Last post I discussed the desirability of having strong character voice in your voice-over. Today I’m going to discuss some other aspects of writing good voice-over, and some ways I’ve seen it used badly.
Sometimes I’ll be reading a scene from a student or a script from an amateur and suddenly, without warning, there will be a single line of voice-over all by its lonesome. It’s jarring and takes me out of the flow of the scene. You’ll notice you never see this in studio features. That’s because good filmmakers know they have to set up the technique for the audience.
There are a couple ways to do this. First, like introducing a fantasy element into your story world, if you’re going to use voice-over as a consistent narrative device you want to introduce it early. In the early part of the movie the audience is figuring out what the rules of your world are, and that includes narrative devices.
Movies like Goodfellas (screenplay by Nicholas Pileggi & Martin Scorsese) or Forrest Gump (screenplay by Eric Roth) really rely on the voice-over as an integral part of their storytelling. And both use voice-over in the first few minutes and then with regularity throughout.
Even movies like Raising Arizona (written by Ethan & Joel Coen) or American Beauty (written by Alan Ball) that use voice-over more sparingly both open with it in the first sequence to acclimate the audience to it.
There are other occasions when you want voice-over but are not using it as a consistent narrative device. One would be when someone in the movie is telling a story. You might use a flashback to keep things visual. The flashback might have voice-over narration where the rest of the movie doesn’t. This works because we usually see the character start to tell the story and then dissolve into the flashback. We understand this new storytelling technique is just a temporary narrative device because it's set up by the context of the story.
A similar temporary device is one I mentioned last time: a narrated prologue to introduce the audience to the world of the movie. Examples include the first Lord of the Rings movie (screenplay by Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson) or The Mummy (story by Stephen Sommers and Lloyd Fonvielle & Kevin Jarre; screenplay by Stephen Sommers). Again, the audience understands that this is separate from the main storyline. Plus, a prologue, by definition, comes at the beginning of the movie!
When a single line of voice-over comes out of the blue in a script or scene it’s usually because the writer wanted the audience to know some piece of information and voice-over was the easiest way to convey it. Well in this case easy isn’t better; it’s lazy and jarring.
Another important rule: don’t just tell us what we’re seeing on screen. Voice-over is an inherently distancing device. If you’re going to tell me what I can see for myself then I’d rather you just shut up already. Plus, if you’re doing this, you’re wasting the potential of the narrative device.
Voice-over is particularly useful to give us a character’s point of view and/or to create irony. In the first case, if the character’s point of view is obvious from the events on screen then it’s probably not interesting. Showing Joe passed out among a pile of beer cans and having his wife say, “Joe was drunk,” in voice-over is not very enlightening. If the character illuminates the events on screen in some way then I might actually care what their perspective is.
You can also get either dramatic or comedic irony when what the voice-over says is contradictory to what the action is. If we see Joe lying in the pile of cans and his wife says, in voice-over, “Joe was the most sophisticated guy I ever met,” we have irony – and a reason for the voice-over.
Consider this scene in the script for the recent movie Zombieland (written by Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick):
EXT. CITY STREET - DAY
Rule #3 - Double Tap.
A WOMAN stands on a city street, steely-eyed, resolute, holding a pistol with two hands. We hear rapid FOOTFALLS approaching her.
Superimposed onscreen: A TITLE: 3. Double Tap
The footsteps belong to a big female ZOMBIE, who RUSHES straight AT the woman. The woman PLUGS the zombie in the chest with a bullet. The zombie FACE-PLANTS and lies motionless.
Gun still raised, the woman approaches the zombie to test with her foot whether it’s dead.
You’ve just shot a zombie. You think it’s dead, you’re trying to save bullets... unh-uh. Two more shots. One to the head makes ninety-nine percent sure. One more to the head makes a hundred. It’s known as a Double Tap.
The woman doesn’t follow Flagstaff’s advice. She NUDGES the zombie’s leg. It keeps its eyes CLOSED, like a little girl who's pretending to be asleep when her parents arrive home after a night out.
There’s no use saving for the next zombie when this one’s about to...
The woman turns away, and the zombie slyly PEEKS at her. It LUNGES and BITES VICIOUSLY into her ACHILLES TENDON.
...give you a season-ending injury.
See how the voice-over adds to the information on screen? We don’t need Flagstaff to say something like, “this woman thinks kicking the zombie will tell her if it’s really dead.” We can see that. What we do need is to understand Flagstaff’s pragmatic, organized, rule-based approach to living in a zombie infested world.
The scene is also planting this specific rule which will payoff later. The bad version would be to see Flagstaff giving the double tap as he describes it. Doing it this way allows for a greater density of information - both visual and voice-over.
And as a bonus we get character and humor.
The Zombieland scene wouldn’t be the same scene without the voice-over. And that’s actually a pretty good test…if you can cut the voice-over out of the scene or film and you don’t lose anything significant, then you probably shouldn’t have written it in the first place.