Studies in voice-over narration: “A Christmas Story”

March 1st, 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 fifth of five movies using voice-over narration: A Christmas Story, the 1983 movie, screenplay by Jean Shepherd & Leigh Brown & Bob Clark, based on Shepherd’s novel.

I think we can all agree on one thing: We want to write scripts that entertaining. So if you can use voice-over narration to enhance the entertainment value of your story, why not?

Check out just a few of the sides of dialogue from A Christmas Story courtesy of Ralph as an adult:

Ralphie as Adult: [narrating] My little brother had not eaten voluntarily in over three years.

Ralphie as Adult: [narrating] Only one thing in the world could’ve dragged me away from the soft glow of electric sex gleaming in the window.

Ralphie as Adult: [narrating about diving with his brother into the gifts under the Christmas tree] We plunged into the cornucopia quivering with desire and the ecstasy of unbridled avarice.

Ralphie as Adult: [narrating] Some men are Baptists, others Catholics; my father was an Oldsmobile man.

Ralphie as Adult: [narrating] Now, I had heard that word at least ten times a day from my old man. He worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was his true medium; a master. But, I chickened out and said the first name that came to mind.
Ralphie: Schwartz!

Ralphie as Adult: [narrating] Over the years I got to be quite a connoisseur of soap. My personal preference was for Lux, but I found Palmolive had a nice, piquant after-dinner flavor – heady, but with just a touch of mellow smoothness. Life Buoy, on the other hand…
Ralphie: YECCHH!

Ralphie as Adult: [narrating] Meanwhile, I struggled for exactly the right BB gun hint. It had to be firm, but subtle.
Ralphie: Flick says he saw some grizzly bears near Pulaski’s candy store!
[everyone stares at Ralphie]
Ralphie as Adult: [narrating] They looked at me as if I had lobsters crawling out of my ears.

Santa Claus: How about a nice football?
Ralphie as Adult: [narrating] Football? Football? What’s a football? With unconscious will my voice squeaked out ‘football’.
Santa Claus: Okay, get him out of here.
Ralphie as Adult: [narrating] A football? Oh no, what was I doing? Wake up, Stupid! Wake up!
Ralphie: [Ralphie is shoved down the slide, but he stops himself and climbs back up] No! No! I want an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle!
Santa Claus: You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.

Ralphie as Adult: [narrating, after BB gun shot bounces off target and hits his face] Oh my god, I shot my eye out!

Now I say why not, but even here, you have to make sure you hit that high level of certainty that using voice-over narration is absolutely the best, the only way to tell your story. Here with A Christmas Story, it is a memoir, therefore it makes perfect sense to use V.O. narration. And especially since the V.O. is so damn funny.

Next week, we take on flashbacks.

What are your favorite examples of voice-over narration in A Christmas Story?

What have you learned about voice-over narration in this series?

2 thoughts on “Studies in voice-over narration: “A Christmas Story”

  1. Alan D. says:

    A Christmas Story did the voice-overs so well. The set design, music and voice-overs combined to truly make you feel like it was the 1940s rather than a movie made in 1983. “The Wonder Years” (a TV show with great and similar voice-over use)did the same thing in the late 1980s with their 1960s-70s timeframe.

    One of my favorite voice-overs in “A Christmas Story” is this: Scut Farkus! What a rotten name! We were trapped. There he stood, between us and the alley. Scut Farkus staring out at us with his yellow eyes. He had yellow eyes! So, help me, God! Yellow eyes!”

    It’s a great internal monologue that also adds humor and makes the bully an even more ominous presence.

    On a side note, it’s terrible that they recently released “A Christmas Story 2.” I refuse to watch it, so I’m not sure if voice-overs are implemented or how they sound, but the Christmas classic shouldn’t have been touched. It’s like making “It’s Still a Wonderful Life” without James Stewart or “Ernest Saves Christmas Again” without Jim Varney.

  2. hobbs001 says:

    Certainly with “Double Indemnity” and “The Shawshank Redemption” there were risky elements to those movies (a main character agreeing to murder an innocent man so he could be with that man’s wife, and a prison movie involving platonic love between heterosexual prisoners) which called for the VO narration to keep viewers fully involved in the movie. It’s obvious that VO narration allows viewers a chance to get even closer to a character. It seems that it’s had an undeserved bad press – it’s not just a device for lazy or less-skilled writers but a valuable piece of the writer’s armoury to be used in certain cases.

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