Screenwriting 101: The Voice Over

By Brock Cooper (doddleNEWS)

Whenever there is narration on screen, but the character is not in the scene, this is commonly referred to as a voice over (V.O). It’s a widely used device in many screenplays, but sadly it’s often not used correctly.There are other  more mundane reasons that are considered a voice over. If we hear a voice in a person’s head, but their lips don’t move or during a telephone conversation where the person on the other end of the line isn’t in the scene, then it’s a voice over. It’s primary use is as a narrator.

One of the most famous examples of a well-used voice over is Kevin Spacey in American Beauty. It’s used throughout the movie and helps explain certain aspects that would be difficult to do visually or with dialog. Too many writers simply use the voice over as a way to describe the action that is already going on onscreen.

A sure way to have your script thrown out by a professional reader is to use a voice over to describe action on the screen. For example, if you have an out of control train coming towards a damsel in the distress, then the hero comes to save her, don’t have a the voice over state the obvious.

John (V.O)
The train came flying towards Doris, but I ran to save her.

A voice over is designed to add something to the action. It’s a piece of information that the audience doesn’t know, but should prior to the conclusion of the action.

John (V.O)
As the daughter of a conductor, Doris spent her entire life
surrounded by trains. Now, her father’s train was about to do her in.

Here, we have voice over that provides information about Doris, but doesn’t repeat the action.

Many writers also tend to rely too heavily on a voice over instead of using action to describe a scene. It’s an easy crutch. If a scene can be described through action and dialog, then it should.  Movies are all about visualization, and if they wanted to hear some Godlike voice, then they could just buy an audiobook.

In the beginning of the movie, a voice over generally describes plot points that occurred earlier, but aren’t represented in the beginning scenes. For example, a disfigured woman walking down the street may have a narration about what happened to her or describe why the townsfolk shun her.

I admit that I have often used narration in the beginning of my scripts for this very reason. It provides the audience with much needed information without having to spend screen time playing it out. This should only be used if the information provided is needed from the very beginning.

If you have a narration in the beginning and 10 minutes into the movie have another character talking about the exact same thing, then you’ve just said the same thing twice. Most likely you could have cut out the narration and simply waited.

A voice over is one of many tools available to screenwriters, but it is often misunderstood and misused. It should only be used sparingly and if appropriate. A good rule of thumb is if you can use action and dialog to represent it, then do it.


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Doddlenews is the news division of the Digital Production Buzz, a leading online resource for filmmakers, covering news, reviews and tutorials for the video and film industry, along with movie and TV news, and podcasting.

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