by Heidi Hornbacher & Carlo Cavagna
When a screenwriter asks for coaching on how to use voiceover, our kneejerk and usually best advice is: don’t. Don’t be one of those writers who resorts to voiceover or narration to explain things they haven’t effectively expressed in dialog and action. Don’t use voiceover as a crutch.
Often voiceover is an unnecessary crutch at that, simply restating things we can already see for ourselves without adding anything to the story or our experience of it, like in Netflix’s Warrior Nun. One of the most notorious examples in cinema history is Blade Runner. The studio suits were so worried the audience wouldn’t understand the movie that they forced a recalcitrant Harrison Ford to record expository voiceover after the film was complete. It’s said he read the lines intentionally badly to discourage their use. When the director’s cut removed the voiceover, the film was instantly better.
Of course, there are many brilliant examples of voiceover. When it does work, like in Trainspotting or Goodfellas, it is because it illuminates character, establishes tone, and most importantly, counterpoints what we see on screen. “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” Henry Hill (Ray Loitta) voices over a murdered body. We’re instantly hooked, and over the course of the movie, Hill’s upbeat take on mob life eventually contrasts utterly with the conclusions the audience draws. In Bridget Jones’s Diary, we witness Bridget’s inner struggle so we understand how much she’s keeping under wraps in her outer life. It helps us root for her even more. If you’re doing witty asides like in Fleabag, or devastating ones like in House of Cards, you better be sure to write in a singular, original voice. The Shawshank Redemption is a classic example of voiceover with a unique tone. Although Red’s narration is highly expository, it draws you into his world. It also helps that it’s Morgan Freeman’s voice, and that his perspective is that of a supporting character, not the inner monologue of the protagonist.
A more recent example of successful voiceover is David Fincher’s new film The Killer. Michael Fassbender plays a nameless assassin at the top of his game with a taste for The Smiths and a penchant for aliases involving 70s and 80s pop culture references. As he silently stalks his prey, he outlines his methods and his tools for staying focused and dispassionate—a formula for succeeding at his brutal profession. The first time he speaks to us, it feels like an admonition; we could never live up to his standards. Okay, we’re riveted.
Throughout the film, he repeats his tenets to us, a mantra. Each time, the repetition has a slightly different effect due to the changing landscape of his situation. As the action kicks off toward the end of act one, the narration feels like a threat; anyone could end up on his list if they’re not careful.
The thing is: the killer needs his tenets as an organizing principle for his life. As things spiral out of his control through the second act, his repetition contrasts with what we see. He’s violating his own rules and, as we see the vulnerability this creates, we can’t help but root for him. It’s a genius way of making us care for what should, by rights, be a soulless character.
By the time we’re into the pressure cooker of the third act, each time he repeats a tenet for us, we believe him less. His recitations have become rote and devoid of meaning. By the final repetition, we see the evolution of a man who has finally been able to push himself to choose differently and change his life forever. As in Nomadland, the character arc is a tiny one, but it changes everything.
In The Killer, the use of voiceover is effective because it draws us into the protagonist’s world, illuminates character, and contrasts with what we see on screen. It’s a stern flourish on a meticulous film. We found ourselves mentally rewatching each scene without the voiceover. Yes, it would still have been an effective thriller, but we doubt we would have sympathized with the character. The judicious use of voiceover brought us inside the story in a way the action alone would not have.
If you can do that, you have our permission to use voiceover. But, our first advice remains unchanged: before using voiceover, try to write better action and dialog first. Write the script without voiceover. Then, after you are sure the story structure stands on its own, you can judge whether voiceover is a helpful addition that takes your story to the next level.