vision very well.

    • I love your comment Neeks that directors dont’ always communicate their vision well — it’s a very sad but true statement about some of the directors out there.

  14. Adaptation is one of the films where I remember the voice over best.
    Especially because the protagonist mentions that voice over is a bad thing in films πŸ™‚

  15. I know what you mean, we were told the same thing when doing this on my creative writing course. The V.O. on Shawshank is perfect and there are many, many examples where, when done right, the V.O. works. Daft to say never.

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