Studies in voice-over narration: “The Shawshank Redemption”

February 25th, 2013 by

I set this discussion into motion here and here. To wit: Hollywood conventional wisdom is that voice-over narration and flashbacks are a no-no, yet some of the greatest movies ever produced use these narrative devices including Fight Club, Goodfellas, The Silence of the Lambs, and Rashomon.

My conclusion: Voice-over narration and flashbacks are not inherently bad, rather they are tainted by how poorly they get executed by inexperienced writers.

Goal: Find five movies in which each is used well, then analyze those movies to come up with – hopefully – guidelines on how best to handle this pair of narrative devices.

Today the first of five movies using voice-over narration: The Shawshank Redemption. Here are some examples from the film:

This scene spotlights one obvious capability of voice-over narration, enabling the viewer to go ‘inside’ the experience of a character. Some may decry this as “flaccid, flabby writing” as Robert McKee’s character did in Adaptation. And it’s ironic in the context of this discussion that Red’s V.O. in this scene includes these comments [emphasis added]:

            RED (V.O.)
I have no idea to this day what
them two Italian ladies were
singin' about. Truth is, I don't
want to know. Some things are best
left unsaid. I like to think they
were singin' about something so
beautiful it can't be expressed in
words, and makes your heart ache
because of it.

And yet, here Red is, not leaving things unsaid and expressing his feelings in words [read: voiceover]:

            RED (V.O.)
I tell you, those voices soared.
Higher and farther than anybody in
a gray place dares to dream. It was
like some beautiful bird flapped
into our drab little cage and made
these walls dissolve away...and for
the briefest of moments -- every
last man at Shawshank felt free.

So here’s a question: Would this scene have worked if there had been no voiceover? Maybe the characters express those feelings in dialogue. But then would criminals be able to get in touch with and articulate these sentiments, let alone have the courage to convey them to other convicts? No, I think the only way to get at these deeply interior feelings — and critically Red’s feelings — is through V.O. narration.

Here’s another example wherein Red narrates Andy’s escape from prison:

Again would this sequence work without the V.O.? Plus it serves as a microcosm for one big fat reason why – in my view – Shawshank had to use Red as a narrator: To handle the passage of time. All those time ellipses covering a 20 year span smoothed over by Red’s V.O.

Here’s a third example, one in which we hear Andy in V.O., the reading of Andy’s letter:

Would the scene have worked just reading Andy’s words? Or the usually awkward moment where the reader reads the words aloud, especially if they are by themselves? Moreover consider the power of Andy’s voice with these words:

            ANDY (V.O.)
Remember, Red. Hope is a good
thing, maybe the best of things,
and no good thing ever dies. I will
be hoping that this letter finds
you, and finds you well. Your
friend. Andy.

Hope. It’s the most central theme of the story. It’s the flickering flame inside Red’s soul that Andy has been fanning to keep alive for two decades in prison. And like a baton, Red picks up the V.O. as he packs his suitcase and leaves the very same room Brooks and he had occupied:

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

Brooks chose one path: dying. Red chooses another: living. Then the whole V.O. thread completed when Red arrives on the beach in Mexico and we hear his final words in the movie:

            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.
I hope.

Again — hope. This is flabby writing? Flaccid writing? No, it’s artful writing. And I defy anyone to imagine how any of these scenes could have been crafted better without voice-over narration.

So what can we learn from the use of voice-over narration in The Shawshank Redemption? I will start it off with the obvious point I alluded to above: For some types of movies that involve multiple time jumps, this device can help create a smooth narrative flow. See also Forrest Gump.

What else? Please think about it and meet me in comments with your observations.

Comment Archive

14 thoughts on “Studies in voice-over narration: “The Shawshank Redemption”

  1. hobbs001 says:

    I’m sure you mentioned this already but it’s the communication of the depth of feeling these characters have for one another. How else could it be communicated? How many soppy closeups could the audience stand? Extending that to its logical conclusion, “Shawshank”, as well a is basically about platonic love between heterosexual men. Without the VO to clue us in to exactly what’s going on in their heads, would some audience members have misinterpreted the relationship between these men in a way which compromised the movie?

    1. Scott says:

      That’s a great point. Through Red’s carefully crafted articulation of what he was feeling, what he was thinking in response to Andy’s ‘wisdom’ conveyed along the way of their journey, we get a clear sense about Andy’s connection to hope. No sexual undertone. Even to the point where after Andy escapes and just before Red goes to his 3rd parole hearing, Red caps off a V.O. section by saying of Andy, “I guess I just missed my friend.”

      So zeroing on a guideline point, perhaps something like this: Use V.O. narration if the story demands for it to go inside a characters thoughts and feelings to convey in a way that can not be achieved solely through action or dialogue.

  2. Mark Walker says:

    The scene with the opera is one of my favourite scenes in films, and one that gives me goosebumps everytime I see it…and a big part of that is Red’s velvety voiceover telling us what every other convict is thinking and feeling. I don’t think it could have been down in any other way and not appeared clunky and forced. All we need is the singing, the voiceover and the expressions on various characters faces…and we know what is happening.

    Can you imagine a montage of the various main characters all trying to articulate that same feeling to each other? Again it would be clunky.

    And this links to Hobbs001 above in the description of the film as a love story between two men, and the way it is handled to make it believable and true. The voiceovers help us truly understand the feelings between these men, to know what they are feeling…..and they do it so well that there is absolutely no need for any sort of voiceover in those final seconds when Red is walking up the beach. The smile says it all.

    1. Scott says:

      Mark, that’s a good point, too. It’s one thing to show shot after shot of the convicts standing, staring up at the loudspeakers. We can SEE they are transfixed in the moment. But what does what they are experiencing MEAN? They could be confused. They could be astounded. They could be weirded out.

      Yes, you could have a bunch of them articulating their feelings, but clunky no doubt.

      The V.O. allows Red to act as their voice, to express what their collective experience is. In that respect, one could argue it is the most efficient way to achieve that.

      So perhaps another guideline point: You can use V.O. narrative if it is the absolute best way to convey something with the maximum efficiency [along with entertainment value, etc].

  3. Scott says:

    Since we seem to be gaining a bit of traction per this subject, let me state that the #1 priority it seems to me is you have to be able to answer this question in the affirmative to consider using voice-over narration: It must be the best way to tell the story. And that word should include a LOT of markers such as the ONLY way, the most EFFICIENT way, the most ENTERTAINING way.

    The problem, I think, with poorly executed V.O. narration is the writer does not put its use to the strictest tests possible. In essence, the story itself must [in my view] DEMAND you use voice-over narration. If you can honestly put it to the test and answer, “yes,” then and only then consider using it.

    1. Mark Walker says:

      Scott…so does this just put V.O. Narration in the same category as any other screen writing technique/tool. If it is absolutely essential to move the story on and is the best way of providing exposition, then there is no reason not to use it? Just in the same way that we are told never to use camera direction….unless it is absolutely essentially to telling your story? We just have to be careful not to use any technique willy nilly just because we think it sounds or looks good to us?

      1. Scott says:

        Mark, it’s my personal viewpoint that there are no screenwriting ‘rules’ in the sense that we CAN’T do this or that. Yes, there are all sorts of practices and conventional wisdom, and it is imperative to learn all that ‘stuff,’ especially by reading movie scripts and recent selling spec scripts, also to stay on top of trends.

        However I do not agree with people who say this or that practice is WRONG. If a story requires us to go against convention, then we MUST do that.

        That said, I am aware of the tons of shitty scripts that float through Hollywood. So when I set the bar super-high with re to voice-over narration and flashbacks, two narrative devices that are generally frowned upon in Hollywood, I am doing that primarily for the screenwriting masses as well as for established writers. For the former to try to make sure they don’t take the easy way out, choosing V.O. or flashbacks without much thought to it; for the latter as a reminder to make damned sure that is the right narrative choice.

        To your point more directly, yes, we should ask ourselves that about EVERY narrative choice we make: Is this what the story REQUIRES? Is this the MOST entertaining, efficient, compelling, etc way to move the narrative?

        The heightened level of my verbiage about voice-over narration and flashbacks is to avoid writers using them cheaply and flooding poor professional script readers with even MORE poorly executed scripts. My aspiration with this series is to spotlight principles and guidelines for the proper and best use of V.O. and flashbacks, precisely the opposite ambition than wanting to generate more lousy scripts.

        I hope that’s clear…

        Bottom line: Yes to thoughtful writing. No to willy nilly narrative choices.

        1. Mark Walker says:

          Thanks Scott, this is really helpful discussion for a novice like myself… and learning that FORM is far more important that the elusive FORMULA.

  4. Debbie Moon says:

    To some extent, the story is a moral fable, an instructive fairy tale, and maybe that kind of story lends itself to being ‘told’ by a character rather than just shown?

    1. Scott says:

      That’s a terrific point, Debbie. I’ve heard some kvetching about Shawshank whereby someone didn’t buy into the movie because the prisoners didn’t seem ‘real,’ as compared to the gritty realism of the HBO series “Oz” for example. My response to that has always been that Shawshank is precisely your point: It’s a fable. It’s a plausible, credible story universe, has just enough edge to it — The Sisters, the chief guard Hadley, Warden Nortion — to make a threatening, antagonistic environment, but at its core it’s about hope vs. institutionalization, living vs. dying.

      So to your point, perhaps one of the reasons the V.O. narration works as well as it does is it fits the nature of the story universe. Once Andy leaves the Old World and crosses the threshold into Shawshank prison, that’s when Red’s V.O. commences, and at that point, the fable kicks into gear.

      Therefore maybe another guideline: Voice-over narration must fit the specific nature of the story. This bleeds over into another discussion: Genre + Style = Narrative Voice. In this case, the V.O. becomes a critical component of the story’s Narrative Voice.

      You know, I’m glad we’re doing this series and the one on flashbacks. Makes me think we should do it with montage, breaking the 4th wall, and other devices. Again just to get us into a thoughtful place re them so we if we decide we NEED to use them, we use them WELL.

  5. tkhaz says:

    I was just reading the screenplay for “Michael Clayton”; perhaps that’s on your list. The first four full pages are VO that set the tone and establish the theme via the rant of a mad man. Worked for me because it’s not boring backstory or telling me the obvious – that’s when VO is most deadly for a screenplay.

    I produced and edited a film that had large gaps in the time between events and parallel stories. We made use of VO to help with transitions, tying thematically while trying to avoid unnecessary exposition. I had a few filmmaker-audience members tell me to lose it all and most others say it was perfect – very subjective stuff.

    As you mentioned in Shawshank, you could have told most of the story in the opera scene with just visuals and carried a significant portion of the meaning, but Red’s VO adds beautiful texture that clarifies without insulting us with what we already know.

    Good stuff.
    – Tom

    1. Scott says:

      I’m thinking about including a movie like Michael Clayton or The Apartment which have V.O. up front, but then no more. Or American Beauty which uses voice-over narration as a bookend: beginning and end. Essentially a restricted use of the device.

      Like the use of your word “texture” as that is another intangible aspect of V.O. narrative.

      1. tkhaz says:

        Yes. in MC they did trim the opening VO to make it tighter in the final cut. And they entirely cut what would have been a bookend with Arthur’s VO in the final shooting script. They felt it was more powerful to just stay on a shot Michael’s face without any sound beyond the ambient street sounds and music. I think it is a very subtle ending, as you see the weight of life lift from Michael after a tense confrontation. Where the opening is wild and very direct, the close is very subtle and calming. Good call in the editing process.

        I’m looking forward to what you have up next. Thanks Scott.

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