Case in point: the use of voiceover. There is pretty much a consensus within screenwriting books about using voiceover. Don't. They call it the tool of a lazy writer. They say it is “telling, not showing.” If it must be used, “less is more,” and should be minimized. Robert McKee even goes so far to say that using too much voiceover will “gut our creativity, eliminate the audience's curiosity, and destroy narrative drive.”
I am currently working on a screenplay that centers on a conflicted protagonist driven by an inner conflict as he battles two contradictory urges arising from events of his physical world. Central to his deep character is an element of intense isolation and loneliness. He has no one to share his thoughts with, and when he interact with others, it is through a tough, icy front. Since in the course of the story the character commits acts that would appear on the outside to be immoral, but when understood from his perspective as just, I believed it is essential that the audience be privy to his innermost thoughts. And a well-crafted use of voiceover would be the most effective solution. But when I uploaded my early draft on TriggerStreet for some quick feedback, holy crap! The readers could not be more critical of my use of voiceover. Not the actual content of the voice, but that I had used it at all. Now, my script isn't soaked in voiceover. There are maybe 8-10 quarter page sections of it scattered throughout the script. But most seemed to label me as some kind of amateur moron for even considering the use of voiceover for my particular story. One even made a pointed insult of telling me to “buy a book and learn the craft.” Rather than look at the individual qualities of my characters and story to judge how and where the voiceover could be best used, most decided to quote Syd Field to me as if it were the Gospel According to John.
But hold up! There are dozens, if not hundreds of commercially successful, critically acclaimed films that not only use voiceover, but revel in it, use it with wild abandon in nearly every sequence from beginning to end.. If the use of voiceover is considered to be such a universal evil to the craft of screenwriting, how does one explain the success of these films?
What follows are three Academy Award nominated screenplays that not only contain voiceover, but rely on it as one of their primary narrative devices, goes almost so far as rivaling the use of image and dialogue. With a little bit of investigation into their narratives, one finds in each case not only how the use of voiceover is integral the storytelling process, but that surprisingly the narrative could not have worked well without it. These scripts owe their success to their voiceovers.
Apocalypse Now (nominated, Best Adapted Screenplay, 1980)
If the rules laid out in the screenwriting books are to be believed, Apocalypse Now (written by John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola) is a script that shouldn't work. Nearly half of its material is communicated through voiceover. It is episodic, and has a protagonist who remains passive nearly until the very end. No doubt if this script made the rounds today as a spec, it would not get past the first round of readers. And yet it works. Why is this?
First off, Apocalypse Now, loosely based on the novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, has a far from traditional plot. It's structure owes more to Homer's Odyssey than anything produced in the Golden Age of Hollywood. After half an hour of viewing this film it becomes clear that Francis Ford Coppola was less interested in a normal goal-oriented quest told in a restorative three-act structure than he was in painting a portrait of a journey into madness. The story's arc is not physical, but psychological. This psychological progression is shown in the protagonist, Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), a man already on the brink of sanity, being pushed further and further over the edge by the escalating madness of the events he encounters on his mission to find and kill the insane Colonel Kurtz.
Willard's role in the story is not that of a leader. He is instead an observer and commentator. Rather than get directly involved in the increasingly surreal and ambiguous experience encountered by the audience, Willard is the source through which the events are interpreted and given meaning through his running interior monologue.
On close inspection one find that Apocalypse Now does not in fact have a simple single storyline with a protagonist/antagonist relationship, but instead has TWO storylines, with separate protagonists. The first belongs to Captain Willard, following his journey down river to find Colonel Kurtz. The second storyline has Colonel Kurtz as the protagonist, told by means of a constantly developing story line of past events communicated solely through Captain Willard's voiceover. Both storylines develop evenly and separately from each other as the film progresses, ultimately coming together as the two protagonists collide in the third act.
Why does the voiceover work?
Coppola's vision of war is one of fear, violence, noise, and confusion. It is not about war but the subjective insanity created by the fog of war. He seeks to baffle us with absurdity and overload our senses to bewilderment. The only way the audience can make sense of it all and remain orientated is through their intimate connection to Willard's inner mind, provided by the voiceover. He is the audience's guide that we must grip onto to make sense of it all.
The concept of “madness” is not something that can be easily or effectively dramatized. Willard's real journey in this film is in his head. Outwardly Willard remains somewhat quiet and confident, but inwardly, he is changing in ways that the audience would have an extremely hard time picking up without an extremely superior intuition. One way the writers assist the audience in keeping track of Willard's psychological journey is the continuous comparison of Willard's mental state to the story of Colonel Kurtz's evolution from ideal soldier to maniac. Had the writers chosen to avoid the use of voiceover, this element would have been lost. Colonel Kurtz's presence in the most of the story exists only in voiceover, allowing Kurtz to have a continuing influence on the story while remaining a mysterious figure hidden in the narrative shadows.
Election (nominated, Best Adapted Screenplay, 2000)
An even more extreme use of voiceover is seen in Election (written by Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor). The film has not one protagonist, but four, and each are granted their own running voiceover. Voiceover sequences cover a bulk of this film, with some running five or six minutes in length. Yet, the result is still far from unsatisfying.
Election, adapted from a book of the same name written in a first-person diary style by author Tom Perrotta, tells the story of a small scandal amidst a high school class election through the perspective of its four major players, the teacher (Matthew Broderick) and the three candidates (Reese Witherspoon, Chris Klein, & Jessica Campbell). Throughout the film, the audience is presented with “dueling voiceovers”- a voiceover from one character will immediately butt up against that of another character, often working to refute or answer on what the last person said. This gives the impression that the audience has been chosen to be the arbitrator of this scandal and each participant is fighting to win them to their side of the case. Supporting characters fade into the background as we become more and more knowledgeable of the extreme and sometimes contemptible psychological hang-ups of these four seemingly benign persons.
However, director and writer Alexander Payne succeeds in keeping the film from being bogged down in words by sticking to two rules. First, during nearly every voiceover sequence, the audience's interest is held by a quick, visually engaging, and often action-filled montage filled with information that builds on the story and character. The voiceover does not simply narrate the images, but rather the other way around. The images work to illustrate and diversify to the information communicated in the voiceover by giving it concrete, physical significances. Secondly, all important plot developments are played out purely through action, with no interruption from voiceover.
Why does the voiceover work?
Despite the obvious desire to stay true to the style and tone of its literary source material, the seemingly excessive use of voiceover makes Election the dramatically successful story it is for a far more compelling reason.
Objectively speaking, the events within the plot are quite banal. This is a story about three seemingly normal students running for class president at a quite unremarkable high school in Omaha, Nebraska- far from high-concept material. But that is not what this story is actually about. This is a story about the seething worries, obsessions, and anxieties that constantly breed in the minds of everyday people the world over. Who wins the class election itself is of little real consequence. The election does not drive the story. What really drives the story, creates the conflict, and constantly forces the situation to continually escalate are the anxieties of the four protagonists. Even the seemingly empty-headed Paul is plagued with anxiety over the fact that he doesn't understand what is going on.
Anxieties are something that is hard to dramatize. Foremost because most people strive to hide them. But through voiceover, the writers allow the audience connect intimately, one-on-one with each character's minds in a way that possibly only a therapist can. We see the anxieties born, we hear them escalate, and then we see them explode violently onto the outside world. The story could not have worked without them.
Trainspotting (written by John Hodge, based on a book by Irvine Welsh) tells the story of Renton (Ewan McGregor) and his mates as he quits, returns to, quits again, and finally breaks free from the scourge of his heroin addiction. The audience is given a highly personal journey through a surprisingly nuanced and detailed lifestyle that is mostly hidden from public view. Renton's voiceover acco
mpanies the audience from the opening moments to the very end. In fact we are granted such a close relationship with what goes in inside Renton's head that the structure and style of this film comes closer to imitating the first-person literary point of view than possibly any film I have seen. Yet still, some critics might look at this film and say that it relies far too much on its voiceover- it is unnecessary, repetitive, it turns what could have been an active visual film into a talking picture book. However, stripping this film of its voiceover would wound it mortally, turning it into a contemptible little shell of what it was meant to be.
Why does the voiceover work?
First of all, Trainspotting is not a film about broad strokes of plot. It is film about details. The intricate, meticulous details that make up a human life on the edge. The film's central premise is immersed in the grimy little details of the ins and outs of heroin addiction- a world that most members of the audience (hopefully) know nothing about. Since the audience is unfamiliar with the world of the story, they need to be educated to fully grasp Renton's world. Left on their own with just visuals and dialogue to guide them, the audience would only receive a superficial understanding of the story world, based mostly on drug-abuse cliches. Just like in Apocalypse Now, what the audience needs is a GUIDE. Renton is the audience's guide, taking them by the hand and leading them so deep into his world that the audience can feel like they are a part of it.
But aside of this, Trainspotting's use of voiceover is foremost, and far more importantly, a TOOL OF EMPATHY. When it comes to the types of characters that audiences will readily give their sympathy and respect, drug addicts rank at the very bottom of the list. If the writers had chosen to start the film by showing Renton and his mates in the depravity of their drug use sans Renton's V.O., few would feel encouraged to empathize with them. In fact, many would feel disgusted or judgmental towards them. But instead, the film opens with a plea from Renton to the audience. He states his case so eloquently that three minutes into the film, we not only come to understand Renton's choice of lifestyle, but even like and care for the strung-out little smackhead. Furthermore, the continued voiceover works to draw the audience closer and closer to Renton while distancing them from the other characters. Late in the story, Renton rejects his friends, and then goes on to ultimately betray and abandon them. Does the audience judge his actions? No. In fact, because they have been led to empathize with him to such a degree, they applaud him for doing it!
What the the connection between these three films? Aside from that they were all adapted from literary sources, there are no similarities within their stories and structures that I can see. And that is my point. In each film, the use of its voiceover is uniquely tailored to the needs of the story. There was a specific story reason for each use.
Every story is unique, and to do a story justice, a writer must adapt the rules of screencraft to the needs of the story – not the other way around. When a writer choses to blindly obey a set of rules learned in a book without consideration for the needs of their individual story, instead of making a story more unique, the writer makes it more the same. Instead of listening to the story' voice, the writer forces one on it. The writer stifles the needs of the one of a kind story he or she desires to tell by blindly applying outside restrictions without considering whether or not those restrictions improve the telling of the story or limit it. In the end, all that matters is if your story has been told in the best way possible.
In no matter what field of study one studies, there seem to be three stages in a student's intellectual development.
The first stage is ignorance. The student knows little about their field and makes attempts in it based on erroneous assumptions.
In the second stage, the student's opinions are made up completely of ideas they have either read in books, or have been told by persons they see as having some position of superior knowledge. They unthinkingly cling to the ideas they have been told as if they were inarguable truth. Unfortunately, most people fail to ever advance past the second stage.
But finally in the third stage, the student has accumulated enough knowledge and experience that they can rationally weigh the merit of what they have been told and then COME TO CONCLUSIONS OF THEIR OWN. Knowing what stage of development you are currently in will keep you from falling into the trap of narrow-minded dogmatism and guide you on the way to become better, more flexible storytellers.