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Specs & The City: Voice-Over and 'The Usual Suspects'

“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.” – Robert McKee (as played by Brian Cox in 'Adaptation')

While decried by many industry gurus as lazy writing, there’s an art to pulling off a voice-over in your script. There’s no doubt that it’s a risk/reward scenario; do it well and it can bring a whole new aspect to your story – becoming a character in its own right – but do it poorly and you risk the reader tossing your script into the “No” pile without a second thought.

But if you’re ready to tackle an advanced technique, and are looking for a way to add a new element to your script, why not give voice-over a try. All things being equal, you’ll be in pretty good company; Terrence Malick utilized voice-over in some of his most effective works, from Badlands, to Days of Heaven, to The Thin Red Line, and Christopher McQuarrie used a brief bit of voice-over to introduce us to the world he created in the film we’ll be using as our example today…

Voice-Overs and The Usual Suspects

And just like that, Poof, he was gone.

And just like that, Poof, he was gone.

I chose to go with The Usual Suspects because it shows just how powerful the voice-over can be in setting tone for your script. After a brief opening sequence, we cut to black, and this is how McQuarrie brings us back in:

New York. – six weeks ago. A truck loaded with stripped gun parts got jacked outside of Queens. The drive didn’t see anybody, but somebody fucked up. He heard a voice. Sometimes, that’s all you need.

It’s kind of brilliant, isn’t it?

With those five sentences, the audience has been given a wealth of information. We know we’re looking at a crime drama, we know the event that perpetuates the now-famous initial line up (without having to spend time showing it to us when it doesn’t truly matter to the story we’re being told), and we’ve been introduced to Verbal. This last bit might seem inconsequential, but once you’ve seen the movie and know the twist, it’s a revealing moment that we’re introduced to Verbal before McManus.

And it doesn’t hurt that “He heard a voice. Sometimes, that’s all you need.” is an amazing line all by itself. The point is that the voice-over doesn’t exist for no real reason, and it’s not there to dump exposition on the audience. It’s there because, in this instance, that voice over is the best way to tell the story.

And that’s the power of a quality voice-over.

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