Narrator Trope. Part 1 - examples of storytellers and voice over narration in film

July 09, 2021 - 5 min read

Spoilers ahead. Beware.

Adding a narrator is a common technique in film and storytelling in general used as a glue and framing device. A narrator is a character that can be both visible on the screen or invisible, as a voice-over off-screen. Narrators can reveal necessary detail about a story, not known to the characters but must be known to us, as the audience, to better understand the story, provide necessary exposition, explain characters' actions, or connect events distant in time. In that sense, the narrator, as anything in the story, should play a particular role and shouldn't be used for the sake of having a narrator.

Sometimes, a narrator is a part of the story. Morgan Freeman, or his voice, often acts as a narrator has become a meme. In Shawshank Redemption, his character Red is a part of the story – he is a storyteller that frames the story for us and also one of the onscreen characters who plays an important part in the film.

Sometimes, a narrator is completely external to a story. For example, in Casablanca, a narrator appears only at the beginning to give necessary exposition. This narrator has no direct relationship to the story and can be considered anonymous. A similar thing happens at the beginning of every Star Wars film but without a voice-over.

A Narrator addresses the audience by definition breaking the Fourth Wall. But sometimes they even appear in front of the camera and talk looking into our eyes. The best example of that is The Twilight Zone (1959) and Rod Serling's appearances, who was also the show's writer.

Sometimes narrators tell a moral at the end of the story. This trope was common in The Twilight Zone as well. Almost all of the episodes ended with a moral: "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," "Be tolerant," "Democracy is good," etc. Giving that directly violates Show, Don't Tell principle but you can subvert it by making a parody of it or a unique feature that stands out like in The Twilight Zone itself.

Another way of subverting the trope is letting characters hear the narrator and even react to his or her actions. For example, the Stranger in The Big Lebowski meets the Dude at the bar in the middle of the film. Or In The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the narrator dances together with the rest of the cast.

Another way is making a narrator a complete liar or at least unreliable. We tend to trust the narrator because the voice we hear is the main link between us and the story. But sometimes the story is told by someone who has flawed memories, personality disorders or trying to fool us in purpose triggering a plot twist. When we hear someone's voice we get another perspective from someone's mind with their prejudices, blind spots or lies which even the character might not be aware of. Some good examples are American Psycho or Fight Club.

Adding a narrator has many implications. The narrator calls attention to himself or herself and can distract and distant the audience from the story. This, however, adds a layer of detachment between you, as a writer, an original narrator, and the story. It might benefit you because it's not you who tells the story but an abstract narrator.

Now we have seen many examples of different kinds of narrators but how to create a good narrator yourself?

John Truby suggests that a narrator is the true main character. The act of telling a story for him or her is an important step, a self-revelation in a way. The narrator, together with us, tries to understand what happens in the story and how it affects their present life. They shouldn't know the whole story at the beginning and the act of storytelling should be meaningful for them.

In Martin Scorsese's Casino, narrators are presented both on- and off-screen and are parts of the drama. The story directly affects their life, moreover, the story IS their life.  Joe Pesci's character is one of the narrators and when his on-screen character is killed it abrupts the off-screen narrator's speech in the middle of the sentence. Could you see any bigger effect of a story on a narrator?

So if you choose to have a narrator, he or she should have a reason to tell a story and have some personal motivation or a trigger that makes the story possible. For example, Kevin Spacey's character in The Usual Suspects is the only survivor of a mass killing and he tells a story during the interrogation with the cops. His story does not only provides us with additional details but is also the key component of the film.

The Usual Suspects is a great example because it does not only masterfully uses the narrator technique but does it in a unique way instead of using a simple chronological story. Because it's about the interrogation, a narrator is necessary for us to unravel the tangle. Several men are murdered. Customs agent Kujan interrogates a crippled man Verbal. He tells a story that started six weeks ago with the cops questioning five people for a heist. The story meanders going back and forth between the interrogation and the story Verbal is telling. Knowing the main twist, we understand that Verbal is an unreliable narrator and fooled Kujan on purpose because he was the murderer. The film wouldn't be possible without the narrator.

Truby also suggests a narrator should end his or her story about three-quarters of the way in. The point of it is to show a change in the narrator and the dramatic effect the story has on him or her after they finish telling the story.

To wrap up, a narrator should not be used for its sake. It is crucial for the story told by the narrator to be necessary and play a role in the film, either being its key element or revealing important details that couldn't be shown with the same efficiency without using the narrator.  But remember, there are no rules, only tropes that tend to work better or worse depending on the situation. When you watch a new film with a narrator in it, pay attention to what role the narrator plays, why the story is important for him or her, and how you can use or subvert it implementing in your work.

In the next part, I will go over common narrator tropes to understand the technique better from various angles.

← Back to the index