Some say that old habits die hard but the truth is that old conventions die harder.
Voice over didn’t enter the film world as a new concept. Video game voiceover has roots in something else. Both come down to us from the days when people couldn’t afford to see sequential plays and so a narrator — often the MC of the theater — would get up and give a brief recap of the story so far. A similar thing worked for radio theater because you would often miss an episode working with your father out in the field. “When we last left our heroes…” and so forth. The point wasn’t to tell the story. The point was to retell the stories that had already been told — the stories leading up to the one we’re getting ready to hear. Frankly, even without missing an episode, that’s how audible learners work. Recaps work that way — you see it in a sermon series and in a baseball game and in podcasts like Serial. You also see it on long-running Netflix series:
Previously on …
Well when film and even video games came along in the early days, several of these conventions dug deep into the soil of the medium. Oh voiceover wasn’t the only convention — certainly the magicians and vaudeville stage managers had their way with film. But the voiceover crowd got an early start. Why? Well before “talkies,” before films could broadcast the sound of the story, you needed an announcer or a gramophone in the pit to say how THE ALLIES HAVE LANDED ON NORMANDY or what have you. The piano served a similar function, particularly for silent films like Chaplain’s work. Notice how the piano and the “voiceover” text work together:
This is due to the limitations of the medium at the time.
Truth is, even in the classic plays there’s this tongue-in-cheek self-deprecating humor that cracks the voices of good narrators. The best, certainly, showed up at some place in the narrative as characters themselves. Or they took on a kind of interior monologue that had significant biases and could not be trusted as narrators — you see this primarily in the noir genres or the angsty teenage whatever.
But the convention of telling the story rather than showing the story persists. A story, by definition, is not primarily exposition. We may use exposition, but only after we’ve mastered the art of making our point without explicitly saying what it is or how it transpired. I find in my colleagues a stubborn persistence for voiceover in the scripts they write and it bothers me. It bothers me for the same reason an alcoholic’s penchant for alcohol bothers me — it’s killing him, slowly. It bothers me for the same reason a type-casted actor bothers me — both their career and the film in question suffer for it. It bothers me, in short, because it’s a cheap way to tell a story. And the cheapest part about it is simply accepting that So-and-so did it first, therefore it’s a good thing to do. Well Eve ate the apple first and Adam thought that was good enough reason to do it too and became worse for it in the years to follow for his lack of courage, lack of imagination, and lack of discernment. I’m unconvinced, for instance, that all of Morgan Freeman’s voiceover in Shawshank Redemption is justified, necessary, or agreeable to the story they’re telling. Certainly the line, “Andy Dufresne: who crawled through a river of shit and came out clean” serves as a sort of touchstone in our culture — it works primarily because the narrator is a character in the drama. But even then, it gets to be a little overkill in the film. Lemony Snicket is a great example of how voiceover can be done subtly and with style and this example shows what I mean: Snicket’s voiceover barely pervades the film and Snicket is a character in the narrative.
To use, then, voiceover that (1) isn’t self-referential, (2) doesn’t make fun of itself, (3) can’t come out of the mouth of any of the characters and (4) neuters the rest of the narrative is to do something other than tell a story. The whole point of a story is to
…first express and then prove your idea without
— Robert McKee
The point of a story is to show a character in a zone of comfort who wants something, chases after that something into an unfamiliar and uncomfortable situation, adapts, pays a heavy price, gets what he wants, and returns to comfort having changed. None of those things exist in an emotional vacuum so prevalent in the “last left our heroes” voiceover culture we inherited from the tragedians and radio operas. Film has come into its own. It uses sound now to speak for itself. It uses special effects to imagine for itself. It uses the cover of darkness to immerse itself — and its audience — into an entire world.
I refuse — whenever possible — to use voiceover. And if I am against it, it is only because I am in favor of good story and for the hard work that story requires, not shortcuts or cheap shots. We can write better than that. We are stronger than the conventions that bind us for the same reason that I am stronger than the habits that bind me if I lean into the grace of God.
So do it.
Let your characters think, write, and speak for themselves.
They might surprise even you.
And if they surprise you, your audience will thank you.
Because at the end of the day, your audience isn’t a group of morons: they’re some of the most narratively conscious humans that have existed since Athens broke ground on the first amphitheater. Treat them as such or otherwise they will not give you honor in return when honor is due you.