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Tuesday, January 06, 2009

I'm struggling a with my comedy pilot and my brain sees that so many problems could be solved by V.O. I'm not talking exposition problems, I'm talking pace issues. I feel like I could put a lot more energy into my show if I had the character narrating it along. But then my gut asks if I'm just using the V.O. as a cop-out because I don't want to do the work to whip the story into shape. I'm positive you've talked about V.O. before, but I'm wondering if you can talk a little about making this type of choice in the development process and how experienced writers come to make that decision. There are a lot of great shows that use it.
ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, for example.

In a comedy, the rule is simple: does it make the show funnier?

ARRESTED uses the VO to skip over the dull, sane parts and get to the juiciest, most over the top awkward moments. Personally, I find it choppy for the same reason. I want to be pulled into the narrative more and the VO alienates me. You pays your money and you takes your pick. The danger with VO in a comedy is that you might be telling the audience, "HEY, I'M TELLING A JOKE HERE," and nothing kills a joke deader.

My rule for VO is whether it tells us something that cannot be communicated in some other way. For example, that scene in GREY'S ANATOMY where two people are speared through with a pipe and the doctors have to decide which one gets to live, and which has to die, and Meredith Gray's VO is telling us that she is stressing over whether McDreamy will kiss her or not. You definitely couldn't get that from the action or the dialog. She would never say anything so inane out loud.

SEX AND THE CITY used VO to bind together four often barely related story lines.

There are other uses for VO. I've noticed a lot of teen and tween shows seem to use them to get inside the hero or heroine's head. Is that because the lead actor isn't that good at communicating thought or emotion? Is it because the tween audience needs a second audio track to explain what is going on? In that case it is, perhaps, technically, a bit of a cop out, but it seems to work for the audience, who are presumably watching while also texting and "doing" their homework.

The VO is a great tool when used in counterpoint to what's happening on screen. ("He bought that???") You can even go with the ole untrustworthy narrator, who seems like your friend, but begins to stray more and more from what you're actually seeing.

VO is a perfectly valid tool, alongside the other unfairly maligned tool, the flashback. They both do things efficiently that would require a great deal of shoe leather to show otherwise.

They can also both be used as a crutch. But so can snappy dialog, or sweeps week lesbian romances.

The ultimate decision is in your gut. Do you want to make the voice of your show an explicit voice? Will the VO alienate your audience by breaking the fourth wall, or will it bring them further in? Will the VO bring things into text that want to remain in subtext, or will it twist an otherwise bald narrative into a psychological intrigue? Only you know whether you're adding more than you're subtracting. Just be brutally honest with yourself.

I will say this: If you're even asking yourself whether your VO has become a cop-out to avoid whipping the story into shape, then you already know the answer, don't you? Go back and fix your damn story. And then see whether VO is really your friend, or just some freaky stalker who keeps trying to friend you.

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10 Comments:

Alex, you may give a lot of good advice, and it is appreciated, but please stay away from criticizing sweep week lesbian romances, for the love of...lesbians.

I was listening to a Creative Screenwriting podcast (which I recommend, as well as the On The Page one), and one of the writers talked about doing VO. He advised against it, then talked about the fact that most of his favourite movies used VO.

The best advice I have heard about VO is that you should never, ever use it. Unless you want to.

By Blogger Tim W., at 11:21 PM  

I'd suggest that if you didn't plan on VO from the start, it isn't going to fix anything. Writing is rewriting.

By Blogger blogward, at 12:10 PM  

I really don't have a problem with VO any more than I have a problem with first person narration in a book. There is an intimate quality and a compression that allows you to amplify or counterpoint. This clip from Goodfellas begins with one of my favorite moments in VO.
Movies as diverse as La Jetee, Annie Hall and How Green Was My Valley all do VO well and for different reasons. I wonder if anyone can suggest movies that suffer because of VO. I'm hard pressed-with the possible exception of the recent My Zinc Bed, which had some annoying wrap up VO at the end of a movie I kind of enjoyed.

By Blogger OutOfContext, at 8:26 PM  

In regards to movies that suffer from VO I believe that David Lynch's Dune is the best example of VO used to terrible effect.

Blade Runner also did not benefit from the VO that were added at the last minute.

By Blogger kris, at 4:18 AM  

A show like Dexter uses voice-over to such a great effect. It would be a completely different show without it. Knowing what's really going on in Dexter's head is what makes the show great.

Gossip Girl on the other hand...

By Blogger Adriano Ariganello, at 5:10 PM  

I think VO can be used to great effect if it reveals character and personality. Sometimes it's used as a crutch for exposition or in a too writerly. I think in Annie Hall it works (obviously) but I think that Allen could've easily dispensed with it in Vicky Christina Barcelona. Like, for instance, when the narrator tells us that Christina was looking for a grand passion and that Vicky was looking for stability, well, eventually all of that becomes very clear regardless of the narration tipping the movie's hand, so to speak. Anyway, IMO. Btw, I hadn't realized until recently that flashbacks are another bugaboo. I have always quite liked them. I'm curious about why flashbacks are a no-no...

By Blogger Eme Kah, at 7:59 PM  

At a guess it's because of the way both VO and flashback are too often used for exposition. Dexter does VO well, and flashback was a standby of some of the best 40's noir, but never do you see either being used to explain "what's going on". In both cases, the narrator is usually unreliable, in that the return-to-reality outcome is a surprise to narrator and audience.

By Blogger blogward, at 11:22 AM  

I loved the voiceovers on Veronica Mars at first -- because a lot of what I liked about the show was the voice of Veronica -- but as time went on, it seemed the network forced them to increasingly use voiceover to explain plot points to audience members who weren't paying attention -- maybe to draw in more of the texting tweens Alex is talking about? While it wasn't the writers' fault, it was rather unfortunate. Try to avoid using voiceovers to pitch your show to the least adept audience members, is my advice.

By Blogger wrigleyfield, at 9:30 PM  

It's funny, I clicked over from the feed to bring up Veronica mars as well -- I've been rewatching it, and I'm onto Season 2. I think at its best, the voiceover makes the show more accessible without dumbing it down. It does tie up some plot points with a shiny bow, but it's not that annoying; the reason, I think, is that the writers always seem to enjoy writing Veronica's VO-voice. The show had uncharacteristically complex depth of emotion and twists of plot, and I think the VO makes it less forbidding.

By Blogger Wrongshore, at 12:09 PM  

It's true, the Voice of Veronica was probably the #1 reason why I watched. It's why I kept watching the later seasons, even though it's only season one, in my opinion, that was really brilliantly plotted.

By Blogger wrigleyfield, at 12:12 PM  

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