According to Hollywood standards (at least MODERN Hollywood standards), there is a cardinal sin that is the sign of lazy filmmakers and those who don't have the chops to be "real" filmmakers. That cardinal sin is:
I've always taken this notion with a keg of salt, because the same clever folks in the industry that claim that narration is a sin, also believe you can't make movies that directly reflect books or comic-based movies that actually have anything to do with the comics they've come from. Despite this, movies like Fight Club, Big Fish, and American Beauty (and shows like the Wonder Years, Scrubs, and Burn Notice) prove that narration can be used very effectively by brilliant filmmakers, just as surely as movies like The Lord of the Rings have disproved the book conversion nonsense and Sin City and The Crow disproved the comic book silliness.
Since it's clear that narration can be used in brilliant fashion, are there some things you need to be aware of when using narration? Definitely.
Keep each instance as short and concise as possible. This may sound second nature, but, some overly wordy writers, like myself, have a tendency to use narration like an in-film commentary track. Think of narration sort of like clever comebacks—short, memorable ones make you seem witty, whereas long, rambling ones often confuse people and tire them out. (Additionally, overly long narration can prevent your film from "breathing." Think of allowing your film to "breathe" like allowing a well seared steak to "rest" before serving...it permits your audience to savor all the flavor without any of it going to waste.)
Make sure that the narration serves a purpose. This ties into the previous statement, as well, since you don't need to be putting narration in just to apply witty puns to your film. Make sure that it serves the storyline and that it isn't there due to laziness or because you think you're audience is stupid. (Hey, even though narration isn't necessarily a sign of laziness or spoonfeeding an audience, we can all fall into it if we're not careful.)
Know WHY Your Protagonist Uses Narration. Fans of Burn Notice know that the lead protagonist uses narration because he's privy to a massive amount of secret knowledge and that he's become secretive around others. As such, his narration clues us in on information we need, but seems logical for his personality. In the movie American Beauty, his narration is as a result of being dead and we feel like we are just tuning into his omniscient remembrance. Again, it makes sense that they use it. In my new film Day 419 for World of Depleted, I have a protagonist who has been brutalized by people and by her own self-loathing. As such, her use of narration is necessary due to the fact that she distrusts everyone around her. (However, as she progresses into next year's feature film, the amount of narration she uses decreases as she meets people who she's forced to begin trusting.)
Know the difference between Objective & Subjective Narration and choose which to use. Objective tells you factual information about things you would otherwise be unaware of, while subjective tells you about the emotional impact and personal opinion of the narrator in a way that it would be difficult to show through acting. Burn Notice uses objective narration to give you factual information you wouldn't normally have access to and uses that as a way to clue you in on ways you might interpret something. American Beauty and TV shows like Scrubs use subjective narration, showing how experiences impacted their emotions and the way they see the world. While it's possible to use both types of narration in a single film (Fight Club being the most notable example of this), most films dominantly use one or the other.
Be Willing to Cut it If It Gets In The Way. In shooting Day 419, because our main character is both a damaged woman and a journalist, we had originally mixed both subjective and objective narration, since that would be more factually the way she would think as the emotional and objective parts of her mind clashed. However, as it pertained to the short film, we discovered that it actually made it harder for our audience to identify with her and pulled them out of the tale. As such, we opted to cut most of the objective parts from the main narrative, focusing on the subjective portions, as these are the parts that motivate her story the most. (Of course, since we had the objective narration as well, we're creating an alternate audio take consisting of the objective information, so that fans can see some of the journalistic facts swirling through Jenna's head.)
As I conclude, I want to encourage you to consider taking back narration if it's appropriate to your story. Don't add it if it's unneeded, but don't be afraid of it just because it's not en vogue these days.
Just make sure you think it through ahead of time, use it properly, and you might end up creating the next Fight Club, American Beauty, or Big Fish.
Jeremy Hanke Editor
director of two feature length films and half a dozen short films,
founded Microfilmmaker Magazine to help all no-budget filmmakers make
better films. His first book on low-budget special effects techniques, GreenScreen Made Easy, (which he co-wrote with Michele Yamazaki) was released by MWP to very favorable reviews. He's curently working on the sci-fi film franchise, World of Depleted through Depleted: Day 419 and the feature film, Depleted.