Where’s That Voice Coming From?

Hooray! No new post for February! Procrastination powers in full effect! (Like anybody besides my mom reads this blog anyway :-P)

Anywho, for the month of March I want to talk about that commonly used storytelling device: The Narrator. I’m pretty sure it’s the oldest storytelling device because, you know, the whole telling stories to each other in the olden days and what not. People have been doing this since forever. As society has evolved, so has our means of telling stories. Back when radio plays were the big thing, a narrator was pretty much essential. You had to have some way to describe what was happening to your audiences. However, movies are a predominantly visual media, and, as such, narration isn’t as necessary as it used to be. The saying “Show me, don’t tell me” is a good one to ascribe to.

Before I begin I am going to give you a head’s up that I am not going to talk about documentaries, although they tend to utilize a great deal of voice-over narration. I am specifically going to focus on movies with fictional stories.

I’ve heard people say that having narration in a movie is a sign of poor writing. For the most part I would agree with that statement. Of course, there are  examples of movies with good narration, but many times it is used as a crutch, especially in movies where there is a lot of narration. On the other hand, a little bit of narration can be a good thing, particularly if the movie plot involves a lot of complex ideas and scenarios. One way to avoid having narration is  by having a bit of text appearing on the screen at the beginning of the movie, like in Star Wars.  I find this to be very non-intrusive. You can get a quick bit of back story, and then you’re done. You don’t have to do any more reading and you’re free to enjoy the rest of the movie. Just don’t have pages and pages of exposition for your audience to read. They’ll likely fall asleep before your movie starts.

Narration can be done in several different ways. One example of narration is when one of the characters in the movie is the narrator and they are telling their story to another character. It’s kind of like the character is doing a monologue to another character, and then there’s usually a flashback or something that happens and the monologue continues over top of that.  Iron Man 3 is a good recent example. The narration was kept fairly brief, and was totally in character the entire time. This particular example of narration lead to one of my favourite scenes in the movie. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil anything for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie yet.

Another kind of narration is when one of the characters narrates to no one in particular. This is also the style that is used most often, and it can be done several ways. The character could be writing a journal and be doing a voice over narration of what they are writing (i.e. The Hobbit). The character could be telling the story out loud to whoever may be listening, usually the audience (i.e. The Shawshank Redemption). Furthermore, the narration could just be the thoughts of the character, allowing the audience to hear what the character is thinking (i.e. Fight Club). This thought narration style is not used very often because it is difficult to pull off. You need to have very good writing and a good actor in order to make it work. It is very easy for this style to come off as cheesy and amateur.

My least favourite kind of narration is when some unknown, omniscient narrator tells the story to the audience. An example of this is Idiocracy. That kind of narration often bothers me because it takes me out of the movie. I end up thinking too much on “Where is that voice coming from? Who is that supposed to be? Who are they talking to? Show me, don’t tell me!”

Memento is an interesting example of a movie with narration. It utilizes several different styles of narration and subtly switches between them. In this film the narrator is the main character, Leonard Shelby, a man with anterograde amnesia. He does at least three different styles of narration throughout the movie: the “character telling the story to the audience” style, the “hearing the character’s thoughts” style and the “character narrating to another character” style, but it never becomes intrusive or annoying. It is a testament to the writers of this movie. This is a perfect example of narration done well. It greatly help the audience to connect to Leonard and his disorder. It gives the audience a window into what is going on inside the his brain, something that would otherwise be difficult to do if one is not already familiar with this disorder.

So, those are examples of different styles of narration that I’ve personally noticed being used in movies. There are probably others that I hadn’t thought about or haven’t seen yet, or maybe I’m the only person who has ever really thought about narration this much so as to notice different styles. It is entirely possible that I’m overthinking it all.  In fact, it is highly likely that I am overthinking it all.

Most of the movies I mentioned above are examples where the voice-over narration is done well. Now, I shall show you an example where it is done very badly: The Last Airbender. No, not the cartoon, the movie. Yes, I sat through this movie once. The Nostalgia Critic does a pretty good job at explaining how bad the narration is in this movie in his review. Here’s the link to the video: The Last Airbender – Nostalgia Critic. Skip to about 28:48 in the video. There we are given an example of the “character telling the story to the audience” type of narration. In this instance the character of Katara says “My brother and the princess became friends right away.” Instead of showing us her brother and the princess becoming friends, the writers and director decided to simply tell us that they become friends. This hinders the audience from becoming emotionally invested in the relationship between those two characters. This a prime example of lazy writing and lazy directing. This is also trying to compress an entire season’s worth of TV show plot into a 90 minute movie, but that’s a rant for a different day.

So, now you know more about voice-over narration. Fat lot of good it will do you ;-P

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