The voice-over: friend or foe of the scenario?

6 March 2019. Published by Benoît Labourdette.

Voice-over is often discouraged in academic scriptwriting textbooks, which focus on the dramatic situation rather than on an interiority considered potentially boring. And yet, many films, and even “mainstream products”, successfully use voiceover. Here are some concrete practical suggestions for a “conscious use” of voice-over!

Literature and cinema

Cinema has historically been defined in relation to literature and theatre, as it has been (and still is) mainly used as a narrative tool. However, cinema can do much more than tell stories. It can be used for its rhythmic properties (video clips for example), plastic (a large part of contemporary art has been made of cinema since the end of the 20th Century), documentary (sharing singular views of the world), philosophical (exploring the complexity of a thought), educational, political... and many other uses.

One of the first script lessons, to differentiate between literature and cinema, that I myself teach, is that in a novel you can write “Jeanne pense à son chat”, whereas in a film you will have to find many tricks for staging to be able to get the same idea across. For example, a shot of Jeanne’s eyes in the vague, then a shot of the chat, the image a little blurry (a “flash-back”). Or, more finely, we saw earlier in the film that the cat was wearing a blue collar, which Jeanne liked to touch, and then we see Jeanne staring at a blue scarf placed in a circle on a chair.

On the other hand, in the cinema, it would seem incongruous to see Jeanne’s face and hear these words in voice-over: “I think of my cat”. It would be a little ridiculous, distant, the viewer would be much less involved in sharing the character’s experience than in the two previous film proposals.

What this example shows is not that voice-over is a bad choice for cinema, it is that the ways of telling a story in cinema and literature are essentially different. Obviously there is a lot of overlap: some books seem very cinematographic because they describe concrete dramatic situations, and some films are very literary because they are made of a lot of text, spoken, written, with voices “in” and “off”. The differences in narrative, emotional, poetic, literary and film forms have given rise to many theses, it is a very vast and fascinating subject. And everyone has probably already been confronted with the question of literary adaptation: “I preferred the book” or “I preferred the film”.

Voice-over is a purely cinematographic element

So, basically, the voice-over is one of the “tools” at the disposal of the filmmaker, who, if it is used in a film, will have nothing to do with a literary “voice-over” in its use (which, in essence, does not really exist). Thus the voice-over has nothing strictly literary, it is, like all the other “elements” at our disposal (architecture, movement, actors, music, dance, narrative, etc.), potentially fully cinematographic.

Some manuals state that the use of voice-over would be an easy way to save the work of imagining a dramatic situation evocative of the character’s interiority. Indeed... but I assume that the scriptwriter is not a person who seeks any facility whatsoever, it is a person who seeks to develop his imagination, to risk the adventure of creation, otherwise he would not be a reader of this text!

Praise for the voice

The voice is one of the most embodied materials we have at our disposal in the cinematographic field. Why deprive yourself of it? It is one of the most singularly human things. It is also a precious “guiding thread” that can give immense visual freedom. And it is also the possibility of transmitting abstractions: a voice can be exciting, even if it does not tell a “story”.

Remember movies, or sequences of movies, in which a voice left a deep impression on you. Do the exercise: close your eyes, even for 30 seconds, and remember voice-overs in your memory palace. I leave you with the memories of some of your most beautiful film experiences....

So? What do you think of these voice-overs, which are written in you forever? A narrative facility? No, no, no, no, no, no! On the contrary, it is a power of evocation, depth and openness to possibilities that sometimes go completely beyond academism while remaining quite pleasant to follow. Why? Why? Because voice is the essence of the human being. And even incomprehensible voices, such as “grommelot”, work very well.

I’m not saying we should abuse of voice-over. I say that it is an absolutely wonderful tool at the service of a sensitive, profound and exciting cinema. Do not deprive your audience of it in the name of superficial principles.