When Voice Over Works

Every writer has a different take on Voice Over, but for the most part, the usual argument goes something like this:

McKee:

God help you! It's flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of a character. You must present the internal conflicts of your character in image, in symbol. Film is a medium of movement and image.

(From Adaptation, pg 88)

In doing research for this article, I’ve come across this passage more times than I care to admit to, and every time someone uses it to tell why voice overs are the Devil’s work. When Charlie Kaufman wrote the script in 2001, I’m doubting that he knew he would spark the argument against voice overs for years to come.

The problem with this argument, however, is that the pure basis for it is wrong. 

People are using a work of fiction to describe the truth. In fact, no matter how many different ways I’ve googled “bad voice over in films”, it’s actually very difficult to find examples of it. Instead, I found the common advice to avoid it like the plague, which led to example after example of where it works. Even as I go down my list of films, I can only come up with the films where Voice Over makes a film better.

If you’ve ever actually been to one of Robert McKee’s Story workshops, then you know that the above passage is actually the opposite of what he thinks. What he actually says in his workshops, and to which this writer agrees, is that voice over is okay to use, IF (and that’s a strong IF) the story doesn’t depend on it.

Think about the VO moments that stick out in your head. Asking for examples on Facebook led me to these moments:

The Shawshank Redemption

One of my favorite films of all time. Ruined by Red’s voice over? On the contrary. Instead, when he tells me in VO that he liked Andy from the start, I immediately like Red. And when he tells me that for the first time in his life, “I hope”, I’m almost to tears with my emotional man joy.

Memento

After Leonard kills the cop Teddy, he goes on this little rant:

We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are. I’m no different. Now… where was I?

Honestly, can you get any cooler of an ending?

The Royal Tenenbaums

Royal Tenenbaum bought the house on Archer Avenue in the winter of his thirty-fifth year. Over the next decade, he and his wife had three children and then they separated.

Personally, I smile every time I hear Alec Baldwin’s voice in this film.

American Beauty

My name is Lester Burnham. This is my neighborhood. This is my street. This… is my life. I'm forty-two years old. In less than a year, I'll be dead. Of course, I don't know that yet. And in a way, I'm dead already.

Another great opening. Kevin Spacey pulls us into the middle of his suburban hell with these few lines from American Beauty.

And most recently, True Grit

People do not give it credence that a young girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood, but it did happen. I was just fourteen years of age when a coward by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band. You might say, what business was it of my father’s to meddle? My answer is this: he was trying to do that short devil a good turn. He was his brother’s keeper. Does that answer your question?

Freakin’ A it does. And now I’m ready to watch a Western.

In fact, out of the 15 or so movies sent to me with Voice Overs, only the Director’s Cut of Blade Runner was mentioned as a bad one. So where’s the argument, and what’s Charlie Kaufman’s problem with Voice Over, anyway?

To answer that question, you have to look at the Adaptation script as a whole. It’s constantly turning on itself. That passage was written by Kaufman, not McKee, and it’s not a unit unto itself. (In fact, that piece of dialogue is actually the breakaway from a Voice Over.) And to understand the context, we have to go all the way back to the beginning of the screenplay. Specifically, to page 6:

Kaufman:

It's just, I don't want to compromise by making it a Hollywood product. An orchid heist movie. Or changing the orchids into poppies and turning it into a movie about drug running. Y'know? Or cramming in sex, or car chases, or guns. Or characters learning profound life lessons. Or characters growing or characters changing or characters learning to like each other or characters overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end. Y'know? Movie shit.

So that’s the script he says he doesn’t want to write, but Adaptation actually ends with a car chase that starts on page 109. Over and over, Kaufman the character tells us the type of script he doesn’t want to write, only to have the film end up that type of script. You can’t believe a word of it. And Kaufman wrote a false version of himself into the screenplay, so why wouldn’t he write a false version of McKee? After all, it’s fiction.

In fact, the script is filled with VO, including an entire page of it at the very beginning.

Adaptation, pg 1:

Kaufman (VO):

Do I have an original thought in my head? My bald head. Maybe if I were happier my hair wouldn’t be falling out. Life is short. I need to make the most of it. Today is the first day of the rest of my life. I’m a walking cliché. I really need to go to the doctor and have my leg checked. There’s something wrong. A bump. The dentist called again. I’m way overdue. If I stop putting things off I would be happier. All I do is sit on my fat ass. If my ass wasn’t fat I would be happier. I wouldn’t have to wear these shirts with the tails out all the time. Like that’s fooling anyone. Fat ass. I should start jogging again. Five miles a day. Really do it this time. Maybe rock climbing. I need to turn my life around. What do I need to do? I need to fall in love. I need to have a girlfriend. I need to read more and prove myself. What if I learned Russian or something, or took up an instrument. I could speak Chinese. I’d be the screenwriter who speaks Chinese and plays the oboe. That would be cool. I should get my hair cut short. Stop trying to fool myself and everyone else into thinking I have a full head of hair. How pathetic is that. Just be real. Confident. Isn’t that what women are attracted to? Men don’t have to be attractive. But that’s not true. Especially these days. Almost as much pressure on men as there is on women these days. Why should I be made to feel I have to apologize for my existence? Maybe it’s my brain chemistry. Maybe that’s what’s wrong with me. Bad chemistry. All my problems and anxiety can be reduced to a chemical imbalance or some kind of misfiring synapses. I need to get help for that. But I’ll still be ugly though. Nothing’s going to change that.

So why does it work? Why, after being told that Voice Over is the call sign of lazy writing, are there so many examples that you know and love?

Well, first of all, none of these scripts were written by lazy writers. While Kaufman had Being John Malkovich under his belt, Wes Anderson has an entire genre named after him, the Coens have a list of hits dating back to Raising Arizona, and Nolan has gone on to write and direct two of the highest grossing films in history, The Dark Knight and Inception.

Secondly, and most importantly, the scripts are all complete stories without the Voice Overs.

In Adaptation, Kaufman reveals pages and pages of self-sabotage and even bases the McKee joke off of it, but is it necessary to the story of adapting The Orchid Thief? Not at all. Is it relevant? Absolutely. Is it fun writing? Definitely. We don’t need to know that Lester Burnham is going to die in a year. We see it happen. The Princess Bride would work without the Grandfather’s Narration, after all, we see Wesley and Buttercup’s adventure onscreen. And we don’t have to know why Mattie is looking for Tom Chaney at the opening of True Grit. She tells both Rooster and Labeouf through the course of the first act. But in all of these cases, Voice Over gives us that little something extra. It sets the stage. It lets us know what world we’re entering into. It gives depth. It gives character. But it doesn’t give us the film.

In reality, voice overs are a part of film, for better or for worse. The problem is that so many writers treat them as part of the story development, like the transitions that you’d find in a novel.

In all of these films, it can be easily removed from the scripts, and the stories would still be the same. Adaptation would still be an incredibly strange, but understandable film without the pages of Kaufman’s inner monologues. Memento would play itself out just fine without the Voice Over. And American Beauty would still have Lester live out the last year of his life without hearing about his wife, neighbors, and masturbating in the shower.

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t carte blanche to go write Voice Overs all over your films. As a matter of fact, IF, and that’s a big IF, you decide that it would benefit your script, it should be the last thing you write, not the first, and not even anywhere in between. The very last thing. After all of your characters are filled out. After your transitions are solidified, and after your Hero has changed, ONLY then should you even consider it. If your entire script is complete, and you feel like it needs more depth, then shuffle ahead with great caution. But if you’re writing VO because you don’t know how to show what’s happening, well, then you’re just being lazy, and maybe next time I decide to write about Voice Overs in film, I can use your script as my example of horrible writing.

Don’t be a lazy writer. Don’t ruin the possibility of Voice Over for the rest of us. Don’t bring in a Narrator to make a point when your characters can do the same thing through an action or dialogue. And in the meantime, read and watch as many films as possible to learn how to use it and when. The possibilities of VO are endless, but it’s like a drug. Just the right amount, and you could really be onto something. Too much, and you can give us a call from writer’s rehab.

I asked everyone about their examples, but I never gave mine. What’s my favorite Voice Over? Ever? This one:

The Big Lebowski

A way out west there was a fella I want to tell you about, fella by the name of Jeff Lebowski. This Lebowski, he called himself the Dude. Now, Dude, that's a name no one would self-apply where I come from. But then, there was a lot about the Dude that didn't make a whole lot of sense to me. And a lot about where he lived, like- wise. They call Los Angeles the City of Angels. I didn't find it to be that exactly, but I'll allow as there are some nice folks there. 'Course, I can't say I seen London, and I never been to France, and I ain't never seen no queen in her damn undies as the fella says. But I'll tell you what, after seeing Los Angeles and thisahere story I'm about to unfold– wal, I guess I seen somethin' ever' bit as stupefyin' as ya'd see in those other places, and in English too, so I can die with a smile on my face without feelin' like the good Lord gypped me. Now this story I'm about to unfold took place back in the early nineties– just about the time of our conflict with Sad'm and the Eye-rackies. I only mention it 'cause some- times there's a man–I won't say a hee-ro, 'cause what's a hee-ro?–but sometimes there's a man. Sometimes there's a man who, wal, he's the man for his time'n place, he fits right in there–and that's the Dude, in Los Angeles…and even if he's a lazy man, and the Dude was certainly that–quite possibly the laziest in Los Angeles …but sometimes there's a man. . . sometimes there's a man. Wal, I lost m'train of thought here. But–aw hell, I done innerduced him enough.