By Keith Storrier
“… and God help you if you use voice-over in your work, my friends. God help you! It’s flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of a character. You must present the internal conflicts of your character in action.”
Robert McKee (played by Brian Cox) in Adaptation
In his screenwriting bible, Story, Robert McKee forever demonized the use of voice-over narration as a screenwriting device in the space of just two pages. He states that “the trend toward using telling narration throughout a film threatens the future of our art” (McKee, 1997, p344) and goes on to condemn “fine directors” who “indulge in this indolent practice” (McKee, 1997, p344), repeatedly reciting the screenwriting mantra “show, don’t tell” as justification for his viewpoint. McKee’s book was, and still is, hugely popular and as such his standpoint on voice-over is one that has been latched upon up by many subsequent authors and screenwriting “gurus” for whom it seems easier to regurgitate and distill McKee’s words down to a simple “never use voice-over narration” than it is to explain why writers should avoid using voice-over in some instances but how, in other instances, voice-over can be used as an effective screenwriting tool.
Often used as a “literary device and usually indicates the original source material” (Frensham, 2008, p176), a narrator can take several forms, each presenting their story from different perspectives and so fulfilling several functions. For example, a third-person narrative is perhaps the most widely used narrative mode in literature as it gives the author the greatest freedom. Third-person narrators are not characters in the story being told, rather an unspecified entity who refers to the story characters as “he”, “she”, “they”. Examples include The Royal Tanenbaums (Anderson, 2001), Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (McKay, 2004), Magnolia (Anderson, 1999). These narrators can be further categorized as omniscient, i.e. has knowledge of everyone and everything within the story world, or they can be limited, i.e. has knowledge of everything pertaining to just one single character (usually the protagonist). Because of the God-like quality of third-person narrators they can lend an element of objective reliability to the story, however they can also create a distance between the audience and the story – a disadvantage if the author’s desire is to have his audience identify with his characters. On the other hand a first-person narrative is one where the narrator is a character appearing in the film and who refers to himself in the first-person (“I” and “we”). Examples include Trainspotting (Boyle, 1996), Forrest Gump (Zemeckis, 1994), Apocalypse Now (Ford Coppola, 1979). First-person narrators can bring credibility, an air of truthful dependability, to the story being related since the audience is effectively being told a story from someone who was there at the time. They can also help the audience empathise with the narrator and, depending on his point of view, with the other characters in his story by sharing his personal thoughts and feelings.
Because of this single point of view whereby there may be some information in the story world that is unknown to the narrator, first person narratives can add an element of foreshadowing or foreboding and therefore works particularly well for stories containing an element of suspense. The Shawshank Redemption is an example of the use of first person narration as an effective screenwriting device to draw the audience into the story world and to humanize a tale set in the dehumanizing environment of a prison.
The film was adapted from a Stephen King novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption and tells the story of Andy Dufresne, a banker wrongly imprisoned in Shawshank State Prison for the murder of his wife and her lover. During his incarceration, he befriends fellow inmate, Ellis “Red” Redding, and earns the protection of the prison authorities by helping the warden cover up his money laundering operation. The original source material was written in the style of a first-person narrative so it would seem the obvious choice to use the same device for the film adaptation, but the writer (and director) Frank Darabont was initially reluctant to use narration because of the device’s reputation in film:
“The narration gave me pause when I was writing the script. Like halfway through I suddenly froze and said ‘Oh my God what am I doing.’ Because people do sometimes bitch about narration.”
Citing the much-derided narration of Blade Runner (Scott, 1982) as an example of when narration doesn’t work – when it is applied, not as an integral part of the storytelling but as an intrusive afterthought, tagged on at the whim of a nervous studio to help explain the plot to confused test audiences. Darabont goes on:
“In Shawshank, the novella was written by Stephen King in the first person. I had sought a very amiable folksy feel to the narrative, as if Red himself were telling you the story. Red’s voice was so present to me in the book I really couldn’t imagine the movie without that voice. It just seems very intrinsic to the story telling. Nevertheless, as I was saying, halfway through the script I froze up…am I really misusing this…are people gonna, like, hate this because narration can be intrusive? I am guilty of telling rather than showing?”
The personal touch, or “amiable folksy feel” as Darabont calls it, that the first-person narrative brings to Shawshank, immediately draws the audience in to Red’s (the narrator) world. Indeed, his first piece of narration is an expository personal introduction:
There’s a con like me in every prison
in America, I guess. I’m the guy who
can get it for you. Cigarettes, a
bag of reefer if you’re partial, a
bottle of brandy to celebrate your
kid’s high school graduation. Damn
near anything, within reason.
He slips somebody a pack of smokes, smooth sleight-of-hand.
Yes sir, I’m a regular Sears &
Notice the wording. Red does not say “I’m the guy who can get it” or “I’m the guy who can get it for fellow cons” but “I’m the guy who can get it for you”, “a bottle of brandy to celebrate your kid’s high school graduation”. Immediately, the narrator has drawn the audience into his world by addressing them directly in the manner of the oldest of storytelling forms – that of oral storytelling. Red’s joke, comparing himself to the Sears & Roebuck department store, demonstrates his character as being affable and trustworthy as opposed to a hard, threatening convict. While the visuals which accompany this narration sees Red covertly slip a packet of cigarettes into the hand of one of his inmate customers, thus the narration does not come at the expense of the visual but rather as an accompaniment – it is not so much a case of “show, don’t tell” rather “show and tell”.
A potential disadvantage of using first person narrative is that the single point of view it conveys, while bringing the audience to one character, can alienate them from other characters. Shawshank uses this to its advantage however. Because we never know what Andy is thinking or feeling directly it helps to maintain the mystery of his character. He is kept at an intriguing distance from the audience.
This “amiable” feel of Red’s narration also helps set the tone of the film from the outset. The casual, almost literary wording, the lightheartedness of the ‘Sears’ comment and the request to “smuggle Rita Hayworth into the prison for him” (Darabont, 1994) all delivered in Morgan Freeman’s relaxed drawl suggests that this may not be a gritty, downbeat prison drama. This establishing the tone of a movie is also demonstrated in American Beauty. Without narration, the ending of the movie, where protagonist Lester is shot dead, could be construed as a sucker-punch, a downbeat ending that could have left the audience feeling a little cheated, especially when juxtaposed to the light hearted, black comedy that had gone before it. However, the opening narration sees Lester introduce himself and cheerfully announce that within the year he will be dead. By stating this shock piece of information up front the audience is forewarned and allows the audience, as John Truby puts it, “to focus on the steps of the hero’s journey – both his fall and rise – instead of on what’s going to happen at the end. In other words, Ball sacrifices suspense for understanding, texture and depth.”
The narrator is absent for a moment as the drama takes over – Red and his friends take bets on the survival rates of the new inmates, Andy included, as they are paraded through the prison yard on their way to the admitting hall. Here we are introduced to the Warden and the tough, uncompromising guard, Hadley, as the inmates are then locked up for the night. The narrator returns to give us more expository dialogue on the hardships of that first night in prison.
The first night’s the toughest, no
doubt about it. They march you in
naked as the day you’re born, fresh
from a Bible reading, skin burning
and half-blind from that delousing
shit they throw on you…
Red watches from his cell, arms slung over the crossbars, cigarette dangling from his fingers.
…and when they put you in that
cell, when those bars slam home,
that’s when you know it’s for real.
Old life blown away in the blink of
an eye…a long cold season in hell
stretching out ahead…nothing
left but all the time in the world
to think about it.
These are not just the words of some ignorant convict; the language here is almost poetic. Although the audience can see the naked inmates being locked in their cells and, as the scene progresses, can see one terrified new inmate breaking down, the narration here again serves to compliment the visuals rather than replace them. With its use of emotive language, the often wistful narration earns its place in the film almost as a literary work in its own right. Although this scene would make sense without the narration, the inclusion of the almost lyrical reminiscences of Red makes the narration enjoyable to the ear rather than an unwelcome aural intrusion. A similar example can be found in Badlands (Malik, 1973). Here, the first-person narrator is Holly, a fifteen-year-old girl who accompanies her boyfriend, Kit, on a killing spree. Her narration is poetic throughout, almost dreamlike. Her romantic, fanciful descriptions create dramatic irony juxtaposed as they are to the murderous reality of her situation and which also serve to demonstrate the youth and naivety of her character. Soon after Kit has just shot and killed Holly’s father in front of her:
Kit made me get my books from school, so I wouldn’t fall behind. We’d be starting a new life, he said. And we’d have to change our names. His would be James. Mine would be Priscilla. We’d hide out like spies, somewhere in the North, where people didn’t ask a lot of questions.
None of the narration in Shawshank is “on the nose”. It never serves to inform the audience of something that is a) crucial to the story, or b) is not shown visually. The narration could be removed entirely and the story would still make sense. For example, following the scene where Hadley beats Bogs, the leader of ‘The Sisters’, in retaliation for his gang’s sexual assault on Andy, Red tells us:
…and Bogs never walked again. They
transferred him to a minimum security
hospital upstate. To my knowledge,
he lived out the rest of his days
drinking his food through a straw.
This narration is not required in order for the audience to make sense of the scene. We see Hadley beating Bogs, we see the severely injured Bogs being wheeled into an ambulance and subsequently neither he nor his gang appear in the film again. The intent of the scene – that in return for his tax advice, Andy is now under the protection of the guards who solve his bullying problem – is delivered visually with the motivations of all players being understood. The audience doesn’t need to know that Bogs never walked again or where he served out the remainder of his sentence, but at this point in the story (almost 42 minutes in) the audience has come to expect, and perhaps welcome, Red’s narrative take on events (arguably, having the extent of Bogs’ comeuppance spelled out may serve as an element of closure for the audience, safe in the knowledge that Bogs got exactly what he deserved).
Another aspect of film storytelling for which narration can be useful is charting the passing of time. This is especially useful in Shawshank where the story of Andy’s incarceration takes place over a period of 19 years. Red’s narration casually smooth’s over some of the inevitable gaps in the story’s timeline. After being imprisoned in 1947, Andy is soon regularly beaten and raped by ‘The Sisters’. This becomes his routine for a period of time:
And that’s how it went for Andy. That
was his routine. I do believe those
first two years were the worst for
him. And I also believe if things
had gone on that way, this place
would have got the best of him.
But then, in the spring of 1949,
the powers-that-be decided that…
And later, Red charts another passing of time by narrating Andy’s rise in popularity as he firstly does the taxes of one guard, the following year he does the taxes of half the guards, the year after he does all the guards taxes, until eventually he does the taxes of guards from other prisons. But, as before, this narration accompanies the visuals of several scenes where we see Andy doing paperwork to an increasingly long queue of prison guards. Showing and telling.
Narration can also be used to effectively demonstrate the character of both the narrator and, by association, the characters in the story he passes comment on. After giving his less than favourable first impressions of Andy (an impression which is relayed using simile rather than a literal description of Andy’s appearance), Red bets with his fellow inmates that Andy will crack on his first night.
I must admit I didn’t think much of
Andy first time I laid eyes on him.
He might’a been important on the
outside, but in here he was just a
little turd in prison grays. Looked
like a stiff breeze could blow him
over. That was my first impression
of the man.
Red loses the bet.
His first night in the joint, Andy
Dufresne cost me two packs of
cigarettes. He never made a sound…
Demonstrating that, despite his appearances, there is more to Andy than meets the eye. He is built of sterner stuff. And soon after, in Red and Andy’s first scene together, Andy introduces himself and seeks to engage Red’s services in acquiring him a rock hammer. The scene lasts a couple of minutes and is played without narration until the two men part when Red’s narration sums up their meeting and his thoughts on Andy:
I could see why some of the boys
took him for snobby. He had a quiet
way about him, a walk and a talk
that just wasn’t normal around
here. He strolled. like a man in a
park without a care or worry. Like
he had on an invisible coat that
would shield him from this place.
(resumes playing catch)
Yes, I think it would be fair to
say I liked Andy from the start.
At this point in the story, because Red has already established himself to the audience as a dependable, amiable man, they can therefore confidently trust his judgement. If Red likes Andy, then he must be a likeable character and therefore the audience should like him too. This also demonstrates Red’s character – the fact that he can see beyond Andy’s outward appearance to the man inside.
Once a narrator has been firmly established as part of the film’s narrative, his constant commentary can serve as a reassuring presence to the audience. As such, the sudden absence of the narrator can have an unnerving effect, heightening the drama of a scene/sequence. In Shawshank, Red comments on proceedings with almost metronomic regularity, his voice appearing approximately every five minutes, until the arrival of Tommy – a young convict imprisoned on robbery charges. The audience’s opinion of Tommy is formed in almost exactly the same way as that of Andy…
We liked him immediately.
We like Red, therefore we also like Tommy. As Tommy settles into Red and Andy’s circle of friends, he learns the reason for Andy’s imprisonment. He reveals that an inmate at another prison confessed to Tommy that it was he, not Andy, who killed Andy’s wife and her lover. When Andy informs the Warden of this information, information that could secure Andy’s release, the Warden is uncooperative (fearing that Andy may inform on the Wardens corrupt financial dealings) and throws Andy into solitary confinement. The Warden meets with Tommy and, after confirming that he would be willing to testify on Andy’s behalf, has Tommy killed, thus ruining any chance of release Andy may have had. Andy talks mournfully to Red about his past and future in a discourse heavy with hints of suicide, uttering the classic line “get busy living or get busy dying”. The threat of suicide is compounded when a fellow con tells Red that Andy asked him to obtain a 6-foot length of rope. This sequence of events takes up 22 minutes of screen time during which the screenwriter has opted to withhold any narration. With the loss of their guide, the audience are forced to watch these suspenseful events draw to their ‘inevitable’ conclusion without the comforting presence of their chaperone, thus heightening the dramatic experience for the audience – will Andy kill himself or not?
Red’s narration does not return until we see that Andy has not killed himself but instead has escaped. This is another effective use of a narrator – to punctuate the change of tone in a movie. The story has gone from the tension of the end of act 2 (Andy’s ‘suicide’) into the uplifting third act (Andy’s resurrection). This use of narration in the transition between acts is one, which even McKee regards as “inoffensive”.
In choosing to retain the narration of the original source material, Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption demonstrates all positive aspects of using voice-over narration whilst avoiding all the negatives. It is used to convey important insights into the narrator’s character, insights that may have come across clumsily if relayed via dialogue or visuals alone. Its warm, thoughtful delivery draws the audience into the story world as though they were being told this epic tale by a friendly storyteller. The narration does not tell the story, it merely comments on the story already being told through visuals or, as McKee puts it, it is not “telling narration”, that is narration which “if you stripped it out, it would leave the audience in the dark – they would not be able to follow the story” (McKee, 2009).
As William C Martell puts it – “Voice Over adds an ADDITIONAL LAYER to the story. Think of it as the icing on the cake. It’s not the cake. You can eat the cake without the icing, but it’s even better with the icing.” (Martell, 2010).
Frensham, Ray. Teach Yourself Screenwriting. (Teach Yourself, 2008)
King, Stephen, ‘Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption‘, from Different Seasons. (Hodder, 2006)
Kozloff, Sarah. Invisible Storytellers. Voice-over Narration in American Fiction Film. (University of California Press, 1988)
McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screen writing. (Methuen, 2008)
Mackendrick, Alexander. On Film-making: An Introduction to the Craft of the Director. (Faber and Faber, 2005)
Adaptation, dir. Spike Jonze (2002)
American Beauty, dir. Sam Mendes (1999)
Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, dir. Adam McKay (2004)
Apocalypse Now, dir. Francis Ford Coppola (1979)
Blade Runner, dir. Ridley Scott (1982)
Fight Club, dir. David Fincher (1999)
Forrest Gump, dir. Robert Zemeckis (1994)
Goodfellas, dir. Martin Scorcese (1990)
Magnolia, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson (1999)
Platoon, dir. Oliver Stone (1986)
Raising Arizona, dir. Coen/Coen (1987)
The Royal Tanenbaums, dir. Wes Anderson (2001)
The Shawshank Redemption, dir. Frank Darabont (1994)
Trainspotting, dir. Danny Boyle (1994)
Darabont, Frank. The Shawshank Redemption. Available at http://www.dailyscript.com/scripts/shawshank.html [Accessed 18 April 2011].
Don’t miss a deadline. Download our Contest Calendar!