Voiceovers In Your Screenplay

Voiceovers are useful beasts for screenwriters.

Like all good things, are only a useful tonic in measured doses, in certain situations. Novice writers tend to use them to paper over plot holes and deliver rafts of exposition. But not you. You know that they another colour in your palette to add texture and another dimension to your otherwise black and white script.

In its truest sense, a voiceover opens your character’s soul to the audience, but not to the other characters in the film. Consider Jane Campion’s “The Piano.” Ada (a mute) says “The voice you hear is not my speaking voice—but my mind’s voice.”

Voiceovers reveal the deepest thoughts that cannot or will not be spoken. Think of the poetry involved. An interior monologue derived from ancient Greek theatre to depict the will of the Gods or verbalizing one’s conscience.

Voiceovers are also used for narration.  Sunset Boulevard is a classic example, where voiceover narration underpins the whole film. It merely reinforces the action, so it isn’t entirely necessary.

They also add variety to your script by transcending the dialogue/action paradigms. Remember that voiceovers borrow heavily from other literature and do not organically fit into “motion pictures”. Consider the crassness of Kevin Spacey’s voiceover in “American Beauty” which hurriedly told us his life story via muttered exposition. He also reveals that he will be dead shortly. Spoiler alert!

Voiceovers are also used to “bookend” a film to give it a fairytale quality. It typically opens with something like “once upon a time, in a land far away…” and ends with “and they lived a wonderfully happy life together”.

Voiceovers are typically used in noir films to add a gritty tonality. Since such characters are often marginalized loners, voiceover is a good way of expressing their feelings. Dialogue such as “they knocked me down, but I’m back up again. They want a fight, they got it…” illustrates this.

They can be used to comic effect by juxtaposing what’s being said with what’s being felt. Consider a dinner date scene with a nerdy guy and a glamorous prom queen. Imagine what could be said in dialogue (eg “Shall we order?”) versus what could be said in voiceover (eg “I’ve never gone for nerdy chic, but I want it now”)?

Know that voiceovers are a style device and not a structural pillar for your script. Decoration. Trimming. Gravy.  If they are removed, your script shouldn’t collapse.

I generally avoid them as they often have a conceited, artsy feel. However, I have used voiceovers once in a horror script I wrote called “The Worm”, to convey the inner turmoil of the main character. Nothing else worked.

Like all stylistic devices, they rest in your toolbox for when or if you use them. Just don’t use them all at once.

Think of their potential impact on your reader, and how you want them to feel. If it works, knock yourself out.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Good advice. They are a great tool, and “Sunset Boulevard” is a perfect example of when a voice over worked great. I think they should be used sparingly, but I have used them in a romantic comedy at the beginning of my script like bookends. That’s a great way of describing them – bookends.

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