Agonizing over VOComplications Ensue
Complications Ensue:
The Crafty Screenwriting, TV and Game Writing Blog


April 2004

May 2004

June 2004

July 2004

August 2004

September 2004

October 2004

November 2004

December 2004

January 2005

February 2005

March 2005

April 2005

May 2005

June 2005

July 2005

August 2005

September 2005

October 2005

November 2005

December 2005

January 2006

February 2006

March 2006

April 2006

May 2006

June 2006

July 2006

August 2006

September 2006

October 2006

November 2006

December 2006

January 2007

February 2007

March 2007

April 2007

May 2007

June 2007

July 2007

August 2007

September 2007

October 2007

November 2007

December 2007

January 2008

February 2008

March 2008

April 2008

May 2008

June 2008

July 2008

August 2008

September 2008

October 2008

November 2008

December 2008

January 2009

February 2009

March 2009

April 2009

May 2009

June 2009

July 2009

August 2009

September 2009

October 2009

November 2009

December 2009

January 2010

February 2010

March 2010

April 2010

May 2010

June 2010

July 2010

August 2010

September 2010

October 2010

November 2010

December 2010

January 2011

February 2011

March 2011

April 2011

May 2011

June 2011

July 2011

August 2011

September 2011

October 2011

November 2011

December 2011

January 2012

February 2012

March 2012

April 2012

May 2012

June 2012

July 2012

August 2012

September 2012

October 2012

November 2012

December 2012

January 2013

February 2013

March 2013

April 2013

May 2013

June 2013

July 2013

August 2013

September 2013

October 2013

November 2013

December 2013

January 2014

February 2014

March 2014

April 2014

May 2014

June 2014

July 2014

August 2014

September 2014

October 2014

November 2014

December 2014

January 2015

February 2015

March 2015

April 2015

May 2015

June 2015

August 2015

September 2015

October 2015

November 2015

December 2015

January 2016

February 2016

March 2016

April 2016

May 2016

June 2016

July 2016

August 2016

September 2016

October 2016

November 2016

December 2016

January 2017

February 2017

March 2017

May 2017

June 2017

July 2017

August 2017

September 2017

October 2017

November 2017

December 2017

January 2018

March 2018

April 2018

June 2018

July 2018

October 2018

November 2018

December 2018

January 2019

February 2019

November 2019

February 2020

March 2020

April 2020

May 2020

August 2020

September 2020

October 2020

December 2020

January 2021

February 2021

March 2021

May 2021

June 2021

November 2021

December 2021

January 2022

February 2022

August 2022

September 2022

November 2022

February 2023

March 2023

April 2023

May 2023

July 2023

September 2023

November 2023

January 2024

February 2024


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.

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.

Labels: , ,


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 Kristinn SigurĂ°sson, 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 Marly K, 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  

Post a Comment

Back to Complications Ensue main blog page.

This page is powered by Blogger.