by John Finnegan |
Voice-over narration (V.O.) in a script is often mischaracterised as bad writing because people sometimes associate voice-over with lazy exposition. If we think back to Forest Gump or more recently, The Irishman, you can see how the voice-over is very heavily used in these films in favour of in-scene storytelling techniques.
However, that doesn't mean that voice-over doesn't have a place in screenwriting. In fact, voice-over is essential in some stories for establishing the rules of the world (e.g. the opening monologue in The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring). There are places where it's appropriate and, equally, places where it's not (e.g. the original cut of Blade Runner).
For this post, I thought I would create a set of best-practice principles that a beginner screenwriter can refer to when deciding whether or not to employ this technique.
Use voice-over narration more than once
Most films that employ voice-over narration will feature it throughout the story. However, I often come across beginners who use it in the opening scene or in a few random areas where they need to bolster the story or make some information explicitly clear. It feels badly written because it feels random.
Instead, consider what the function of the voice-over is for your story. If it's being used as a framing device, then maybe use it at the beginning and end of your story. If it's to show different perspectives of a scene (like in Casino) then make sure to set up this mechanic in the first act so that it feels natural and befitting the story when it is used elsewhere in the script.
In short, think of voice-over as any other storytelling device. Just like flashbacks or any other device, if it's going to be used in act 3, it's probably going to have to be established in act 1.
If you can tell us the information in the scene, don't use narration
This point ties into the first one in that, the narration has to feel logical and essential, otherwise, your audience will reject its place in the story. The reason for this is simple; audiences like working for the story, even if it's just trying to make sense of what a character is doing and why. If you are needlessly depriving the audience of this activity, they become passive and start to disengage. At least, there's a risk of this.
Now granted, films like V.O. heavy films like Goodfellas keep your attention throughout, but that's partly because of all the other expertly crafted components of the film. However, if the film was an otherwise paint-by-numbers affair, I doubt the voice-over would be so accepted.
So, make sure that the audience has a role to play in deciphering the story. The best way to do this is to not deprive them of opportunities to make sense of what's going in a scene. Voice-over narration is one of the most common techniques used by storytellers to inadvertently rob audiences of this satisfaction. If you can tell us the information from that narration in the scene itself without voice-over, then go for it.
Make sure that the character is telling us something that isn't evident in the scene
Earlier, I referred to the opening monologue of LOTR as an example of best practice for voice-over narration. The reasons for this are two-fold:
First, it gives the viewer a wealth of information about the mythology and legend of this fantasy world in the space of five minutes. This would, otherwise, be impossible to do in a way that wouldn't alienate many audiences who might not be so hooked into the adventure.
The other reason it works is that it establishes a fairy-tale style to the overall adventure, like the way old Disney animations like Snow White or Sleeping Beauty use the 'once upon a time' technique to lure you in.
Ultimately, these are things that would not otherwise come across in the scene itself. In the end, this comes back to the idea of voice-over narration being functional and not just a crutch for the story. Use it to set the tone of the story, or use it to fill in the gaps of the scene, but don't use it to do the job of the scene itself (which for all its merits as a film, Forest Gump is extremely guilty of).
How to Format V.O.
Formatting voice-over in a script is quite simple.
Place the voice-over narration as dialogue (obvious enough).
Put it before the action in question that the voice-over is going to be accompanying. We should be able to imagine the voice-over as we're reading the action unfold in the scene.
Don't forget to indicate that it's a voice-over by putting (V.O.) next to the character's name.
See the example from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind below:
The Difference Between (V.O.) and (O.S.)
A common question but one with an easy answer.
You may see (O.S.) and wonder what that refers to. It refers to 'off-screen' and is used to describe a character speaking who isn't visible in the scene. Perhaps they are in another room or the main character hasn't seen them yet.
This differs from (V.O.) because, unlike voice-over, the dialogue is being recorded in the scene with the other actors. It's not playing over the scene.
See the example from Ex-Machina below:
In the above example, two characters are speaking in another room and they are being monitored by another. As they are talking 'off-screen', the (O.S.) is used.
You might also see (O.C.) or 'off-camera'. This is technically the same but, as a matter of practice, I avoid this because I don't like referring to the camera in my writing at all if avoidable. I prefer to use (O.S.).
Voice-over can be a great tool for bringing your audience into the story and it can also be a great tool for deceiving or manipulating your audience through unreliable narration.
Equally, it can be detrimental to the audience's pursuit of engagement and agency in the viewing experience and, with this in mind, should be used sparingly and only if it's needed. Ultimately, it should feel natural to the storytelling process.
Hopefully, this was useful. Don't forget, we have new posts daily to help you in your screenwriting journey so don't forget to subscribe for notifications here.
John Finnegan is an Executive Producer at The Script Department and a Senior Lecturer in screenwriting at Falmouth University. Find him @johnfinnegan247