15 Movies Screenwriters Should Watch to Study Narration and Voiceover
What are the best movies that you should study if you want to utilize narration and voiceover in your screenplays?
Welcome to another installment of our series 15 Movies Screenwriters Should Watch where we explore different subjects of screenwriting and feature some of the best cinematic examples that screenwriters can study and learn from.
Here we feature the subject of narration and voiceover.
Narration and voiceover in screenplays have become a taboo subject for many, primarily because of a fictional account of Robert McKee's seminars in the film Adaptation.
In the film, the screen-portrayed Robert McKee rants about screenwriters using voiceover.
"And God help if you use voiceover in your work my friends. God help you! It's flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write voiceover narration to explain the thoughts of a character. You must present the internal conflicts of your character in image, in symbol. Film is a medium of movement and image."
The real Robert McKee actually believes in using voiceover, but only if the screenplay doesn't depend on it.
In his teachings, McKee narrows narration down to two specific types — Telling Narration and Counterpoint Narration.
Telling Narration is a form of narration that substitutes for dramatization. Instead of creating scenes that dramatize story, characterization, and exposition, Telling Narration recites the story through the voiceover of a character as the images onscreen either illustrate or decorate the verbiage.
Counterpoint Narration is McKee's preferred form of narration where the voiceover enriches the film while the story and its exposition are fully dramatized onscreen.
If you take the narration of film that uses telling voiceover and delete it, you're likely missing out on many story and character details.
But for a movie that uses counterpoint voiceover, if you delete it you'll find that the story and characterization are still highly effective from a cinematic standpoint — the counterpoint narration enriches the already excellent onscreen dramatization.
Yet even a screenplay with excellent narration and voiceover like Goodfellas breaks McKee's preferences. Taylor Sheridan, who wrote Sicario, Hell or High Water, and Wind River, told Vulture that when he studied screenplays, he realized that he shouldn't be guided by arbitrary rules.
"I just realized that nobody knows what they’re doing. Our business says, 'Give me the script that checks all the boxes,' but the films that resonate usually don’t do that... think about Goodfellas. It could be a textbook on how not to write a screenplay. It leans on voiceover at the beginning, then abandons it for a while, then the character just talks right into the camera at the end. That structure is so unusual that you don’t have any sense of what’s going to happen next. And to me, that’s the goal of a screenwriter — to allow audiences into a world where they can’t predict what’s going to happen."
As you can see, it's a highly-debated subject.
From a more objective standpoint, narration and voiceover truly go wrong within a screenplay when the screenwriter uses those elements as a crutch to display inner thoughts and bad exposition.
Here we offer fifteen movies — in no specific order — that screenwriters should watch to study narration and voiceover in screenplays. We'll also briefly break down what you can learn from each.
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Christopher Nolan's Memento is a ground-breaking, unique, and wholly original film that tells a story in reverse chronology and uses narration through voiceover to get the audience into the mind of a person with short-term memory loss.
Without the voiceover, we'd be lost because the whole concept of the story is to understand the utter confusion of not being able to retain short-term memory — while you're trying to solve a murder mystery. Thus the voiceover plays a pivotal role in the story. Yes, one could argue that it uses voiceover to share inner thoughts of a protagonist. But that's the point of the whole film, trying to figure out the mystery amidst this mental disorder along with the protagonist.
In real life, Charlie Kaufman was tasked with adapting the novel The Orchid Thief for the screen. In attempting to do so, he wrote himself into the screenplay after failing to crack the code of how to adapt the novel without falling into the many traps of Hollywood movies. As he continues to write, he embraces every Hollywood trap and trope that he denounces — including the use of voiceover.
This creates a brilliant force of irony throughout the whole film. Within the film, Kaufman pushes back against the rules of screenwriting and cinematic storytelling and just does what he feels is right. And the point of the narration and voiceover is to understand his creative thought process as the visuals of irony unfold before our eyes.
3. Taxi Driver
Martin Scorsese utilizes voiceover in many of his films, two of which will be mentioned on this list. In Taxi Driver, voiceover is used to get into the head of a disturbed individual — Travis Bickle.
As we walk and drive through the life of Travis, we experience his inner thoughts, most of which are dark, gloomy, and sinister — yet we can relate to a lot of what he is observing. This creates a character that is not just some sick individual doing violent things. He becomes an antihero of sorts.
Read ScreenCraft's How to Develop and Write Great Antiheroes!
At the same time, we also feel creeped out by these observations. They make us realize that the people we see walking and driving around us could very well be thinking thoughts that are in dark contrast to what we're seeing from these people on the outside.
We'll just jump right into our second Martin Scorsese film that uses voiceover — albeit in a much different way.
In this film, the voiceover is narration — telling us a story. In Memento, Taxi Driver, and Adaptation, the voiceover is used to get us into the heads of the characters. In Goodfellas, we're being told a story. Yes, we are also getting some inner thoughts within the voiceover, but the narration exists to tell us an interesting story. We're offered additional details and back information that accompanies what we are seeing on the screen.
We're even given some definitions and insight into the world of these Goodfellas.
Yes, Scorsese cheats that narration by briefly shifting from Henry's narration to his wife Karen. However, at that moment, she is telling us a story from her point of view, so it's a stylistic choice from Scorsese that is slightly justified.
And then something unique occurs at the end. The voiceover narration suddenly turns into the breaking of the fourth wall as Henry speaks directly to the camera. This backs up the notion that we're being told a story — that the narration is a confession, a witness's account, and a tale being told.
5. Fight Club
Voiceover was an essential tool in adapting Chuck Palahniuk's novel. Without it, we don't get a sense of the first-person narrative of the book, nor do we get to taste the distaste of the author's depiction of consumerism.
The Narrator's voiceover takes us on the journey of being a consumer to bemoaning consumerism. We feel a possible slip into madness, only to later realize that we're witnessing just one side of his mind as it grasps what the other side is doing.
We're also given another example of the stylistic choice of breaking the fourth wall. This jolts the audience because we go from an otherwise routine voiceover narration to the characters actually speaking directly to us. It's different. It's original. And it's a little invigorating being in on the action.
6. The Usual Suspects
One unique element that this film brings to the voiceover mix is the notion of whether or not we should trust the narrator.
By the end of Fight Club, we understand that we've been somewhat duped. By the end of The Usual Suspects, we've been outright lied to and misled. But that's the whole point. Verbal's confession and witness account is a ruse, meant to buy time and throw the detective off of the true scent.
It's a brilliant usage of voiceover and narration. We've established that Verbal is being questioned. The flashbacks to the story are the story that he is telling. We listen as the detective listens. As we watch the action unfold, it's meant to be the elaboration of that telling that is not evident within the voiceover and narration.
And in the end, the reveal shocks us. We fell for it, just like the detective did.
Terence Malick is an auteur that uses voiceover in such a way that is almost dreamlike. In Badlands, Holly's narration offers us insight into the innocence of her character, despite the violence that we are seeing her witness. And it's unsettling to hear her justification of her and her lover's actions.
8. The Royal Tenenbaums
Wes Anderson uses voiceover in a more reliable and authoritative way. We trust the narrator — voiced by Alec Baldwin — because he's never a character that we see onscreen. Instead, he's an authority on the Tenenbaums, slipping us details and setting the proper tone for each scene to come.
This makes the voiceover unique compared to most films that utilize this tool. It elevates the content of the narration and sets an original atmosphere and tone to the film.
9. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
This film, written by Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight), uses voiceover satire. The detective mystery and film noir are two specific styles of cinematic storytelling ripe with tropes, including the use of voiceover.
Black decides to send that trope up by having Robert Downey Jr.'s character break the fourth wall to the point where the character actually acknowledges that they are narrating a movie. It's a stylistic choice that enhances the otherwise conventional murder mystery story, giving us something different within an otherwise conventional murder mystery and film noir genre feature.
Stay through to the end of this clip.
10. Bull Durham
The voiceover within this film is shared by the two leads. We open with Annie explaining the lore of baseball and her unique place within the game. She's the primary voice of the voiceover throughout the film.
But then we shift to a moment where Crash is coming up to bat. The voiceover is his, now showcasing the inner thoughts of a baseball player as they try to get a hit.
Since the film is a love letter to the love of baseball — and love itself — we forgive the voiceover shift as we get to experience the thoughts of a baseball player.
11. Stranger Than Fiction
One of the most original usages of voiceover comes in the form of a protagonist whose life becomes unhinged when he starts to hear an author's narration of his life within his head.
This voiceover from Emma Thompson points to the character's various faults and missteps, which, in turn, makes him question each and every part of his life.
While it would be difficult to emulate this type of voiceover in another script without being overly derivative of this original concept, it does open some doors to thinking outside of the box when it comes to narration and voiceover.
12. Easy A
The story is narrated by Olive as she speaks into her webcam. We see her addressing the camera and we hear her through offscreen voiceover as well.
The narration is unique because it plays into the plot of the film. By the end of the story, she convinces people to watch her webcast, which turns out to be the story of the film we just witnessed where she declares that who she sleeps with is nobody's business.
Voiceover is shared by a handful of lead and supporting characters throughout the film, shifting the perspective and giving us a look into the varied contexts of the story of the school's election.
To Tracy Flick, the election is her birthright.
To Mr. McAllister, it's a nuisance that spirals and ruins his life.
To Paul and his sister Tammy, it's just a step they take through their teenage trials and tribulations.
The voiceover shift between multiple characters offers character insight and perspective that we wouldn't have otherwise had.
14. Stand By Me
Stephen King's original novella, The Body, was masterfully adapted into this feature film, retaining its tone, atmosphere, and original narrative of Gordy telling the story of his youth adventure with the best friends he ever had.
We open with narration, revealing a character thinking back on his youth after reading an article about a lawyer that was recently killed.
"I was twelve going on thirteen the first time I saw a dead human being."
That opening live of voiceover is the concept of the story.
The voice continues to narrate the story, revealing lines of dialogue that enriched the dramatized scenes, much like Robert McKee prefers.
By the end of the film, it's revealed that the voiceover was actually the text of a story the narrator was writing.
15. The Shawshank Redemption
Another Stephen King novella that was masterfully adapted for the screen, retaining the original tone, atmosphere, and narrative structure. Many of the lines within the book were taken verbatim and employed within the screenplay.
Morgan Freeman's voice certainly enhanced the voiceover, as his voice does with pretty much everything he reads. But the fact that the character of Red was narrating this take of hope points to the strength of using perspective to enhance theme and characterization.
Had the story been narrated by Andy, we would have lost his whimsical characterization. But with Red as the narrator, Andy stood as a figure of hope, resilience, and finally, perseverance.
Our selections are based solely on their merit of the subject at hand with the full knowledge that many other movies are worthy to be featured — we're just selecting our own fifteen. If you have additional suggestions, please share in the comments and retweets to spread the word.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies