Getting inside your character's head isn't easy. Voiceover can help with that. But only if you use it right, otherwise, it gets bad...really bad.
Voiceover is one of the most divisive tools in all of the screenwriting industry. When it works, we get a clear picture of a character's inner thoughts or a narrator’s version of the story. When it doesn't, the story drags and can be confusing. So how can you use voiceover the right way? And what makes good voiceovers stand out?
Today we'll go over uses of voiceover in film and television and look at some examples of the best voiceover of all time.
We'll even talk about how to use voiceover in your own screenplays.
So listen to the voice in your head and keep reading.
What's a voiceover?
A voiceover is the non-diegetic use of a character or omnipresent narrator talking over the visuals of a film or television show. This voiceover can be existential, like in Terrence Malick movies, or it can be directly related to what's happening on the screen, like in Casino. No matter which voiceover you use, you have to make sure it carries the story and doesn't over-explain what we've already seen.
When you're writing a voiceover you want to make sure the information your character shares isn't something we could glean without the voiceover. Try to focus on internal thoughts or observations that add another layer to what we're seeing. That means using it for irony usually works, but also using it to emotionally charge things as well.
Check out this voiceover example from Little Children. This movie uses voiceover from an omnipresent narrator who's not a character in the movie but provides context to what the characters each experience.
As Todd Field says in an interview with Filmmaker Magazine,
" [The idea of using narration] came immediately, and I never questioned it. I would be as dubious about doing that in the abstract as anyone, probably because as a young actor I worked in Roger Corman movies, and things like [narration] are always the earmarks for real hackwork or attempts to “fix” a film. But in this case it wasn’t that at all. Here we have this very exciting voice of a really vital artist, Tom Perrotta, and his passive observations were what originally attracted me to the book. There was no way I wanted to lose those feelings."
So if there's no way to get feelings or ideas onto the screen, consider a voiceover.
Formatting a voiceover
The way to indicate a voiceover in screenwriting is to put "(V.O.)" after a character's name. This indicates to the reader that this dialogue is only heard by the audience and not by the other characters in the scene. Check out this page from The Shawshank Redemption. It;'s indicative of great voiceover and shows you how it should look on the page.
Voiceover as a trope in Film Noir
Some genres lend themselves to voiceover more than others. Film Noir is the standout. Since Film Noir is usually plotted around a mystery or the internal thoughts of a seedy detective, it makes sense that voiceover would be used here to tell a story. Think about your favorite noir films like Sunset Boulevard.
What does its voiceover bring to the table?
This creative use of voiceover helps set the scene and subvert expectations.
Traditionally, movies like Double Indemnity use voiceover to explain plot devices and key points within the mystery.
This even works for neo-noir like Dexter.
Dexter also subverts noir voiceover. This time we get it from the villain's point of view. While this villain is also a detective, what we really need to know about is his endless bloodlust. It's hard for a character to say that stuff, it would feel expository in normal dialogue, but having it in a voiceover while we see them hunting someone is much more interesting.
Let's look at some voiceover examples from film and television shows of a different genre.
Voiceover examples in Film and Television
Let's start with the furthermost genre away from Film Noir, the thirty-minute sitcom.
Blackish employs voiceover in every episode to take you inside Dre's mind. We learn how his family deals with things and we learn his point of view on important issues.
Dre uses these lessons to talk directly to the audience, and we get visuals that not only support his thoughts but also tug at our heart. It's a great way to connect with viewers.
This idea is not new in comedy. We've seen it in Sex and the City and even in the hit show The Goldbergs. The Goldbergs uses voiceover to play off our nostalgia. Patton Oswalt's voice takes us back to 1980-something to communicate a direct vision and tell a story. It also gives parents an opportunity to explain their own history to their kids.
Another way to use narration or voiceover is inside the movie Adaptation.
Adaptation is all about capturing the neuroses and frustrations of the writer. The voiceover here expands on everything happening inside Charlie's brain. It's a window into stuff we would never know or understand. It adds layers to the story and keeps us guessing as Charlie deals with more and more stress adapting a book into a screenplay.
What's next? Check out Plot Devices to Transform your Screenplay!
Have you ever been stuck in your screenplay and been unsure of how to convey a certain bit of information to the audience? There are lots of tricks, or plot devices, that screenwriters use to transmit important facts to the viewer. We’ve all watched a movie or TV show and been annoyed when particular plot devices fail to convey the narrative. The truth is, the best plot devices are invisible. They seamlessly integrate into the story so much so that we forget they’re even there.
Today we’re going to go over some important plot devices like voiceover, montages, dream sequences, flashbacks, flashforwards, and cut-aways.
We’ll learn how to hide them in our storytelling, and what it takes for you to create the best plot devices for your movie or tv show.
Click the link and join us!