Part 3: The Voice and Narration

In my article on Plot Twists, I discussed narration and how unreliable narrators  contribute to an effective plot twist. But the voice and narrator is so much more important than just this.

A narrator is supposed to reflect, react, and interpret. Most filmgoers dislike voice-over, and think it is a cheap way of telling exposition. But that is BAD voice-over; good voice-over gets inside the head of the character and their environment.

Setting the Scene Well

Take The Quiet American — its introduction is mesmerizing in portraying the beauty of Vietnam, but with all the ugliness and cynicism simmering underneath. The weariness in Michael Caine’s voice suggests immediate subjectivity — he is never committed to the truth in his words. It is a very sombre narration that immediately establishes place, tone, and character.

To paraphrase True Romance — this narration tells us nothing but shows us everything. This is the mark of intelligent voice-over.

This video belongs to Miramax Films. All rights reserved.

Setting the Scene Badly

Voice-over which tells you everything, but shows you nothing, is frustrating and borderline infuriating. Audience members like to figure things out — they do not want to be flat out told that they should be sad, or the motivations behind an unusual action.

Take Blade Runnera fantastic film, in at least one of its released versions. It’s original theatrical release did not have much faith in the audience connecting the dots. So they decided to include incredibly awkward, poorly written narration with a wooden voice-over by Harrison Ford. This is the best example of how NOT to do voice-over.

This video belongs to aumeta3. All rights reserved.

If you got to the end of that video, pay close attention to the “Tears in the Rain” monologue, and the invasive voice-over that follows. Not watch the scene without voice-over, and notice the difference.

This video belongs to Warner Bros. All rights reserved.

Yeah … voice-over should only be used if it is already integrated into the story. Otherwise, you completely take the audience for a ride on a rocky road.

I am Jack’s Ambiguous Narrator

In  Fight Clubnarration is used throughout from the unnamed protagonist. Because the movie jumps continually between different times and different locations, the voice-over keeps us in the action. At one point, Edward Norton pauses. Confused, he says — “Wait, back up. Let me start earlier.” The Narrator is recounting his tales, rather than living in the moment.

The main purpose of the narration is to trick the audience into believing that Tyler Durden is a separate entity — the Narrator is continually referring to Tyler in the third person through his intimate thoughts. It sets itself for a shocking twist. He keeps talking … and no-one has any idea.

 This video belongs to 20th Century Fox. All rights reserved.


Martin Scorsese Voice-Over

Prominent director Martin Scorsese utilises voice-over in a very unique way in several of his films.

In Mean Streets, the main character, Charlie, played by Harvey Keitel, narrates his thoughts early in the film. What’s interesting is that it is not Keitel speaking, but Scorsese himself. This stands out especially in the church where the narration is Scorsese saying “not worthy to drink your blood”, followed by Keitel speaking it aloud.

This highlight’s Charlie’s two minds of the film which are in constant conflict – his devotion and his ambition.

This video belongs to Warner Bros. All rights reserved.

In Taxi Driverthe narration is used more towards the start the movie. As the story progresses, and Travis Bickle becomes more unhinged, the narration becomes much more erratic, vulgar and crazy. By the end of the movie, there’s no voice-over at all — Travis has crossed over.

This video belongs to Columbia Pictures. All rights reserved.

In Goodfellas, Ray Liotta narrates in his head throughout the film from youth to adulthood. His voice-over subtly changes from youthful arrogance to paranoid adulthood.

In the final court room scene, Liotta stands up and addresses the audience directly, staring at the camera while the other characters are oblivious. The whole purpose is his character is not aimlessly retelling his life … he’s telling it to you specifically.

This video belongs to Warner Bros. All rights reserved.

In Casino, two narrators are established; Robert de Niro and Joe Pesci. What’s intriguing is that towards the end, a third narrator, Frank Vincent, is set up for one scene only, and he talks while the scene is paused rather than speaking over the moving images.

Unlike Fight Club, the narration in Casino is in real-time, with the characters. When Joe Pesci is attacked, the narration abruptly halts. It catches the audience by surprise and that’s what Scorsese is a genius at – taking an established convention and making it his own.

This video belongs to Universal Pictures. All rights reserved.

In Conclusion …

Voice-over can be a great way at playing with audience expectations. We are constantly trying to perceive the meaning of the voice with the meaning of the image. A gifted writer can execute good voice-over, so long as it has purpose and works within the story’s structure.

Cinema is still a visual medium. Voice-over is not a way of informing; it is another way of showing.


Are there are any other films that used voice-over in a unique, unexpected way? Let us know in the comments below so we can add them to our Watchlist.

Also, be sure to check out the other articles in our five part series on filmmaking:

Part 1 — Cinematic History: How Silent Film Changed Hollywood

Part 2 — Storytelling: Twisting the Plot

Part 4 — The Music: Using Licenced or Orchestrated Music

Part 5 — The Camera: The Camera as a Character

5 thoughts on “Part 3: The Voice and Narration

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