- The Robert McKee character in Adaptation.
The irony does not elude me, that I, the leading proponent of the Visual Mindscape of the Screenplay, should be stomping my feet in regards to the right of writers to use voice-overs. The voice-over is one of those writing/storytelling tools that have been relegated to the ‘never use’ pile of dictums. Some say it is insulting to the audience or that it is all about ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’ and that is a sign of laziness.
And that is true when it is used for the wrong reason. It should never be a substitution for revealing the story, but rather it should augment what we see on the screen and support or in some cases totally contradict the image.
There are a number of ways the voice-over can enhance your story. In the case of Shawshank Redemption and Million Dollar Baby, the main characters are unwilling to share their inner journey with us, so it is revealed through the narrative of someone close to them. Red tells us the story of Andy in The Shawshank Redemption, and at the end of Million Dollar Baby we discover that the voice-over is actually a letter that Scrap has written to Frank’s daughter in an attempt to offer her clarity into who her father is. Both Red and Scrap offer us a way into the inner world of these two men.
In the case of the characters in American Beauty, Sunset Blvd and The Sixth Sense, the character is unable to fully reveal their circumstances without using the voice-over. Sometimes it is the character in search of him/herself. They ask the unspoken questions. An example of this is Ben in Leaving Las Vegas. The voice-over doesn’t advance the story, but it gives us insight on how an alcoholic deals with the world around him.
One of my favorite use of voice-over is when it misdirects the audience either by revealing the truth behind the lie or exposing the lie behind the truth. One of the greatest examples of this is in The Usual Suspects where Roger Verbal takes us down a path of deceit that we don’t unravel until the very end of the story. Another example of this exists in the screenplay A Quiet and Peaceable Man, by one of my writers, Laura Beard. I think what she does here is an utterly brilliant use of the voice-over running in counterpoint with the image on the screen.
The year is 1930. A woman who is the wife of a man who was brutally murdered is on the witness stand. The prosecutor begins to ask her questions about the evening of the murder: “When did your husband arrive home?’ ‘What did you do after dinner?’ etc. As he asks these questions, we shift from the courtroom to relive that evening. Her answers are now in voice-over and mirror what we see on the screen. Then something very interesting happens. The prosecutor asks her whether she or her husband retired first for the evening. She answers that she did, but the visual tells us that this is not true. From this point through to the end of her testimony the visual story veers off until we see her letting the killer into the house and him going into the bedroom.
Another great use of voice-over is in the offering of prose as support, irony, insight or counterpoint to the story. A great example of this is in Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hearafter where he uses the narration by Sarah Poley of “The Pied Piper of Hamelin.” It serves in contraposition to the brutality that unfolds, making it almost palatable to watch.
In Apocalypse Now, the opening lines are depicting and enduring. “Everyone gets everything he wants. I wanted a mission, and for my sins, they gave me one.”
Terrence Malick is a master of voice-over using it to great effect in films such as Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, Tree of Life and Badlands. Malick uses voice-over to capture the thoughts of Holly Sargis played by Sissy Spacek in the film Badlands. Holly has found herself involved in a murder spree with her boyfriend. Her inner moments shared with us in voice-over offer great insight into her state of mind:
"At this moment, I didn’t feel shame or fear but just kind of blah, like when you’re sitting there and all the water’s run out of the bathtub.”
“He needed me now more than ever, but something had come between us. I’d stopped even paying attention to him. Instead I sat in the car and read a map and spelled out entire sentences with my tongue on the roof of my mouth where nobody could read them.”
There really is no argument that, when used properly, voice-overs are a very powerful tool in your writing toolkit. If you use them carefully, magic can emerge. Here are a few films where the voice-over was critical:
The Shawshank Redemption
The Usual Suspects
The Postman Always Rings Twice