I don’t think that there are many people out there who in fact love Voice Over Narrations over everything else. Each film book I read dealt with this story device and in each one “complained” about it. And some movies even get their voice over narration cut out as in BLADE RUNNER.

Nevertheless you stumble over it again and again. I can understand why it is used but in my eyes it has some problems too big to be used at all.

The Beauty of Voice Over Narration

Let us be frank: a voice over narration is really easy to write (and perhaps to direct). The screenwriter doesn’t have to think very much about the visuals and can simply show one or many characters do unimportant stuff on screen while the narrator talks off screen. This way the writer can establish many (important) things and can give us information without having to rely on visuals or time. He can pack those things in a mere two minutes (mostly the credits at the beginning) and we don’t feel distracted too much.

It seems it is a wonderful win-win situation. The audience looses nothing, and the writer saves (screen) time. But it gets even better.

In a way you could even say that a voice over narration in fact is stream of conscious. This means that you can hear what a character thinks, a technique that is prominent in novels (“I walked over the grass and felt the fear”). Therefore, a voice over narration can solve this elemental problem each and every screenwriter faces one day: how the heck can I show what my character thinks? By using voice over narration this problem fades away instantly. But there is even more: as far as I know this story telling device is the single technique out there in which a movie character can, without problems, directly talk to the audience (“Do you see this guy? Well that is me….Pathetic, I know.”). Therefore we can say that a voice over narration can help to connect the audience with the movie, or the more precise, with the character that talks to it.

As you can see a voice over narration seems to be a really easy and hence cool and beautiful device that solves so many problems at the same time. Seemingly, it is a wonder that only romantic comedies have used this device extensively in the last years.

But if you look closer you can say that in this beauty lies the big problem of voice over narration.

The Big Problem of Voice Over Narration

Whenever I go to the cinema and the movie I watch starts with or contains a voice over narration I get extremely frustrated and then lower my expectations of the movie in general. And the sad truth is that most often I am right with this decision. Perhaps you never had a similar feeling but I with this reaction of mine I can show you the problem of this device.

The latter part, to lower my expectations, is something that is inherent in voice over narration. As I already mentioned, the story device of voice over narration is really easy to use (like in a novel) since the screenwriter can simply “write”. But in consequence it also shows that the screenwriter didn’t invest too much time into his writing. He simply used the easiest tool available to tell the audience a part of his story. And since the writer used this device it can be almost surely be assumed that he didn’t invest much time into the rest of his work either.

Of course there are examples of simply amazing voice over narration but in my judgment these examples are rare in the sea of average writing and insight. Most often the assumption VoiceOverNarration = AverageMovie is sadly true.

And this is the moment where the frustration kicks in (or the other way round) – a feeling which is never good for a movie. Or the writer of the movie.

Ideally, in a perfect world a movie ticket is a form of contract: the audience spends its money and its lifetime and the production crew (writer, director, cutter and so on) will give it something of equal or bigger worth. Be it entertainment, insight, fun or something else. Hence you could say that everyone in the production crew have to give their best, especially the writer, since he is the “core” of the story.

Now when I watch a movie with voice over narration I get frustrated because of this reasoning above: I know that my money is spent on something in which at least one guy – the writer – didn’t give his best. He took the easy way.

Of course I am helplessly idealistic at the moment. It is almost impossible to give the best all the time. Sometimes a creation process might lack time or money or both. And sometimes there can be story problems one writer alone cannot solve. And above all, a movie is a creation of hundreds. You cannot expect a perfect movie all the time, and I by far do not.

On the other hand a voice over narration is by far the easiest way out of a story problem.

This is its beauty. And its big problem at the same time.


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