Music & audio

5 Great Examples of TV and Cinema Voice-over Narration

Find out how to use off-screen voice-overs to define the tone of a story

The use of off-screen voice-overs to add an extra layer of meaning to what you see on the screen is common practice in audiovisuals. With voice-overs, screenwriters and directors can change their story’s tone and add elements that highlight the narrative.

As an option, a voice-over can create a new atmosphere, structure a story, guide the script. It also serves as a way to engage the audience in the story.

To write good voice-overs, we have compiled a series of excellent examples of audiovisual work that use this technique, and that will undoubtedly inspire you:

American Beauty (Dir. Sam Mendes, 1999)

This is a classic example of how the narration can keep the viewer engaged and fill in the story’s gaps. The movie begins with the protagonist telling us he is dead, and we see the sequence of events that lead him to his death. Through this narration, we learn about the protagonist's past, his circumstances, and the people around him.

In this case, the off-screen voice-over allows the audience to become deeply engaged in the story and learn the facts, culminating in the final twist. American Beauty is an example of off-screen narration that directs the story.

American Psycho (Dir. Mary Harron, 2000)

In this cult movie, the off-screen narration plunges us into the protagonist’s madness, showing us how he perceives ordinary situations, how he sees himself, and how he leads his life.
It is a way to explore the psychology of a killer. His voice lets the viewer hear what he is thinking, and it helps them make sense of what is happening in the story. It can even be a device used to confuse us.

In this movie, the voice-over has the role of immersing the viewer in the protagonist’s thoughts to understand the absurdity of the tale.

Fight Club (Dir. David Fincher, 1999)

The primary function of voice-over narration in Fight Club is to introduce us to the narrator’s universe, his reflections, and his interactions with the world around him, and to plunge us into this universe. This type of narration also gives us small clues into what is happening in reality, subtly, as if it were a jigsaw the viewer must complete. At the end of the story, the narration gathers more meaning, as it was the element responsible for building the context needed for the story’s twist.

In this example, the voice-over is meticulously drafted to accomplish its role in the narrative. A good off-screen description never reveals what we are already seeing but provides an additional layer of meaning.

Mr. Robot (Dir. Sam Esmail, 2015-2019)

In Mr. Robot, we follow the story of a righteous hacker through his thoughts. Everything we see comes through the protagonist’s reality filter and creates a reality that must be questioned by the viewer. Nothing is what it seems.

The story hides its secrets through the voice-over, guiding our attention to other elements, confusing us but later demonstrating that everything was well thought out. It is an excellent example of using narration to get closer to the protagonist and later question whether all he tells us is true.

My Brilliant Friend (Dirs. Saverio Costanzo and Alice Rohrwacher, 2018-2020)

The story begins when 66-year-old Lila disappears, and her friend Lenu starts recounting the stories they have lived since childhood. It is a classic use of voice-over. However, throughout the narration, it stands out for adding intensity to particular events through reflections and contextualizing emotions.

It is a poetic way of exploring the narrative without the risk of falling into the mushy tone that can be typical of stories told in the third person. In this example, the off-screen voice transmits warmth, like that of a good friend telling us his stories.

If used well, the voice-over can guide us, without distractions, as it tells the story. It is a powerful tool to add detail to the audiovisual narrative and turn it into something remarkable. Achieving this result depends on the scriptwriter’s ability to write simple, rich, and attractive material.

English version by @acesarato.

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- 7 Beautiful Films on Great Artists
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