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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Q. I have a script for a short film with no on-screen dialogue where we see the main character running errands in all the scenes, and hear a voiceover which we assume to be his voice, only to find out in the final scene when we actually see/hear his adversary speak that the voiceover belonged to him the whole time, and not to the main character.

The issue is with naming in the script. I need the reader to believe the same thing the viewer will believe, that the voice of the voiceover is the voice of the main character. There's no other dialogue in the script, and no indication of any of the characters' names.

If I name the narrator in the script, then I have to name the main character the same thing:
  • ROBERT holds his wife's hands.

  • ROBERT (V.O.)
  • I never believed in...

Then, in the "reveal," I could explain to the reader that the voice of the voiceover belongs to Robert's adversary, not to Robert.
  • The MAN AT THE DOOR speaks. We've been hearing his thoughts all along, not Robert's.

  • But now I have no choice but to...

But that seems clunky. So I'm wondering how to approach this.
Wow, yeah, that is a conundrum. Because if you label the voiceover "MAN'S VOICE" then the alert reader will immediately twig what you're going to do.

First of all, note that the above example won't quite do. If you are going to reveal the trick, make sure the reader can't possibly miss it.
  • The MAN AT THE DOOR speaks. And we realize it's his voice we've been hearing all along -- not Robert's!

I don't think there's a good answer here -- you have to pick one. I would probably be honest and say "We hear a MAN'S VOICE we assume to be Robert's."

I do wonder, though, if the most interesting way to go is the surprise at the end. Would it be more interesting if we start to get clues halfway through that it's not the onscreen hero's voice? Rather than pushing that revelation at the audience, would it be more fun for the audience if they start to twig on their own? Just thinking out loud...

Hey, readers... which way would you handle this one?

Labels: ,


A friend of mine used the same concept for a short detective noir of his. His approach was to not name the main character at all. He just referred to the character as "man". And when it came to revealing the twist he pulled out a, "this is the man's voice we've been listening to all along, not this gent in black", something like that.

Could work?

By Blogger THE FLEMINIST, at 9:26 AM  

Right, so you could name the character MAN and simply label the voiceover VOICEOVER, but it still forces you to _explain_ to the reader what happens in that final scene. That's the part that feels clunky - the explanation to the reader.

Is there any way of writing it that would capture the same emotion the viewer would feel? Think of the reveal in The Sixth Sense.

By Blogger PP, at 10:51 AM  

FWIW, I would probably do something like Clifford suggests here.

And if, as a reader, I saw this, it would not bother me in the least.

By Blogger Fun Joel, at 11:20 AM  

I'm actually inclined to agree with everyone above, but I also REALLY like the idea of dropping clues for the audience to figure out, though that's a bit of a tightrope between dropping too many and not enough clues.

People LIKE to figure things out, it makes them feel smart, and who doesn't like feeling smart?

By Blogger Patrick Regan, at 12:33 PM  

I don't think the reveal has to be too clunky. You can do it with looks and perspective. And you can always give one or both of the characters a descriptive name:

As he walks down the street, a man in a fur hat looks up.

And finally... there he was.

He doesn't notice the man in the fur hat until the guy blocks his path.

Hello, Robert.

The man in the fur hat... is our narrator.

By Blogger Seth, at 1:56 PM  

The few times I've enjoyed trick endings stories were when I got piles upon piles of clues to what I was missing, but I *still* missed it until the reveal (or -much better- until about 5 seconds before the reveal, so I got to feel smart because I picked it up before the other guy).

By Blogger Unknown, at 4:45 PM  

What seems to me to be missing is the reason we would assume the voiceover and the running man are the same person. If you cemented this to start with, eg by showing him looking at something and the VO describing it at the same time, you could start to subvert it, introducing some apparent incongruity which would be resolved by the reveal.

The danger is that if you didn't start off like that, smartasses like me would get it straight away, like I did The Sixth Sense, (from the trailer).

By Blogger blogward, at 5:34 PM  

Easy solution. Both men are named Robert.


By Blogger Keith, at 7:56 PM  

I would just go with 'Narrator'. If it lends itself naturally to the assumption that the actor and the narrator are one in the same, that probably means it will work on screen.
The danger with tricks, for me at least, is that they become the reason for telling the story rather than the means for telling the story. I'm not trying to make a style vs. substance argument, and of course I've not read the work in question, but I get really bored when story and character are given short shrift to a gimmick. In fact, apart from some noir novels, I can't remember enjoying that kind of storytelling. I'd be interested to know of some good cinematic examples.

By Blogger OutOfContext, at 9:20 AM  

Naming it NARRATOR makes it too removed from the character, naming it the character is dishonest, but naming it VOICEOVER, while unconventional, at least works.

As for dropping clues, the key is to write the entire voiceover so it makes perfect sense when understood from either character's perspective, but, after the reveal, for the interpretation of the lines to mean obviously different things to its actual source when viewed a second time.

S's suggestion for the reveal is probably the most elegant one. I always hate using "we" in the action, though.

Blogward, the reason why we'd assume they're the same person is because we have no reason not to. The voiceover is a first person monologue describing the character's feelings and beliefs. We're just programmed to put two and two together - "I'm watching this guy do all these things. He's not saying anything. The voiceover is in the first person. Clearly I must be listening to this character's inner thoughts." No?

As for outofcontext, the story could be told straight, without the "trick," but the story is actually about this exact kind of trick (in a way), so ending with the trick is intended to be a poetic way of driving the meaning of the story home. Perhaps a gamble in that it could be seen as a gimmick.

Good examples? The Sixth Sense and The Village. I'm rare in that I love The Village - not because of the Shyamalan ending, but because I think it's a beautiful love story. Yes, I know I'm in the minority on that one. Any other examples I can think of usually disappointed me because they did that flashback thing after the reveal to show the viewer exactly how and where they had been tricked, which, obviously, is lame. Lame as in uncool? No, lame as in unable to walk.

By Blogger PP, at 10:44 AM  

...the reason why we'd assume they're the same person is because we have no reason not to. The voiceover is a first person monologue describing the character's feelings and beliefs. We're just programmed to put two and two together - "I'm watching this guy do all these things. He's not saying anything. The voiceover is in the first person. Clearly I must be listening to this character's inner thoughts." No?

Not necessarily. Especially once it became obvious that the voiceover wasn't an exposition device and was going to the end. Personally I would have every reason to question whether the character and VO were the same. QED:) I would enjoy being led down the garden path, though.

By Blogger blogward, at 12:27 PM  

This comment has been removed by the author.

By Blogger Bas, at 7:15 AM  

This comment has been removed by the author.

By Blogger Bas, at 7:15 AM  

Naming the narrator NARRATOR or VOICEOVER(V.O.) runs the risk that the professional reader may think the writer does not understand his business...

Clifford's suggestion is a good one : Don't use names, use MAN IN COAT and MAN WITH HAT and use MAN(V.O.); this does not specify WHICH man but a reader will naturally assume it's the man we see.

About the reveal at the end : Beware that the rest of the story should be interesting too, so it's essential to show a few things that let's the reader wonder what's going on, as Alex suggests. Otherwise you may end up with a rather boring story with a brilliant twist no-one will see because they are asleep by that point ;-)

By Blogger Bas, at 7:15 AM  

Eek - sorry about all the double posts, I missed the feedback that my post was saved :-(

By Blogger Bas, at 7:17 AM  

May be confusing but howabout character: ROBERT, adversary: BOB, or JAMES and JIM.

The reader assumes it's the same person but then when we see BOB or JIM we'll have that same reveal.


By Blogger Eleanor, at 6:03 AM  

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