Writing Narration To Be Spoken

Narration scripts are, by design, written to be spoken out loud. Every word counts. Important words should stand out in a sentence or paragraph. Sentences should be short and written in an active voice. Phrases should be reviewed to ensure that they don't create a confusing impression, such as Mark left Philip. Underneath the house, a skunk was waiting. Reading it, the meaning is clear. Hearing it, you wonder if Mark left Philip underneath the house, or if the skunk is going to catch Mark unaware. The remains were sent to the local anthropology lab. There, they believed Dr. Smith could provide vital information. The remains believe something about Dr. Smith?

You also need to avoid tongue twisters and quotation marks; audiences can't hear the irony when a narrator says, Eleanor was "sorry," but no one believed her. On paper, a reader could reasonably figure that Eleanor had made an apology but it was taken as false. To the listener, it sounds like the narrator has determined that Eleanor is in fact sorry, but no one believes her. There's a small but important distinction. (For the same reason, you need to be wary of words that sound alike but have different meanings, and of conjunctions, such as "shouldn't," which may be misheard as "should.")

The solution is very simple. Read your narration out loud, even as you're writing it. You will find it far easier to hear the rhythm, feel where the strong words are falling, and get a sense of what's hard to say or where words are superfluous. Then read it aloud again (and again, and again) against picture. There are a few ways of doing this, and you'll use them all. You can read to picture on the fly, although it's tough to look at the screen and your script simultaneously. You can have someone read aloud as you watch. Time permitting, the most effective way to check narration against picture is to have someone on the production crew record a temporary ("scratch") narration track, which is edited into the film.

If you are the film's final narrator, at some point you'll have to record the actual voice-over. "It's a difficult thing to pull off without seeming either like you're a newscaster or like you're just talking in an interview," says Per Saari. "There's a unique tone that you have to achieve, and it was a real struggle to accomplish that." As you watch documentaries, pay attention to the narrator's tone. Morgan Spurlock's upbeat energy pumps up the narration of Super Size Me. Al Gore brings two separate tones to his voice-over in An Inconvenient Truth: one is the public voice that lectures on climate change, and the other is a more private, intimate voice in which he talks about his life and family. Actors hired to record voice-over for films tend to aim for clarity and neutrality in their tone.

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