What do voice-overs in movies really tell you?

Posted on by TheLastPsychiatrist and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Any discussion about the merits of voice over starts, inevitably, with Robert McKee’s famous quote:

And God help you if you use voice-over in your work, my friends. God help you. That’s flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write a voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of a character.

Then begins a discussion about why he is wrong.

Who doesn’t love secondary sources?  The trouble is this quote came from the Robert McKee character in the movie Adaptation, not Robert McKee the guy, and is not really reflective of his nuanced position.

From Robert McKee’s Textbook of Psychoanalysis:

If narration can be removed and the story still stands on its feet well told, then you’ve probably used narration for the only good reason– as counterpoint.

Not exposition or explanation.

Counterpoint is Woody Allen’s greatest gift.  If we were to cut the voice-over from HANNAH AND HER SISTERS or HUSBANDS AND WIVES his stories would still be lucid and effective.  But why would we?  His narration offers wit, ironies, and insights… Voice-over to add nonnarrative counterpoint can be delightful.

So there are times when it would be appropriate, e.g. in Shawshank prison or Stand By Me.  Let’s leave those aside and talk about the “lazy” uses of VO.

What interested me about this topic is his McKee’s next sentence, so important he italicized it: “the trend toward using telling narration throughout a film threatens the future of our art.”  The trend.  McKee wrote Story in 1997, so he was identifying not just an artistic trend, but a psychological trend: this is how people are thinking about stories nowadays.

Which means: this is how people are learning to think of their own personal narratives: “let me tell you why I did it” instead of

Invite them to bring their own best selves to the ritual, to watch, think, feel, and draw their own best conclusions.  Do not put them on your knee as if they were children and “explain” life, for the misuse and overuse of narration is not only slack, it’s patronizing.

Patronizing?  Or something else?



As I am not a writer I can’t comment on the merits of voice-over as a technique.  But other than laziness, could the presence of voice-over itself be a signal to the audience about the character?  Perhaps even an unconscious, “unintentional” signal from the director?

I have a theory that I’m working through, here it is: whenever a film uses a voice over, that character is actually not “honest.”  I don’t mean they are liars, but that the character wants to be seen in his way, not the way his behavior makes him appear to anyone observing.  The directors don’t (usually) signal this on purpose, but in crafting the story they realize that they want the character to “be” something other than his actions are telling you he is, and so the voice over is necessary to pull the audience in line with his thoughts,  preventing the objective interpretation of his actions.

I’m starting this from a psychological perspective: when do ordinary people “narrate” their behaviors– when are behaviors not self-explanatory?  When they’re doing something they shouldn’t, when they are rationalizing, when they are justifying.  When they are being narcissistic.  No one ever says, “here’s why I saved that kid from the tiger.”  Since the goal of narcissism is to get other people to believe your personal narrative, does voice-over in movies fulfill that same purpose even if the writer/director doesn’t realize that’s what he’s doing?

In other words, having no other information about the story, the moment you hear a voice-over, can you make a prediction about the character and even the plot?

Here are the genre specific predictions based on this understanding of VOs:

  • sci-fi: character is pretending (consciously or unconsciously) to be someone he isn’t (deliberate plot reveal, e.g. Blade Runner).
  • Action/male dramas: rationalization of violence; promotion of identity (e.g. Fight Club, Dexter, mob movies)
  • rom-com/”chick-flicks”/Oscar caliber dramas:  justification for irrational or selfish behavior, especially sexual (e.g American Beauty.)


The point here is not to judge the characters as bad.  The point is to see if the appeal of it to writers and directors is that it nudges the audience closer to the character’s position in order to rationalize their behaviors; and without this technique, screenwriters would never attempt to tell that story because no one would accept it.   Hence VO is not laziness, but the most fundamental part of that film.   It is a trick to get you to sympathize more with a character that doesn’t deserve it.

Two examples:

Sex And The City and Grey’s Anatomy: strip away the voice-over and merely watch the behavior, you realize that the lead characters behave selfishly and pettily almost all the time.  You may already have thought that, but it’s even worse without the VO.  The voice-over explains how this all relates back to an incident with an ex-boyfriend, but without it it looks like she’s getting hysterically dramatic over nothing.  Which she is.  The voice-over manipulates the audience.  But the existence of it is a signal you are going to be manipulated into thinking she’s a better person than she is.

An example of this done intentionally: In Fallen, Denzel Washington plays a detective pursuing what turns out to be a demon jumping from person to person.  The opening scene is actually the final scene, in which Denzel is dying, and his voice-over says he will tell us what brought him here and “about the time I almost died.”  Then the movie is told in flashback. By my logic of VO, the presence of the VO should tell me, “this guy is not who he seems to be.”   The trick, at the end of the movie, is that Denzel actually dies; yet the voice-over continues narrating, which means the voice-over isn’t Denzel the detective, it is Denzel the demon, who has survived.



Other examples or counterexamples?  I’m trying to work this out more fully.



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  3. Sucker Punch
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  5. Game Theory and When to Kill Off a Character

30 Responses to What do voice-overs in movies really tell you?

  1. robotslave says:

    Given the season, I’m a bit surprised you didn’t do A Christmas Story.

    I’ve always told anyone unfortunate enough to be in the room with me while watching it that this film would be much darker, and much funnier, without the horrible, cloying narration. It would also be a different movie, of course.

    My thought is that in this film, while the narration is arguably superfluous, it does embody something that most people do: it revises the narrative of childhood so that the adult can accept it. Children do, and have always done, some very unpleasant things. When considering the particular children who we happened to, at some point, be, we have to make sense of those unpleasant things. We have to reinterpret or reevaluate the events of childhood to stay sane, to forgive or understand our own horribleness. I personally find the use of the singsong storytelling voice grating, but it obviously must have been effective for someone.

    The problem of narcissism is just sort of assumed up there; feel free to mentally rewrite it in a more rub-yer-nose-in-it kind of way if you need that stone touched every time you pass it.

  2. Dave Pinsen says:

    “sci-fi: character is pretending (consciously or unconsciously) to be someone he isn’t (deliberate plot reveal, e.g. Blade Runner).”

    OK, but in the case of Blade Runner, Decker’s VO wasn’t the director’s idea, was it? It’s not in the director’s cut.

    Also, thanks for the Fallen spoiler. Yeah, I know it’s been ~14 years since it came out, but I was planning to watch it at some point. Incidentally, the director of that movie directed a few commercials for a company I used to work for in the ’90s.

  3. Guy Fox says:

    As I am not a writer… A writer is someone who writes, no? Go through the records of your posts and do a word count. What’s your threshold for writerhood, Monsieur Dumas?

    As for the theory, that’s probably one common function of the VO, but not the only one.
    Counterexample 1: Notes from the Underground Granted, it’s not a movie, but it is just one long voice over. And it’s not to sell a preferred interpretation of his actions, it’s more like a confessional. It’s as if he’s cleaning his wound out with a painful astringent and really sticking his finger in there. The only way to read it as a revisionist account of the present/recent history would be as a crowdsourcing-the-superego sort of move: you should all hate me for what I’ve really done so I don’t have to.

    Counterexample 2: The Big Lebowski Here the VO isn’t done by the main character, it’s done by the Cowboy. If anything, the Cowboy is disabusing you of charitable interpretations: the Dude isn’t a big city bohemian or a hippie-hipster hybrid, he’s just a loser – albeit in a world full of losers.

    Counterexample 3: The Usual Suspects This is kind of the extreme version of presenting the desired reality, but it’s so extreme that it’s almost more schizophrenic than narcissistic. Sure, Kint’s voiceover is explicitly for the benefit of Kujan in the movie, but it’s also misdirecting the viewers’ attention, just like a magician’s flamboyant left hand. It’s forcing you to focus on one lie so that you can’t even consider the bigger lie beneath it. It’s not a case of “Here’s why I did what I did…”; it’s a straight-up short con. Bait and switch.

    Your theory might have broader applicability in ‘purely’ psychological contexts, where the narrator isn’t under pressure to cover a certain narrative distance in a limited time (c.90-150 min.) and with limited resources (special effects budget & known, marketable ‘talent’).

    • Break says:

      Notes from Underground is actually the best possible illustration of TLP’s point: the second half of the story is told as a justification for why he is the way he says he is in the first half. The narrator makes himself out to be a tortured soul alienated from the rest of society because society itself is so wretched; what the narrator chooses to illustrate this point–and what consumes most of his attention–is the gathering of former classmates who happened to have rejected him.

      The whole “confession” of the book is a narcissistic defense, and by making himself out to look so bad he is showing that HE rejects SOCIETY rather than the other way around.

  4. sigjung says:

    Another Coen example — The man who wasn’t there. http://www.dailyscript.com/scripts/the-man-who-wasn't-there.html Schizoid Ed’s false self in social interactions on screen, his true self scheming in voice over.

    The Big Lebowsky shows how you can add an additional point of veiw through voice over. Same thing as this dead woman’s running commentary in Desperate Houswifes, as far as I remember.

    Voice over ties into the concept of unreliable narrator in fiction and point of view, the latter tricky to grasp in movies: http://www.wordplayer.com/columns/wp41.Point.of.View.html

  5. countingtoten says:

    Example: My Life without Me – Main character discovers she has cancer and decides not to tell her family. Her narration to justifies doing things she wants to do such as learn a new skill, having an affair, or recording birthday messages for her daughters up to their eighteenth birthday instead of spending her little time with them.

  6. daniel says:

    I haven’t seen the movie version, but it seems like this could be exactly what’s going on in The Great Gatsby. It would explain why I have never been sure exactly how I feel about Nick Carraway; he seems like a good guy, a completely innocent observer but maybe only because he insists that he is throughout.
    The same could be said of other characters (the reader has to see all of them through one clear lense of actions, and one blurred by the narrator’s biases, leading to a slightly vertiginous moral experience).

    • Guy Fox says:

      Wow. The Great Gatsby never really made sense to me when I read it as a teenager, but putting in this frame makes a lot of it click. Ditto Breakfast at Tiffany’s, come to think of it. Does it apply to all books about frippery in New York, or just the ones they make you read in high school?

      Good call.

      • daniel says:


        I’m not sure I’ve read any other books in that category. Perhaps it’s more about the era. Maybe it was characterised by narcissism or self-delusion or the brink of the break-down of long-held standards, or all of the above.

        The Great Gatsby went way over my head in high school, but I read it again recently, and I think “vertiginous” does describe it quite well. (But in a good way. At least for a complex and compelling novel). Although on a simpler level, I think it’s just because the characters themselves don’t know. They have no moral anchors.

  7. VikingKitten says:

    The first movie I thought of was Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. It fits with your theory – the audience narration signals that Ferris is a Trickster, plus it enhances the comedy.

  8. max says:

    I think it depends on whether the narration is directed at characters within the story or at the audience. I find that most of the time when the narrator breaks the fourth wall, it’s an attempt to overcome some sort of perceived weakness in the exhibition. The Blade Runner vo is the epitome of this. Here’s another:

    Neo : I know you’re out there…I can feel you now. I know that you’re afraid. You’re afraid of us, you’re afraid of change…I don’t know the future…I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end, I came here to tell you how this is going to begin. Now, I’m going to hang up this phone, and I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them a world without you…a world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world…where anything is possible. Where we go from there…is a choice I leave to you…

  9. JohnJ says:

    Oh, wow. That’s a really interesting way of looking at it.

  10. JohnJ says:

    What about musicals? People usually talk about why they’re doing what they do just as much, if not more, than in narrated movies. Phantom of the Opera has a lot of irrational behavior to justify.

  11. Madison says:

    I don’t know why but my father always enjoyed the adult/’grown-up’ voiceover in the Wonder Years.

  12. RatB says:

    Super (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1512235/)

    It’s a whole movie centered around exactly this concept.

    Nearly everyone in the movie is deeply evil, but the voice-over from the main character’s point of view is heroic and selfless. Anything that doesn’t fit with his view of himself isn’t addressed by the voice-over.

    One character is accused of not even being a person, just taking things they see on TV and in movies and trying to be that in real life.

    I don’t know if it was a good movie, but I finished watching it and thought, “did TLP write that?”

  13. jw says:

    Very interesting post. To me it sounds like you are treating voice overs in a somewhat similar way to how literary critics treat “free indirect discourse,” where the third-person narrative enters into the mind of a character without putting it in quotes. Here’s an example from Jane Austen. The first sentence is normal narration; the second sentence is free indirect discourse; the third is back to normal; the fourth is free indirect discourse again.

    “Mrs. John Dashwood did not at all approve of what her husband intended to do for his sisters. To take three thousand pounds from the fortune of their dear little boy, would be impoverishing him to the most dreadful degree. She begged him to think again on the subject. How could he answer it to himself to rob his child, and his only child too, of so large a sum?”

    Kind of like the way you describe voice over working, the free indirect discourse helps you enter the mind of the characters, making the actions of the character more compelling and understandable for the reader when they otherwise might not be (try just reading the first and third sentences above). Good novelists (like Austen) fully exploit this in order to create irony, misdirect the reader, cast doubt on motives, and so on.

    I’m sure there are plenty of counter examples where voice over doesn’t work this way at all. But, it seems to me that you’ve hit on one particular use of voice over that’s really quite compelling.

    If you ever decide to change careers and become a professor of film studies and narrative theory, I could see this idea being worked into a nice little article that could help out with your tenure review…

  14. JonnyVelocity says:

    Along the lines of Grey’s Monotony is Scrubs (Grey’s Anatomy is basically an hour-long, chick-drama, version of Scrubs). But even the voiceover doesn’t save J.D. from looking like a dick most of the time. The think about the VO in Scrubs is that it’s never for comedic value, it’s always there to try and add some sort of emotional depth to the story – the undercurrent that the comedy tries to distract from us.

    I don’t know whether it would be a better show without it. It would probably a bit funnier and it might not be so patronizing if it let the actions of the characters fall where they may.

  15. jw says:

    And I meant to add to that last comment: yes, like the way you describe films being conscious or unconscious about how voiceovers create a false version of who the character “objectively” is, free indirect discourse is often used quite consciously this way by good writers (the irony, misdirection, etc that I mentioned above). But, it is also quite often used, by good writers as well as bad, in a perhaps unconscious way like you describe–perhaps a projection of the writer’s own hangups, but more interestingly a reflection of contemporary social mores, or of psychologized rationalizations we routinely use to justify despicable behavior, and so on.

  16. motard en colere says:

    How I Met Your Mother. There isn’t simply Ted’s narration telling the story to his kids, but all of the characters tell stories with their own narration, and then shortly after, the real version of events is shown. It’s an interesting interplay between the four corners of the Johari window.

    Goodfellas: at the end of the movie, we discover the character is no longer a gangster, but living in witness protection, eating egg noodles and ketchup, forever living with a 1000 yard stare into a life he used to have, forced to pretend to be a shmuck, living no differently than the regular shmucks around him.

    • Guy Fox says:

      But in Goodfellas, the voiceover for the first 144 minutes of the movie does exactly what TLP says it would: Henry trying to convince you that killing, blackmailing, intimidating, whoring, coke snorting, and stealing are all morally overshadowed by the coolness of it all.

      Besides, the sequel that was actually released first (My Blue Heaven) made do without the voiceover. :)

  17. gogo says:

    Nice. My first thought was Bridget Jones. She is really stupid and bothersome without VO. Sitcoms use laugh for candy up idiotism and bothersome behavior – itś a kind of VO.

  18. thecobrasnose says:

    As a Terrence Malick nerd, I thought of his movies first. For instance, Badlands is precisely in justification mode, but The Thin Red Line is … different. Impressionistic. The actors’ voices don’t always match the characters they portray, whether because the characters imagine the thoughts of other characters or because they are speaking as immortal souls (or the director, okay). Malick’s not everyone’s cuppa, but as voice overs are an essential part of all his movies he’s worth considering.

    A movie I rewatched the other night, Heathers, fits well within TLP’s analysis. Veronica’s VO diary entries are all about the rotten things she and her associates do, but nothing worthy (whether reconnecting with a childhood friend or facing off with JD) gets a mention.

  19. Madison says:

    Voice over is basically a form of prologue” …Lemme give you an explanation/background/context before you judge the events that followed…”

    An interesting twist on voice over can be seen in a romantic comedy The Holiday.
    Cameron Diaz play a character working in a company producing movie trailers whose adventures are partially narrated by that movie trailer voice guy we are all familiar with.

    It adds a bit of Truman Show touch to very boring or sad situations. Kinda like a Greek chorus commenting on one’s commute.

  20. DGS says:

    “Burn Notice”

    Game Set Match.

    I saw that show yet again yesterday, and felt like there was something off about it – the tone with which the main character speaks is very child like – annoying and demanding, but not in a diplomatic kind of way.

    Then the narrative part, which is a huge part of the show, was explaining the scene where bad guys are shooting with Ak’s at a regular car, the main character gets in and drives away with the narrator (himself) saying “AKs are powerful that’s why it helps when your car is bulletproof” and I laughed, great explanation of a shitty plot, and it is so easy to get a bulletproof car nowadays.

    I noticed the narrator is using a lot of “you’s” in his speech. “What YOU want to do instead… what YOU do..” – it is as if they are trying to appeal to the James bond inside you..

  21. Eipa says:

    Examples: Bad Santa, Tangled
    They seem to use it if they want you to identify with the obvious bad guy. In Bad Santa it’s only 30 secs at the very beginning (+ a letter at the end) where he doesn’t state anything of importance: “Everybody i’ve heard thinking so far was actually quite a nice guy”.

    + Sin City as example for ratinalising violence.

    • Eipa says:

      I watched it again, it’s rather 2 mins and he gives an whiny “explanation” for all the shit he does afterwards, perhaps a male version of the rationalising.

  22. nfm says:

    I don’t know if this has been mentioned yet (I don’t think it has). There is a certain V.O. that is an outside narrator. The first example I can think of, for whatever reason, is The Royal Tenenbaums. Alec Baldwin appears nowhere in the movie, never claims to know any of the characters (i.e. he isn’t of any personal acquaintance to them or vice versa), rarely makes moralistic claims, value judgments – almost seems neutral. He could be the voice of an arbitrary god or angel, whimsically picking through what ought to be divulged. He breaks the fourth wall occasionally, with lines like, “The minute Royal said this, he knew it was true.”

    I do not know what purpose he serves, but I don’t not like it.

    • nfm says:

      Also, have you seen Robert Bresson’s “A Man Escaped?” It’s a film almost entirely made up of V.O. in the form of a prisoner’s internal monologue about hatching an escape plan. There are certain stretches where the film would not work without the dialogue (breaking McKee’s rule?), and yet it’s an inborn, inseparable part of what that film is.

  23. Eipa says:

    I think there is a similar issue with impotent narrators in books, e.g. James Salter “A Sport and a Pastime”, Philip Roth “The Human Stain” and John Irving “A Prayer for Owen Meany”. Where the narrators describe an incapability of bonding with women and being outside of normal society. The narrator isn’t really part the action but writes about occurences of the past, and the protagonists act moraly wrong.