Series on voice-over narration and flashbacks

February 19th, 2013 by

So we all know the conventional wisdom is both voice-over narration and flashbacks are no-nos in screenplays. Indeed the Robert McKee character in the movie Adaptation flat-out states:

God help you! It’s flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of a character.

Similarly screenwriting ‘guru’ Michael Hague expresses the common negative opinion of flashbacks in a response to one of his columns here.

And yet check out this list of movies [their IMDB ranking in parenthesis]:

VOICE-OVER NARRATION

Fight Club [#10]
Goodfellas [#15]
Apocalypse Now [#35]
A Clockwork Orange [#64]
To Kill a Mockingbird [#70]
The Apartment [#98]

FLASHBACKS

The Godfather [#2]
Inception [#14]
The Silence of the Lambs [#24]
Casablanca [#25]
The Usual Suspects [#26]
Memento [#33]
Gladiator [#63]
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind [#76]
Rashomon [#91]

VOICE-OVER NARRATION AND FLASHBACKS

The Shawshank Redemption [#1]
Forrest Gump [#18]
It’s a Wonderful Life [#30]
Sunset Blvd. [#32]
Citizen Kane [#46]
American Beauty [#54]
Double Indemnity [#57]

That’s just me scanning through the top 100 movies, I probably missed some. Even if I did, this is a list of over 20 notable movies that used either or both of this supposedly unworthy pair.

I take this to mean the problem isn’t with the narrative devices themselves, it’s with how writers use them.

My guess is if we asked people who read scripts professionally for a living, they would roll their eyes and grab their stomachs at the mere mention of voice-over narration and flashbacks. Why? Because they have seen them used poorly over and over and over again. Yes, it’s true, both can come off badly on the page. I’ve seen it with my own eyes as well.

Yet the fact remains some of the greatest movies of all time use these narrative devices. Does it mean simply because a lot of aspiring or novice writers use voice-over narration or flashbacks poorly, that precludes us from employing them in our stories, particularly if that’s what the story absolutely dictates?

That would be most unfortunate.

Therefore here’s what I propose. Let’s come up with five examples of movies that use voice-over narration well. Plus five examples of movies that use flashbacks effectively. Then next week and the following, go analyze each of those movies day by day [Monday through Friday] to determine why the voice-over narration and flashbacks work within the context of each story.

Our goal: Come up with a list of tips, even guidelines to help steer us in using voice-over narration and flashbacks.

By the way, let’s get our terminology straight. Here’s a starting point [I grabbed them from online dictionaries]. Feel free to offer your definition of either or both:

Flashback: A device in the narrative of a motion picture, novel, etc., by which an event or scene taking place before the present time in the narrative is inserted into the chronological structure of the work.

Voiceover Narration: Where one hears a voice (sometimes that of the main character) narrating events that are occurring.

So the questions on the table:

What are some great movie examples of voice-over narration?

What are some great movie examples of flashbacks?

Let’s try to figure this thing out.

26 thoughts on “Series on voice-over narration and flashbacks

  1. Great movie with voice-over – Gattaca.

    1. Scott says:

      Good suggestion, Anthony.

  2. I liked how Wreck It Ralph did the voice-over fakey move in the beginning.

    1. Scott says:

      Missed this movie. It’s out on VOD now, yes? Will have to check it out. Hear good things about it.

  3. Moskevyu says:

    I thought ‘Stand By Me’ is a great example.

    I’m not a fan of VO a tool, but only because it’s overused. I think people who use it assume the audience can’t figure things out. Depending on what you’re doing, it’s good to be a little mysterious. Let people think things though on their own.

    1. Erica R Maier says:

      I second this one. Great example.

    2. Scott says:

      It’s been years since I’ve seen this movie. Did it use VO throughout? I remember the ending vividly where the writer is tying up loose ends, typing at his computer, and we hear his words.

      1. Erica R Maier says:

        Yes, VO was used throughout. It’s done so well. And the ending never fails to move me …

  4. Moskevyu says:

    Pardon my skipped keys. I’m not a fan of VO as a tool.

  5. Alan D. says:

    The first “Saw” and some of its sequels used flashbacks well. As the series grew tired (and Jigsaw was killed off), they were less effective, but the first three definitely used the dynamic well to build suspense and reveal story.

    Not only were viewers looking for clues, but the random victims were given a backstory to make viewers care about their life or death.

    1. Scott says:

      I only saw the first “Saw” [pun intended] and yes, it did use flashbacks pretty extensively as I recall. Good suggestion.

  6. Descendants. And it has nothing to do with George Clooney’s voice. Well, almost nothing.

    1. Scott says:

      Ha! I was going to say the same thing about Shawshank with Morgan Freeman’s V.O. Could listen to him all day read the phone book, right?

  7. For good voice-over usage I would submit Badlands. There’s a love/hate thing going on with Terrence Malick’s use of VO in his films, but this being his first it is a fairly straight-forward narrative and not the poetic prose by multiple characters that he uses in his later films.

    The great thing about Holly’s VO is that we get a real glimpse into her mind so to understand why she would go along with Kit on his destructive journey. But it’s not exactly what she says but how she says it that matters. Her narration is that of a naive 15-year old girl with a crush and is written almost in the style of entries in a diary.

    1. Jon DeYoung says:

      What do people think of Days of Heaven? For some reason it reminded me of To Kill A Mockingbird, maybe just the age of the girl. I haven’t seen Badlands yet.

  8. One of the best uses of flashback I’ve ever seen was in The Debt, with Jessica Chastain and Helen Mirren playing the same character thirty years apart.

    1. Marky1973 says:

      I think Voiceovers and Flashbacks are like a lot of tools that we are recommended not to use – I’ve read similar advice about dream sequences for example – but as long as they are instrumental to move the story forward they can work.

      Problems occur when they are used unnecessarily, as in the original version of Blade Runner, they can seemingly suggest the audience is stupid and needs guiding through the story…and that can be a turn off.

      As well as the examples above, I think the voiceovers in Dogville and Manderlay work well, despite being frequent and quite detailed, simply because they are adding to the story and giving us further insight into the thoughts of the characters, in between some tense and, sometimes shocking scenes. Although this flies in the face of “show don’t tell”, I guess the rules are there for breaking, and you can probably get away with it if you are Lars von Trier.

      So if used carefully to support the story, I think they can be really useful and would not be put off using them myself. But it is probably a fine line between using them effectively and relying on them as a crutch to tell you story for you.

      The same can probably be said about flashbacks. One of the best examples I can think of is in Ratatouille when Ego tastes his meal – there is so much emotion and back story in that few seconds, that I don’t think there would have been a more effective way to say so much about Ego’s character.

      All in my humble opinion of course.

    2. Scott says:

      Badlands and The Debt are both good examples, Teddy. Have enough people seen the movies for a series of this type? Or maybe this will be precisely the motivation they need to watch the films. Also I wonder if either/both of these have scripts available online, one way to get around the issue.

      1. The Debt script is available for legal download here: http://www.focusawards2011.com/workspace/the-debt-screenplay.pdf – Thanks, Focus Features!

        The Badlands script can be found as a txt file in various places: http://www.dailyscript.com/scripts/Badlands.txt – The PDF is a bit harder to find… but not impossible.

        Yeah, The Debt was not a huge hit, unfortunately, so I don’t know if enough people have seen it. I thought it was really good. It might be an extreme example of flashback usage, though, since about half of the movie is told in the past and the other half in the present. But the way the story seamlessly moves back and forth from one decade to the other is superb and how the plot unfolds is dependent on that particular narrative structure.

  9. Marky1973 says:

    Now I think I have got the hang of posting in the right place, I’ll try again….sorry new user and it is late!

    I think Voiceovers and Flashbacks are like a lot of tools that we are recommended not to use – I’ve read similar advice about dream sequences for example – but as long as they are instrumental to move the story forward they can work.

    Problems occur when they are used unnecessarily, as in the original version of Blade Runner, they can seemingly suggest the audience is stupid and needs guiding through the story…and that can be a turn off.

    As well as the examples above, I think the voiceovers in Dogville and Manderlay work well, despite being frequent and quite detailed, simply because they are adding to the story and giving us further insight into the thoughts of the characters, in between some tense and, sometimes shocking scenes. Although this flies in the face of “show don’t tell”, I guess the rules are there for breaking, and you can probably get away with it if you are Lars von Trier.

    So if used carefully to support the story, I think they can be really useful and would not be put off using them myself. But it is probably a fine line between using them effectively and relying on them as a crutch to tell you story for you.

    The same can probably be said about flashbacks. One of the best examples I can think of is in Ratatouille when Ego tastes his meal – there is so much emotion and back story in that few seconds, that I don’t think there would have been a more effective way to say so much about Ego’s character.

    All in my humble opinion of course.

    1. Scott says:

      Marky, we’re in the same ballpark on this issue. My concern is that some writers, especially those who do not have much contact with Hollywood, but do with various screenwriting teachers / gurus / ‘authorities’ may be dissuaded from using V.O. narration or flashbacks even when their story would BENEFIT from it.

      Hence this series: Let’s see if we can find out some keys to using them WELL. Certainly don’t want to inundate pro script readers with yet more scripts with badly written voice-over narration and flashbacks. But if writers can use the devices effectively, that seems like a win-win.

      Thanks for your comments!

      1. Mark Walker says:

        Being in the UK, I am one of those writers with little (or no) access to Hollywood and my “learning” has come mostly from those screenwriting books; and it is sometimes difficult to apply from their teachings rationally. When one prominent author tells you that, under no circumstances, should you open a screenplay with a flashback or a dream, you tend to believe them as they are the expert and I am the novice.

        Then, at a screenwriting seminar, I was told that all screenwriting texts are rubbish and we should ignore them all!

        From one extreme to the other! It is hard work finding the middle ground.

        My third project started with a dream, which also happened to be a flashback. And it was just after writing it that I read the advice about how that was an awful thing to do had a little crisis of confidence.

        So I am trying to find the middle ground, and it is websites like this that help you put it all in a bit of context – i.e. real advice from real screen writers.

        So, is my dream flashback instrumental to the story? Does it tell us something about our protagonist? Does the story wrap around and refer to it later and at the resolution? YES to all the above….and that is when, in my opinion, it works. If it was just there as a cheap gimmick so that Bobby Ewing can step out of the shower, then you are losing the audience immediately…make it work for you, your story and your protagonist and then, I think, you are onto a good thing….providing the other 100 pages are just as good!

        Sorry, feel like I have been on my soapbox for a minute or two.

        So, on a lighter note, I also like the use of the flashback in 12 Monkeys, which really shows how they can move a plot along…..or were they flash forwards? :-)

  10. It’s so funny that this topic came up today. At my writers’ group meeting last night, I confessed that I was writing a script with voiceover AND flashbacks. The horror, the horror!

    Anyway, my suggestion (which uses both) is Big Fish.

  11. ShahnazIrani says:

    I can’t imagine my favorite movie “Taxi Driver” still being my favorite movie without the VO narration. Travis’ narration illuminates the fragility of his mental state that his actions alone cannot. I don’t feel VO or FLASHBACKs are lazy storytelling if it enhances our experience. If you’re a skilled enough writer to use it properly, then use it. If you’re using it as a shortcut, then please stay far away from it.

  12. Beginners had a good voice-over.

  13. kidsis says:

    The Opposite of Sex. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.

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