I’m sure you’ve all been warned. “VO’s a crutch!” “It’s lazy.” “Whatever you do, steer clear…” So why then, do so many of the movies and TV shows that we love use voice-over so successfully?
Like any stylistic device, there’s a way to use voiceover to enhance your project. And yes, it can also become a trap.
First, the pitfalls…
Voice-over is bad when it explains what we’re already seeing onscreen. For example, we see two people arguing in a scene, while the voice-over tells us, “We argued constantly.” This is one of the most common issues with VO and often occurs when the writer doesn’t trust the scene as written and feels he or she must explain what’s happening to make sure the audience is “getting it.”
Voice-over is bad when it’s generic. When it gives us no insight into the voice or perspective of the character.
Voice-over is bad when there’s too much of it. The device loses its power, becomes “white noise,” and distracts from the action. Rather than enhancing the scenes, it disrupts the flow of the narrative.
Here are some ways to successfully use voice-over.
Use the VO to reveal a character’s thoughts which are in CONTRAST to what’s happening on the screen. Just watch GOODFELLAS– this may be the best use of voice-over in a movie, ever. In one sequence, young Henry Hill wreaks destruction onscreen while talking about how he’s treated like a king in the neighborhood. This use of VO works because his comments are completely unexpected and in stark contrast to what we’re seeing onscreen. As he smashes windows and lights cars on fire, he gleefully talks about how the other kids in the neighborhood respect him, and that he makes more money than the adults. The VO flips the script on how we perceive the action, and gives us access to Henry’s specific gangster world and way of thinking.
Make sure the VO reveals a truly original and specific voice. Here’s Henry Hill in another scene, “My father was always pissed off. He was pissed that he had to work so hard. He was pissed that he made such lousy money. He was pissed that there were seven of us living in a tiny house. But after a while, he was mostly pissed that I hung around the cabstand. He said they were bums and that I was a bum. He said I was going to get into trouble. I used to say I was only running errands after school, but he knew better. He knew what went on at the cabstand and, every once in a while, usually after he got his load on, I had to take a beating. But by then, I didn’t care. No matter how many beatings I took, I wouldn’t listen to what he said. I don’t think I even heard him. The way I saw it, everybody has to take a beating some time.” See how we’re getting not just Henry’s voice but his world view, what he cares about?
Use it for a reason. Ask yourself WHY you’re using the VO. What’s your narrative strategy? Is it revealing something internal that the character can’t share with the world until the end of the film? Is it important that the story is somehow told looking back at the past? Don’t just throw in random VO. Have a narrative reason for using it.
Twist the rules around its use, or employ the VO in a new way. Recently, I wrote about the movie 20TH CENTURY WOMEN, starring Annette Bening. What I love about Mike Mills’ use of voice-over is that he joyfully breaks the rule “show don’t tell.” He stops the film, voice-over pops in and starts explaining things that happened in the past. He not only breaks the narrative flow, he uses the VO to do what every writer has been told they should never do. This is a punk rock move and ironically, makes the voice-over feel fresh.
Be judicious. Like any stylistic device, you can have too much of a good thing. Remember, cinema is a visual medium. There’s nothing worse than wall-to-wall yammering.
Take Action! If you’re using VO in your script, are you using it to create contrast with what we’re seeing onscreen? Does your voice-over reveal a unique perspective or voice? Is the voice-over deepening and enhancing what’s happening on the screen? Are you using the VO for a reason? Could you twist its conventions in a fun, interesting way?
The pitfalls of using voice-over are connected to your fear, as a writer, that the audience won’t understand what your scenes are conveying. When used inventively and bravely, and not as a bandaid, voice-over can be super effective– funny, heartbreaking, and deep.
Below is the clip from GOODFELLAS where Henry lights the cars on fire.
Sign up here for my free weekly writing tips and inspiration!