Studies in Voice-Over Narration (5 Part Series)

The Shawshank Redemption, Double Indemnity, Fight Club, American Beauty, A Christmas Story

I set this discussion into motion here and here. To wit: Hollywood conventional wisdom is that voice-over narration and flashbacks are a no-no, yet some of the greatest movies ever produced use these narrative devices including Fight Club, Goodfellas, The Silence of the Lambs, and Rashomon.

My conclusion: Voice-over narration and flashbacks are not inherently bad, rather they are tainted by how poorly they get executed by inexperienced writers.

Goal: Find five movies in which each is used well, then analyze those movies to come up with — hopefully — guidelines on how best to handle this pair of narrative devices.

Part 1: The Shawshank Redemption

Part 2: Double Indemnity

Part 3: Fight Club

Part 4: American Beauty

Part 5: A Christmas Story

The Robert McKee character in Adaptation may call the use of voice-over narration “flaccid, sloppy writing,” but that’s only if the writer’s execution is flaccid and sloppy. There is NOTHING inherently wrong with this device.

This series points out three major things to bear in mind when writing voice-over narration:

  • Don’t use voice-over narration for any other reason than the story cries out for it.
  • Don’t describe what we’re seeing, use voice-over narration to tell the reader something beyond what is being displayed in the visuals.
  • Make damn sure the text of the voice-over narration is entertaining.

Hollywood’s conventional wisdom may default to ‘voice-over narration = bad writing’, but that’s simply not true. Write it well and it can be an asset to a story. Like this:

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