“The Whos down in Whoville liked Christmas a lot…” the narrator in The Grinch Who Stole Christmas tells us. He continues to carry us through the entire story – letting us know what has happened, when to be excited, and what to think. When we think of voiceover, our minds often leap to an omniscient narrator who tells us a story from somewhere else and describes what we’re seeing to us.
Another type of voice over, employed by protagonists rather than omniscient narrators, is the type used commonly in hard-boiled film noir films. Here, the narrator, who is also the main character, punctuates the overall narrative by providing voiceover narration where he or she speaks directly to the audience.
As filmmaking and storytelling has evolved, both of these forms of voiceover narration have begun to feel antiquated. With writing instruction putting an emphasis on “showing not telling”, the idea of revealing important information through voiceover is at times now thought of as a cop out.
However, as we can see if we take a closer look, there are many exciting ways to use voiceover beyond providing plot points and story details to an audience.
What are some of the ways voiceover is employed that defy the traditional uses?
- Voiceover may be used as a way to detach dialogue from a particular image. This technique is used especially well in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
In this technique, the writer uses voiceover to place lines that would have chronologically been spoken at a different place or time over an image in a separate one. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, this is used to create a tapestry of time and space. It’s used very subtly in the following clip after he says “I did”.
- Voiceover may be used to clue the viewer into the inner-monologue of a character whose thoughts we would otherwise not know. This is similar but more in-depth than the traditional form of VO used in film noir and is used a lot in the Showtime series Dexter. Here, the protagonist clues the viewer into his thoughts and intentions. This is a major contributing factor in making Dexter a relatable character, and giving the audiences the creepy sensation of being on the side of a serial killer.
Writers don’t need to shy away from voiceover even in its most traditional sense. As long as the voiceover benefits your story, it has the potential to be a compelling tool within a script.
By Lauren S. McGrail