Monday, April 13, 2009

Voiceover in screenplay and in prose

The relationship between story, film and prose has been on my mind these last few days.
I was once told that it is a 'rule' of screenwriting that you should not invoke a narrator to TELL your audience things. I guess the idea is that the images should be well enough constructed to leave no need for this kind of exposition.
Novelists, of course, love the voice of the narrator. It is their own voice - even if it is sometimes disguised as the voice of a character. It is such a fundamental too in the writer's toolkit, that it is hard to imagine writing a whole novel without it. Where would Anna Karenina or Pride and Prejudice be without those iconic opening lines - the novelistic equivalent of narrative voiceover?
I found myself thinking about a film project today and wondering if I could put in a voiceover. Is this just a novelist's weakness? I spent a few minutes reminding myself of some of the really good uses of a narrative voiceover in film. The two films I though about were Trainspotting and Amelie. The openings of both rely heavily on voiceover. In each case it works to stunning effect. Why? Possibly because the lines being delivered are SO strong.
I guess there are no rules in writing - except to make it good.


Paul Lamb said...

I've long thought that the narrator of a novel (even if it is 3rd person omniscient and not a participant in the story) should be a recognizable character, at least in the writer's mind if not to the reader. Imagine a story being narrated by Sean Connery or Ricky Gervais. Each would tell the same story in very different ways. Is the story being narrated around a campfire or on a long plane flight? Is the story being told to an eager audience or a hostile one? Does the narrator respect the protagonist or despise him? And so forth. In a more literal way, I think this is what is meant by narrative voice. (Or what it can mean.)

This kind of thing ought to be settled in the writer's mind by the time of the 2nd draft so that the narration can be sustained and controlled.

Rod Duncan said...

Good points, Paul.

And going back to the film analogy, the Trainspotting voiceover comes from one of the characters. The Amelie voiceover comes from an omniscient narrator.

When I wrote Backlash, a first person present tense novel, I had a distinct feeling about where the POV character was in respect to the events of the story.

Present tense was her way of narrating events in the recent past. She was one of those people who drop into present tense when they get really engaged in the story they are telling. She was sitting on a chair and telling me her story. All I did was write it down.

Niki M said...

There seems to be a school of thought and quite a bit of snobbery about this among screenwriters I've spoken to. I think you're right, though, no rules as long as it's good, but I find I avoid voiceover at the moment because of being a novelist, and worrying too much about what other people might think about me using it, rather than what's best for the screenplay. I do think it's used a lot for adaptations but it does usually add something - like that opening monologue in Trainspotting. I can't imagine that working nearly as well if a character said it in the dialogue, and having it missing would be terribly sad. Hmm... I think what's really effective about that opening scene is the juxtaposition of the themes of the voiceover speech with the action. I think that tends be the way voiceover works best. But with Amelie it's not that. This time it's to do with character, setting her up as someone who invents these narratives, and also to do with the fictional/fairytale feel to the movie. They try to do something similar in the TV series Pushing Daisies but I don't think it works as well there...

Rod Duncan said...

Niki - I think you hit the nail on the head when you say that as a novelist you back away from using voiceover - because it is the trap we might naturally fall into, and people will assume. I do the same.

I watched Adaptation again the other night - which begins (ironically) with voiceover on black screen.