Daily Dialogue theme for next week: Voice-over narration

April 21st, 2012 by

After a week’s worth of romance courtesy of Teddy Pasternak’s suggested theme of marriage proposal, this week we go stentorian with a new theme: Voice-over Narration [courtesy of Lloyd Morgan].

There is a conventional wisdom that Hollywood types don’t like voice-over narration. Witness this scene from Adaptation:

Charlie Kaufman: [voice-over] I am pathetic, I am a loser…
Robert McKee: So what is the substance of writing?
Charlie Kaufman: [voice-over] I have failed, I am panicked. I’ve sold out, I am worthless, I… What the fuck am I doing here? What the fuck am I doing here? Fuck. It is my weakness, my ultimate lack of conviction that brings me here. Easy answers used to shortcut yourself to success. And here I am because my jump into the abysmal well – isn’t that just a risk one takes when attempting something new? I should leave here right now. I’ll start over. I need to face this project head on and…
Robert McKee: …and God help you if you use voice-over in your work, my friends. God help you. That’s flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write a voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of a character.

But the list of top movies that use it is huge including The Shawshank Redemption, Fight Club, Goodfellas, Forrest Gump, Sunset Blvd., American Beauty, Double Indemnity, A Clockwork Orange, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Apartment… you get the picture.

My theory: If your story absolutely benefits from using VN and/or you absolutely need to use it, go ahead. Just make sure you do it well.

That should be part of our task with this week’s exercise: What are examples of great VN? And perhaps some instances of not-so=good VN.

The usual drill:

* Copy/paste dialogue from IMDB Quotes or some other transcript source.

* Copy/paste the URL of an accompanying video from MovieClips or YouTube.

There were several other good suggestions for dialogue themes, so here is our upcoming schedule for the next several weeks:

April 30-May 6: Revelations [Alexander Gorelik]

May 7-May 13: First Dates [churnage]

May 14-May 20: Non-verbal ‘dialogue’ [Liz Swan]

But this week, let’s focus on voice-over narration.

14 thoughts on “Daily Dialogue theme for next week: Voice-over narration

  1. Cool picture of Don LaFontaine! In a world…

    This may be an unpopular opinion but I will submit this film as an example of voice-over gone wrong: Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona. A quick search of the script reveals ninety eight instances of voice-over. It is chock full of unnecessary, intrusive narration that adds very little, if anything, to the story. In my opinion this film would have been much better without it.

    It has some of the most beautiful actors and actresses in the world playing interesting characters in an unusual situation in one of the most visually stunning places on earth, and Allen decided to not let the film breathe at all, constantly interrupting the visuals with blunt, over-descriptive narration that ruined the experience for me. It is the opposite of visual storytelling.

    Exhibit 1:

    EXT. BARCELONA STREETS – NIGHT

    Some PEOPLE shoot off sparklers in the street.

    Vicky and Cristina walk down the street past a church.

    NARRATOR (V.O.)
    Vicky and Cristina left the art
    gallery and decided to go for
    dinner. They strolled past the
    church in the wonderful summer
    night air, while people
    celebrated…

    Vicky and Cristina walk out of frame.

    INT. RESTAURANT – NIGHT

    Vicky and Cristina sit at a table at the restaurant. There
    are plates of food in front of them.

    NARRATOR (V.O.)
    …finally winding up around
    midnight at a little restaurant.

    Over and over he uses voice-over to tell the audience exactly what the characters feel and think, and something that should never be done: narrate what we are already seeing on screen.

    Exhibit 2:

    EXT. OUTDOOR CAFE – DAY

    Cristina, Vicky and Juan Antonio sit at a table and eat
    lunch.

    NARRATOR (V.O.)
    Juan Antonio took his guests for
    lunch. They discussed art and
    romance. He was full of stories
    about Maria Elena, his ex-wife,
    whom he both criticized and
    idolized.

    Wouldn’t it have been better to hear Juan Antonio talk about his ex-wife and see the young women’s reaction? Maria Elena is an important character in the film and we get this exposition through an on-the-nose voice-over.

    Exhibit 3:

    INT. OVIEDO HOTEL/LOBBY – NIGHT

    Juan Antonio walks across the lobby with two glasses of wine.

    NARRATOR (V.O.)
    The question of sleeping together
    did not come up until that night…

    Juan Antonio puts the glasses of wine down on a coffee table
    in front of Vicky and Cristina, who sit on a sofa.

    JUAN ANTONIO
    Here you are.

    NARRATOR (V.O.)
    …and Juan Antonio was a little
    drunk.

    CRISTINA
    Thank you.

    JUAN ANTONIO
    You are very welcome. All right.

    Juan Antonio sits down.

    JUAN ANTONIO (cont’d)
    Well, now that the day is almost
    over, is it reasonable of me to ask
    you…if you would both join me in
    my room?

    Again, a sensual, quiet moment ruined by narration that dumbs down the entire scene. Let the actors act, for godssakes.

    Exhibit 4:

    EXT. LIGHTHOUSE – DAY

    A boat moves across the water near the lighthouse.
    Vicky and Cristina walk down a walkway together.

    NARRATOR (V.O.)
    After lunch, Juan Antonio took
    Vicky to see the old lighthouse at
    Avilés, which she found very
    beautiful.

    I mean seriously, was the sound guy sick that day? One line of dialogue from Vicky would have solved that problem. Even just a shot of her face admiring the scenery would have sufficed.

    Okay, I’ll stop now. I love me some Woody Allen and he has used narration to great effect before. The opening of Manhattan is one of my favorite opening scenes of all times. With Vicky Cristina Barcelona I think he failed miserably and it’s a shame because it could have been a really good film.

    I think it’s a symptom of Allen making so many films. It almost feels like a first draft of a good story. It has all the elements to make a sexy, memorable film but it just comes off as lazy and an excuse to write off another reason to go to Europe.

    1. Scott says:

      Teddy, I think this is post-worthy, so if you don’t mind, I’m going to copy/paste most if not all of this into a GITS post, tying it to the DDT so we can discuss some key questions: What makes for GOOD voice-over narration? What makes for BAD voice-over narration?

      Okay with you?

      1. Thanks for the kind words. I wish I had expressed myself a little bit differently, but if you think it’s post-worthy, go for it!

      2. Also, here is a good article on Voice-Over and Narration by the always interesting and insightful Bilge Ebiri:

        http://ebiri.blogspot.com/2012/03/narration-voiceover-and-shape-of-world.html

        Also also, I shouldn’t have said “never” narrate what we are already seeing on screen. Let’s say “it’s usually not a good idea” instead. There are always examples to be found that will prove absolutes wrong. And I’m not a firm believer in rules, anyway.

  2. And a really good one, in two parts. I’m sure there are other opinions about this, but I think this film’s a masterpiece.

    The New World (2005) Written by Terrence Malick

    http://youtu.be/g31LF6Ynjz4

    Pocahontas: Mother, where do you live? In the sky? The clouds? The sea? Show me your face. Give me a sign. We rise… we rise. Afraid of myself. A god, he seems to me. What else is life but being near you? Do they suspect? Oh, to be given to you. You to me. I will be faithful to you. True. Two no more. One. One. I am… I am.

    http://youtu.be/xGmvfowkQlc

    Pocahontas: Mother, now I know where you live.

    John Rolfe: [reading letter] “13th of April, 1616. Dear son, I write this so that someday in the future you might understand a circumstance which shall be but a far memory to you. Your dear mother, Rebecca, fell ill in our outward passage at Gravesend. She gently reminded me that all must die. ‘Tis enough, she said, that you our child, should live.'”

  3. Debbie Moon says:

    A long, long one, but a wonderful use of narration to establish a specific atmosphere and enliven exposition – the opening of The Brothers Bloom, wr/dir Rian Johnson

    Clip at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sUz0L4emNko

    Full script at http://www.imsdb.com/scripts/Brothers-Bloom,-The.html

    The narration section is long, but here’s a taster:

    1 EXT. DIRT ROAD – SUNRISE
    Dawn with her rose-red fingers rises over a dusty country road. A car chugs over the horizon.

    NARRATOR
    As far as con man stories go,
    I think I’ve heard them all.
    Of grifters, ropers, faro fixers,
    tales drawn long and tall.
    But if one bears a bookmark in
    the confidence man’s tome,
    twould be that of Penelope,
    and of the brothers Bloom.

    2 EXT. COUNTRY HOUSE – MORNING

    The car deposits two shabby boys (10 & 13) in front of a country house.

    Both in black. Each with a suitcase.

    NARRATOR
    At ten and thirteen Bloom and
    Stephen (the younger and the old)

    3 INT. KITCHEN (FLASHBACK)

    The two brothers and an oafish FOSTER FATHER sit eating breakfast.

    NARRATOR
    had been through several foster
    families.

    The FOSTER FATHER slaps Bloom upside the head. Stephen LAUNCHES across the table, tackling the dad and beating the crap out of him.

    NARRATOR (cont’d)
    Thirty eight, all told.

    4 INT. CHILD WELFARE OFFICE – DAY

    CLOSE ON – A CHILD WELFARE FILE COVER

    “Bloom” stamped on it. It opens, and dozens of reports flip by. Under the “REASON FOR RETURN OF MINORS” field we catch different entries: “BEHAVIOR INAPPROPRIATE”, “UNMANAGEABLE”, “MOLESTED CAT”, “SOLD OUR FURNITURE”, “CAUSED FLOODING”.

    NARRATOR
    Mischief moved them on in life, and
    moving kept them close.

    5 EXT. COUNTRY HOUSE PORCH

    The brothers on the porch, suitcases in hand.

    NARRATOR
    For Bloom had Stephen, Stephen
    Bloom, and both had more than
    most.

    The front door opens, and a pair of FOSTER PARENTS eye the brothers suspiciously.

  4. LloydMorgan says:

    I think my favourite use of narration is in The Assassination of Jesse James (hideously under-rated film imo) This ending monologue is so apt, so beautiful, it’s poetry. I think the narration device works particularly well in film dealing with real-life historical characters. Here it is. It’s long but oh so good.

    ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD (2007)

    NARRATOR
    He was ashamed of his persiflage, his boasting, his pretensions of courage and ruthlessness; he was sorry about his cold-bloodedness, his dispassion, his inability to express what he now believed was the case- that he truly regretted killing Jesse, that he missed the man as much as anybody and wished his murder hadn’t been necessary. Even as he circulated his saloon he knew that the smiles disappeared when he passed by. He received so many menacing letters that he could read them without any reaction except curiosity. He kept to his apartment all day, flipping over playing cards, looking at his destiny in every King and Jack. Edward O’Kelly came up from Bachelor at one P.M. on the 8th. He had no grand scheme. No strategy. No agreement with higher authorities. Nothing but a vague longing for glory, and a generalized wish for revenge against Robert Ford. Edward O’Kelly would be ordered to serve a life sentence in the Colorado Penitentiary for second degree murder. Over seven thousand signatures would eventually be gathered in a petition asking for O’Kelly’s release, and in 1902, Governor James B. Ullman would pardon the man. There would be no eulogies for Bob, no photographs of his body would be sold in sundries stores, no people would crowd the streets in the rain to see his funeral cortege, no biographies would be written about him, no children named after him, no one would ever pay twenty-five cents to stand in the rooms he grew up in. The shotgun would ignite, and Ella Mae would scream, but Robert Ford would only lay on the floor and look at the ceiling, the light going out of his eyes before he could find the right words.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9qNVGl_7awY

  5. churnage says:

    Here’s one from Stranger Than Fiction:

    Kay Eiffel: [narrating Harold's thoughts on the guitars in the shop] Unfortunately, THIS guitar said, ‘When I get back to Georgia, that woman gonna feel my pain.’ THIS one said something along the lines of, ‘Why yes, these pants ARE lycra.’ THESE said, ‘I’m very sensitive, very caring, and I have absolutely no idea how to play the guitar.’

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tfWXnLXYZvE

    PS Teddy, agree that VCB has probably the worst voice-over narration of all time.

  6. churnage says:

    The end of Life is Beautiful:

    Giosué Orefice: [narrating as an adult] This is my story. This is the sacrifice my father made. This was his gift to me.

    http://movieclips.com/zAQK-life-is-beautiful-movie-we-won/

  7. Liz Swan says:

    Shawshank Redemption – the entire movie is a master class.

    http://youtu.be/zRBl0GPBm4o

  8. Liz Swan says:

    293 INT — RED’S ROOM — DAY (1967) 293

    Red is dressed in his suit. He finishes knotting his tie, puts his hat on. His bag is by the door. He takes one last look around. Only one thing left to do. He pulls a wooden chair to the center of the room and gazes up at the ceiling beam.

    RED (V.O.)
    Get busy living or get busy dying.
    That is goddamn right.

    He steps up on the chair. It wobbles under his weight.

    294 INT — BREWSTER — RED’S DOOR — DAY (1967) 294

    The door opens. Red exits with his bag and heads down the stairs, leaving the door open. CAMERA PUSHES through, BOOMING UP to the ceiling beam which reads: “Brooks Hatlen was here.”

    A new message has been carved alongside the old: “So was Red.”

    295 INT — GREYHOUND BUS STATION — DAY (1967) 295

    TRACKING SHOT reveals a long line of people at the counter.

    RED (V.O.)
    For the second time in my life, I
    am guilty of committing a crime.

    CAMERA brings us to Red, next in line, bag by his feet.

    RED (V.O.)
    Parole violation. I doubt they’ll
    toss up any roadblocks for that.
    Not for an old crook like me.

    RED
    (steps up)
    McNary, Texas?

    296 EXT — TRAVELING SHOT — DAY (1967) 296

    A gorgeous New England landscape whizzes by, fields and trees a blur of motion. ANGLE SHIFTS to reveal a Greyhound Sceni-
    Cruiser barreling up the road, pulling abreast of us. CAMERA TRAVELS from window to window, passing faces. We finally come
    to Red gazing out at the passing landscape.

    RED (V.O.)
    I find I am so excited I can barely
    sit still or hold a thought in my
    head. I think it is the excitement
    only a free man can feel, a free
    man at the start of a long journey
    whose conclusion is uncertain…

    297 THE BUS 297

    ROARS past camera, dwindling to a mere speck on the horizon.

    RED (V.O.)
    I hope I can make it across the
    border. I hope to see my friend
    and shake his hand. I hope the
    Pacific is as blue as it has been
    in my dreams.
    (beat)
    I hope.

    298 EXT — BEACH — WIDE PANORAMIC SHOT — DAY (1967) 298

    A distant boat lies on its side in the sand like an old wreck that’s been left to rot in the sun. There’s someone out there.

    299 CLOSER ON BOAT 299

    A MAN is meticulously stripping the old paint and varnish by hand, face hidden with goggles and kerchief mask.

    Red appears b.g., a distant figure walking out across the sand, wearing his cheap suit and carrying his cheap bag.

    The man on the boat pauses. Turns slowly around. Red arrives with a smile as wide as the horizon. The other man raises his
    goggles and pulls down his mask. Andy, of course.

    ANDY
    You look like a man who knows how
    to get things.

    RED
    I’m known to locate certain things
    from time to time.

    Red shrugs off his jacket and picks up a sander. Together, they start sanding the hull as we

  9. Liz Swan says:

    Hi I wanted to post the opening of Trainspotting – Choose Life – because of the language I wasn’t sure about posting on line. Clip is well worth watching.

    Writers: Irvine Welsh (novel), John Hodge.

    Director Danny Boyle

    Star: Ewan McGregor,

    Mark “Rent-boy” Renton: [narrating]

    Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a f—— big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suit on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the f— you are on Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing f—— junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, f—– up brats you spawned to replace yourselves. Choose your future. Choose life… But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin’ else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?

  10. Liz Swan says:

    Sorry Scott missed one.

  11. Josh K-sky says:

    The first 10 pages of Jerry Maguire are a great narrated sequence, introducing us to Jerry’s character, his milieu, his initiating incident, his dilemma, and ending on “I was 35. I had started my life.”

    Script here, kinetic type video here.

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