In the Screenwriting Group at LinkedIn this question was posed “We all know that voice-over narration is a crime against cinema. Or do we...? Voice-over: sin or salvation?”
I haven’t read all the responses (there were over 80 ), but the replies I read were all along the lines that VO was a valid, proven, excellent tool, with many people listing good examples (btw, it’s a good site, so check it out). Here’s my response.
Great, we’re all agreed the technique is valid and proven over and over again to be vividly successful. Our next step should be a careful analysis of successful and unsuccesful examples in films to establish, when, where and why VO works, and when where and why it doesn’t. That way we'll get guidance to how to use VO successfully.
For example, it seems to me that VO is often successfully used in a mininmal form to bookend a film, articulating ideas and themes while simultaneously providing a hook at the start of the film and a payoff twist at the end (for example in 21 Grams).
I would also add that it’s fascinating how often in screenwriting theory moral condemnation is attached to the use of techniques. For example, flashbacks are ‘lazy’ or ‘voice over is trite’.
You can’t ascribe moral values to writing techniques any more than to a paintbrush or the the use of specific fingering by a violinist. The only issue is the degree to which the techniques achieve the intended effect. In short (as many people in the LinkedIn Screenwriting Group said about VO), the only issue is whether it works.
My own personal response to the question is that VO can indeed get out of hand because our job as scriptwriters involves condensing dialogue so as to utilise subtext. We are always tightening dialogue! Hence, given the chance with VO to launch into purple prose, it’s very easy to get drunk on words - rambling lyrically on, with the accompanying visuals stuck in the same plot point, stopping the film in its tracks. This is a big problem with adaptation of novels. It’s very tempting to insert brilliant bits of the novel’s narrative while the visuals become a kind of travelogue.
My motto is forewarned is forearmed, so, in the attempt to avoid a dose of redundant purple prose in VO , I would suggest that prior to using VO, we define precisely why we want to use it and what ideas we want to transmit.
I’d also suggest that we work out what needs to be on the screen (telling the story visually) before composing the VO. That way, we’ve imposed limits on ourselves and can excel within them.