Movies are a visual medium so show your story, don’t tell. However, sometimes you have to tell part of your story to compress a lot of information in a short amount of time. Here’s how to use narration correctly.
When the movie “Dune” came out, it had such high expectations and turned out to be an incredibly dull film. The only part I remember was when the hero and the girl are kissing and suddenly a narrator’s voice comes in and says something like “And their love grew over time” or something silly like that.
Hearing the disembodied voice of a narrator is jarring because it takes you out of watching and experiencing a movie and suddenly makes you aware you’re being told a story. When you’re being told a story, your interest is much less engaged than when you’re experiencing a story by feeling engrossed in the action.
Here’s a better way to use narration if you can’t avoid it otherwise. In “The Princess Bride,” the narrator is actually part of the movie. In case you haven’t seen this old movie, it’s actually two stories in one. The first story is about a young boy who doesn’t want to be bored by his grandfather while he’s home sick in bed.
The second story is that the grandfather is telling the boy a story by reading a book to him. So when the narrator speaks, he’s actually part of the story and not some random voice that suddenly speaks out of the blue. By being part of the story, the narrator is also following his own story. In the case of “The Princess Bride,” the narrator is trying to engage his grandson’s interest by telling a fairy tale. The fairy tale takes up the bulk of the movie.
Besides making the narrator part of the story somehow, you also have to link the narrator to your story. In “The Princess Bride,” the narrator’s story is trying to win the affection of his grandson and by the end of the fairy tale, his grandson hesitantly asks his grandfather to come back and read the story again. The grandfather smiles and says, “As you wish,” which was a key phrase in the fairy tale (the second story).
Thus “The Princess Bride” integrates the narrator as part of the movie and links the narrator’s story with the main story so the narrator is a character in the movie and not just a voice of god explaining something to the audience just for the convenience of the lazy screenwriter.
Use narration sparingly but when you can’t avoid it, make the narrator part of the story and make the narrator’s story linked to the main story somehow.