FRIDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

VOICE OVER


I like the sequel to SIN CITY... and you may have noticed that the original SIN CITY has voice over narration. It fits the film's pulpy roots - the old Film Noirs of the 1940s and Roman Noirs of the 1930s and 1940s. Tough guy stuff. But wait - isn't Voice Over Narration one of the two big no-nos in screenwriting? Shouldn't someone from the Film Police take Robert Rodriguez out and shoot him? Shouldn't he at least be kicked out of Hollywood (or Austin)?

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The reason why everyone says "Never use flashbacks or voice over narration" is that most of the time they are used wrong. 95% of the scripts they read with flashbacks and voice over narration suck because the writer used both techniques to plug plot holes with a big chunk of verbal or visual exposition. The problem is, some of the greatest movies ever made have voice over - what would SUNSET BLVD be like without that "typical monkey funeral" narration?

One of my all time favorite undiscover flicks, PULP starring Michael Caine, uses voice over narration. It's about a novelist who writes tough guy action books, who takes a job writing the memoirs of a real mobster... and the narration is pure tough guy pulp - all of the cliches. What makes the film funny is that the tough guy narration is at counterpoint to the reality of the wimpy novelist. Like every other bookworm, he's not exactly an action hero. Often the narration describes him beating the heck out of the bad guys, while the picture shows the bad guys beating the heck out of the hero! And that's where the much of film's humor comes from. To remove the narration would remove much of the humor and kill the film! The story would still work, it just wouldn't be *funny*. The resulting film would be a semi-serious movie about a writer who gets in over his head with the mob... and a mob hit man - the late, great Al Letari dressed as a nun - is tracking him down.

So - is voice over a good thing or a bad thing? If Billy Wilder can use it in classics like SUNSET BLVD and DOUBLE INDEMNITY, why can't the rest of us? Is it something that only working pros can use? Or must we give up our DGA & WGA cards and move to Texas if we want to use VO narration?

It's much easier for some Screenwriting Guru to say "Never use voice over narration" than it is to explain WHY you shouldn't use voice over in most cases but SHOULD use voice over in other cases. This is complicated, may be difficult to understand at first, but here goes:

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1) Voice Over and Flash Backs are STYLES - that is, they don't just pop up here and there in the story. The entire story uses flashbacks or voice over. SUNSET BLVD is a narrated movie - the whole thing has a voice over. Same with Don Roos' darkly funny THE OPPOSITE OF SEX. The voice over doesn't just pop up in the middle of the film. Look at any of those great films that use voice over narration and you'll note that the *whole film* is narrated. One of the indicators that VO is being used to plug a plot hole is when it only pops up here and there - right where the plot holes are. Hmm, that's kind of suspicious! If you find yourself only needing the narration here and there, you are probably using it for evil rather than good and you should probably just get rid of it. Are there exceptions? see #6!

2) Voice Over isn't used to tell the story, it's used to comment on the story already being told through actions and dialogue. Remember, film is a *visual* medium. That doesn't mean dialogue is unimportant. But if you aren't using the picture part to tell the story, you're wasting film. You don't want a big chunk of narrative exposition telling your story, you want the audience to *experience* your story through what the characters SAY and DO. If the narration is telling us the story, what makes it a movie? Why don't you just stand in front of an audience and *read* the narration? Skip the whole film thing. Moving pictures are stories told through *moving pictures*. Don't tell us with the narration, show us - let us see and hear what happens.

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3) You should be able to remove Voice Over Narration and the entire script still makes perfect sense. We still understand every character's motivations, we still understand the connections and relationships between characters, we still understand what happens. The script doesn't *need* the voice over narration - you aren't using it as a crutch or to cover up story problems. Narration is often mis-used as a way to get inside a character's head - it's thought balloons. The problem with using narration to get inside a character's head is that it isn't *visceral* - it's intellectual. Words have to be processed by the audience - we have to convert the words into feelings. They aren't actual feelings. If I show you a man kicking a puppy, *you* create the feelings yourself. *You* experience the feelings. No processiong required. So you want to find ways to convert thoughts and feelings into *experiences* rather than just have the character tell you about them. Make the story FIRST HAND instead of something related verbally. You want to make sure you are using the narration for the right reasons. If you're using narration to hide lazy writing, you're better off just getting rid of it. If you *can't* get rid of the narration and still have a script that works, your script doesn't work... fix the danged script!

4) Voice over is never used to plug plot holes... One of the reasons why Voice Over Narration has a bad name is that it's often used to "fix" screwed up films. When they used to have a film where the story didn't make any sense, or they had to chop a half hour out of the middle of he story for running time, or the film had some other big problem; the studio would try to fix it with narration. They were plugging holes. So Voice Over Narration became one of those signs thaat a movie sucked, along with no critic screenings and the words "Starring Ben Affleck". Though so many *great* films use narration, there are probably many many more bad ones that do. So when a producer sees narration in your script they may worry the narration might be seen as a negative. Why buy a script with a negative element?

5) Voice Over adds an ADDITIONAL LAYER to the story. Think of it as the icing on the cake. It's not the cake. You can eat the cake without the icing, but it's even better *with* the icing.

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The TV show BURN NOTICE is a good example - you could strip away all of the voice over and still have a great show. If you have never seen it, the series is a variation on the private eye show, but instead of a PI we have ex-spy Michael Weston (Jeffrey Donovan) who has been "burned" by his agency: his identity erased, his credit history erased, his credit *cards* and bank accounts gone... along with his passport and birth certificate. He can not get a job or drive a car or leave the country or do anything that requires him to have an identity. He is stuck in Miami, Florida... so he rents himself out to people who need problems solved but don't want to go to the police, as he tries to find out who burned him and why. The "B Story" in every episode has Weston finding some clue to who burned him, and the "A Story" has someone in trouble coming to him for help, and he had his two friends - Hard-as-nails sniper / ex-girlfriend Fiona (the always hot Gabrielle Anwar) and Boozy ex-military guy Sam Axe (the always funny Bruce Campbell) - and sometimes his retired mom (the ultra-mom-like Sharon Gless) help them out.

The show would work perfectly without voice over, because the VO is the icing on the cake - in this case, footnotes. So the dialogue might be Weston saying, "Let me get a gun" and the visual might be him opening a drawer with 5 guns inside, grabbing one and shoving it in his pocket... But the VO gives us the technical details - the footnotes - on the gun. Make, model, stopping power, range of accuracy, muzzle velocity, and anything else that makes us feel like insiders in Weston's world. We don't just get the story, we get the detailed footnotes that are cool to know, but not really required. You could read a whole book and ignore all of the footnotes - most people do. So the VO on the show is not required... not the cake, but the sweet icing that makes the show unique and really cool.

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6) Voice Over is often used with book ended stories - where we begin after the story is over and flash back to the story in progress. AMERICAN BEAUTY does this very well. Again - you could remove the Voice Over from AMERICAN BEAUTY and the story would still make perfect sense.. We just wouldn't have Lester's funny commentary on the story.

Same thing with PULP: we'd still get the whole story of novelist Michael Caine writing a gangster's tell-all biography and meeting up with other mosbeters who would rather he not *tell all*, but we'd miss the comedy that comes from the contrast between the tough guy Caine imagines himself as, and the wimpy writer he really is. SUNSET BLVD would work perfectly... but we wouldn't get William Holden's sarcastic commentary on the film biz. That commentary is an additional layer - it's icing on the cake.


7) Your Voice Over better be damned funny... who wants a cake spoiled by crappy icing? If the Voice Over doesn't make an already great script even better, it's best to just leave it out. If the narration isn't making a great story even better, it's just taking up space, isn't it? Because Voice Over is never REQUIRED TO TELL THE STORY a Voice Over that doesn't really kick ass is adding weakness to a perfectly good story. It will drag your whole script down! So make sure your narration *rocks*! Make sure it's as good as Billy Wilder's narration in SUNSET BLVD. If it isn't as good as Wilder's - get rid of it!

Voice Over Narration isn't evil. It can be used by new screenwriters as well as old pros. The problem is, narration can be used for good or for evil. Using it the wrong way makes your script suck really bad - and we don't want that. So use it with caution. Make sure you are using voice over narration for the right reasons - to add that additional layer to your script. Don't give in to the dark side!



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