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]:
Fight Club [#10]
Apocalypse Now [#35]
A Clockwork Orange [#64]
To Kill a Mockingbird [#70]
The Apartment [#98]
The Godfather [#2]
The Silence of the Lambs [#24]
The Usual Suspects [#26]
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind [#76]
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.