Monday, July 21, 2008


It's hard to go to a movie these days without Morgan Freeman dropping in on the experience to tell you all about what the characters are thinking. While he's at it, he might be framing the audience question oh-so-neatly for us. Or priming the pump for the next big plot point. It's a drag.

Many, if not most, screenwriting classes harp away on how our art is visual storytelling, and that narration is really a crutch for weak and half-baked stories. It's having Morgan Freeman do the audience's job of exploring the characters. If screenwriting teachers are to be believed, Morgan Freeman would be better off reading his lines back to the screenwriter, rather than the audience. They're notes on what's not clear, and therefore what the screenwriter hasn't accomplished yet.

So why the heck is Morgan Freeman so busy these days?

There are many reasons. Many of the reasons have not so much to do with the screenwriter's choices. Producers risking bazillions of dollars on these mere words like to see the careful framing of the plot on the page they're betting on. They want to dumb it down. It's safer.

But that's not what this post is about.

What are the positives and negatives of narration in your script?

I've laid out the basic argument against. Narrators ARE a crutch for lazy writers (and early drafts). It's simply easier to tell the audience whats going on than to work up a really compelling set up and conflict that would affect them more deeply. I've critiqued hundreds of scripts with this problem.

To look at the same problem another way, a narrator just adds another level of mediation between the audience and the story. If Morgan's been busy through the first act, we won't quite buy into the action on the screen until he's added his two cents. Morgan always points to the right way to view the action on screen. And so there's less to explore.

So why would any self-respecting screenwriter include a narrator?

Narration is an extremely economical device. You can accomplish very cumbersome narrative tasks in a quarter page. You can set up hundreds of years of galactic history. You can make sure that the audience is all on board, even if any number might have missed a very clever act of deceit on your protagonist's part. You can recap and add something while doing it. You can, yes, frame the all important audience question of What Happens Next.

Good narration works hard to not merely shape, but to be a real contribution to the story. When the narrator comes into play in Magnolia, it deepens our understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of the story while keeping us on track with the multiple storylines. The audience has been moving along with a whirlwind of developments. Anything less clever would insult and bore them.

Some great narrators are characters in the movie. They offer a point of view on the material. They aren't necessarily credible. But you do have a clearer view on what's going on in at least one character's head -- and therefore a better betting angle on what might happen in the future. In other words, the narration becomes more a way to explore assumptions and objectives than it is to accomplish the ostensible task of keeping us up to date. The writer is doing a sleight of hand here. Nothing fancy here. Move along. But human beings pick up on this stuff. Evolution and entertainment rely on it. We're walking social calculators.

Sometimes a narrator is just dead wrong about events. This can be entertaining for an audience. No less a figure than Lev Tolstoy introduced this little trick when he had a little girl describe a ballet for us.

What happens if a little girl narrates the story of her parents' divorce? What happens if a little boy narrates the tale of his teacher's work travails? Or a gullible young man tells the story of his first coke deal? When narrators understand less about the plot than the audience, there's great potential for building emotional depth into the story. This requires that narrators do their narrating in the moment, of course.

In all these strategies, the writer chooses to add something to the story with a narrator, rather than simply relying on him to do the dirty work. Writing a good narrator isn't easy. It doesn't save work, but it can take you deep into a story if you're lucky enough to find one. And if you've got a crummy narrator in your script right now, listen to him or her too. There are probably some great notes in there on what your script is missing.

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