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Screenplay Tips # 11: Voiceover

Once upon a time, if a reader were to look in the spec pile, s/he’d find scripts BURSTING with voiceovers. Most of these voiceovers would, indeed, be rubbish. But then a huge proportion of the spec pile was rubbish, so really it was no big deal.

Then voiceovers started disappearing from spec scripts. I’m not sure exactly when this started. perhaps three or four years ago. I think I’ve perhaps seen five scripts this year with VO. Last year, I saw maybe ten, max. Of course we all know why – his initials are R M – but I think it’s a great shame.

Voiceover can be a FANTASTIC tool for revealing character and pushing the story forward. Consider these movies that all feature voiceover:

Stand By Me
The Shawshank Redemption
American Psycho
The Brave One
American Beauty
Sunset Boulevard
The Piano
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Taxi Driver
The Princess Bride
The Royal Tenenbaums
Raising Arizona
Days of Heaven

… Need I go on?!?!?

Voiceover is NOT automatically “lazy writing” — that’s dross. If you want to use voiceover, YOU ABSOLUTELY SHOULD — as long as it a) reveals character b) pushes the story forward. Oh — like any other screenwriting device, then.

The only caveat to the above? There are readers out there who have swallowed RM’s assertions whole and will write on your reports, “use of voiceover = no good”. TAKE A DEEP BREATH when this happens, move on. End of the day, there will always be elements of your script that won’t appeal to everyone regardless.

Recognise voiceover for what it is – a calculated risk. But then, most things are in this scriptwriting malarkey, right down to the story you choose.

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5 thoughts on “Screenplay Tips # 11: Voiceover”

  1. I recently wrote a pilot script for a pre-school show. While watching shows broadcast for this age range, I noticed how many of them use V/O. For that audience it's a perfectly valid storytelling device [particularly since they're used to have stories told to them].

    So I tried putting some V/O into my script – and I absolutely loved it. Made the story go with a zing, and created an instant empathy with the story's narrator. Lovely stuff.

    Strange how V/O has become such a guilty pleasure!

  2. All the specs I'm hocking about atm have no VO — it's just the way it worked out, the story didn't warrant it.
    But I do recall being told I was "a script reader and thus should know better than use VO" on one of my earlier scripts!!! Total madness. And for the record, for that story I would STILL use VO!

  3. As a fan of writing voiceover I would add my own favourite technique – that it is written in character. By that, I mean it is not narration – that it is complex enough to show up character flaws, delusion, humour, lies.

  4. I love V.O. Just don’t tell me in words what I’m seeing. For example, we hear, “I decided to break into the store,” and we see the break-in. Better to hear, “I was taking my usual evening constitutionall.” and we see the narrator’s sudden, surprising break-in that reveals him as a reluctant, desperate thief or, perhaps more interesting, as a determined, exultant sociopath.

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