A FOOLISH CONSISTENCY...Complications Ensue
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Sunday, August 13, 2006

... is the hobgoblin of little minds, said Ralph Waldo Emerson. (Note: he did not say that "consistency" was the hobgoblin. Only foolish consistency.) I thought of that the other night as we watched When Harry Met Sally -- about as perfect a romantic comedy as you could ask for.

Shortly after Harry and Sally finally hook up, and Harry bails on her the following morning, we get Harry and Sally's voice overs as they're going through their lives and trying to convince themselves everything's okay. It is the only time in the movie we get a voice over.

It works just fine.

I mention this because there seems to be an attitude out there that if you use certain techniques -- voice over, or flashbacks, or, I don't know, musical arias, you have to use them in a consistent way. If you're writing a TV show, if you have a voice over in your pilot, you have to have it in all your shows; if you don't have a voice over in your pilot, you can't have one in episode 5. Likewise if you plan to use a voice over on page 60 of your comedy, you have to use it a couple of times earlier.

Phooey. All of these things are tools in your narrative toolbox. If there's one place in your script where a voice over is the best way to communicate something that's going on -- say your heroine has just been shot and she's blacking out and you want to show us her last few thoughts -- then use it.

TV is more problematic. Of course when you're writing a spec script you need to hew as closely as possible to the style of the show. So that means that yes, if you are writing a spec Grey's Anatomy you need to put in that pretentious, silly Meredith Grey voice over. And if you're speccing CSI, you might not be able to get away with a voice over, even if it's perfect for what you want to do.

But if you are not writing a spec -- if you are staffing or even free lancing a show, or writing a feature -- go for it. The audience understands voice over and flashback and jump cuts and all the other narrative tools you do. Narrative tools no longer need to be explained or justified. Just use whatever seems best to you.

The only criterion you have to satisfy is that you should never use a narrative tool just for the sake of showing that you have it. It has to serve the story.



I wrote a first draft of a pilot show in which the story rested on prior events that were revealed as the narrative unfolded.

In the working-out this wasn't too satisfactory, as it meant that key moments were talked about instead of being witnessed. So in the second draft, I started the narrative earlier and showed everything that happened in linear fashion.

When the notes came back, all referred to 'the flashbacks' and the undesirability of same. I tried to point out that there wasn't a flashback anywhere in the script. They were still applying the timeframe of the first draft.

Didn't matter how many times I went over it.

By Blogger Stephen Gallagher, at 7:16 AM  

I'll have to respectfully disagree with your point, especially with voiceovers, which define a specific narrative point of view. A sudden VO in the middle of a script will take the audience out the story. It would be like an author shifting from third person to first person in the middle of a book, making the reader wonder what the hell is going on. Not good.

I think the writer has to make a choice, then clue the audience in right away. Is someone telling us their story or are we brought in by a detached observer? Can't have both, in my opinion.

By Blogger Shawn, at 10:42 AM  

So, Nora Ephron was wrong to give Harry a v.o.?

Was it wrong for Woody Allen to put subtitles in one scene of Annie Hall?

This is exactly the sort of theoretical point of view I'm against. I don't think the audience is that jarred any more.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 10:59 AM  

CSI did a voice over episode.

The voice was a creepy kid's voice. She had been left for dead somewhere, and had had her throat cut, thus the creepy voice.

Everybody assumed she was dead and missing, but one cop believed she was alive somewhere.

It worked for that episode, as it was different, and of course, you have to stick around to find out where that voice is coming from.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:59 PM  

Just my $.02 . . . .

I'll respectfully agree with Alex--although I think that you have to consider the tenor of the particular voiceover. (Voiceovers may not be a single tool in our writing kit so much as an entire palette of colors we can use at our discretion.)

If a V.O. is going to function as a framing device for a story--or as any kind of structural element--then consistency is probably vital. Speaking for myself: I wouldn't want Martin Sheen to start narrating Apocalypse Now two hours into the movie.

If, however, I were striving for a smaller, more local effect (the example of the wounded partner is a good one--or, the sequence from When Harry Met Sally), I could probably get away with less consistent or even one-time usage.

I'd go so far as to equate V.O.s to some of the photographic/editing devices that are employed by directors and their DPs. Some need to be used for an entire film. Others can be called upon to help illuminate one particular sequence.

How many times have you seen a particular editing/photographic effect used to enliven a particular action sequence? No larger consistency is required, so long as the device itself isn't supposed to be setting the theme/tone for the story as a whole . . . .

By Blogger Squirtgun, at 6:18 PM  

The issue with voiceover is that it's one of the easier tools to learn how to use. So new writers use it ... even when other, more complicated tools are better tools for the job.

Inexperienced writers, who haven't mastered the other tools, find themselves in the land of "if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." Why bother to learn how to externalize internal states through behavior when you just have the character say it to the audience?

Eschewing voiceover, therefore, has a valid pedagogical purpose: it forces you to learn to use these other tools. But when are the point where you don't need it, where you have the entire toolbox at your disposal, and you /still/ think voiceover is the right tool ... then you're probably right.

By Blogger Hotspur, at 9:24 PM  

Voiceovers run the risk of becoming first-level crutches that over-explain narrative. It's particularly true for writers (or, often, studio execs) who are unsure whether the audience is being hammered over the head hard enough with the plot points. The original cut of Blade Runner is a good example.

Unless the exposition is dynamite and teaching me something about the world (Casino, Goodfellas), I would rather experience a story where I feel like I'm figuring it out instead of having it narrated to me.

Annie Hall can be foriven for their use of v.o. because the rules of that narrative (time, diegesis etc.) are established early-on in the film and remain consistent (though crazy) throughout.

The When Harry Met Sally v.o. works because, after listening to Harry and Sally exfoliate their ideas-as-facts throughout the first hour+ of that film, it's a comforting switch to hear the insecure longings inside their head. Although the v.o. doesn't follow the stringent rules of narrative, it feels right, and that's the essential quality of compelling storytelling.

The whole point of rules is so that an audience won't feel betrayed by an insincere twist that they couldn't possibly expect. I think of it like reading a murder mystery where you're encouraged to follow the detective's process of discovery, then having the detective solve the mystery with a clue that the audience couldn't have possibly known about. An audience wants to work a little and sometimes, changing the rules too much can make them feel cheated.

By Blogger John Deckard, at 9:54 AM  

Hey Alex,

Concerning the narrative toolbox, what’s your word on writing dialogue for chatty improve-ish shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia? In Sunny, the characters spend most of their time bickering and speaking over each other. Would you try and match their natural interruptions and pauses word for word or write a script with complete thoughts and let them make it magical on set?

By Blogger David Cope, at 10:38 PM  

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