Thursday, October 23, 2014
But I am not a fan of narration. Unless it’s in prose.
And lately there seems to be a plethora of narration on television, especially among new shows.
What’s my issue? For the most part I think it’s lazy writing.
The hardest part of telling a dramatic story is doling out the exposition. Backstory tends to be dry. Actors hate to say it. And for good reason. It’s just briefing the audience; a data dump of facts the writer feels are important. The trick – no, the art of storytelling is finding clever ways to either show the audience what they need to know or communicate it through entertaining dialogue.
Unless narration is integral to the premise of the series (like in HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER where the entire conceit of the show was the father talking to his kids), or a Bullwinkle cartoon (where the narrator was not just a character but did the comedy heavy lifting) it’s generally not necessary.
When I hear “This is the story about Sarah and Skippy….” Or “Sarah is a good student but has trouble talking to boys…” I zone out. Anybody can write “Sarah is a good student but has trouble talking to boys,” but a good writer can create a character (who by her actions) shows us that in a fresh and funny way. He relies on behavior and attitude and the situation. Just saying it is the bald on-the-nose easy way.
And just who are these narrators anyway? Why are they there? Why do we need a narrator to guide us through the story? Another big offender of this is Woody Allen. The first five minutes of VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA is all flatfooted narration that tells you who the heroines are, what their personalities are, what they’re desiring, and why they’re there. LAY-ZEEEE.
Then there are shows where one or more of their characters provide narration. Unless there’s a real good reason for it I don’t know why it exists. Often it’s used to wrap up the show or tell us that week’s theme or life lesson. I like to think I’m smart enough to determine that on my own. I don’t need to be spoon fed.
I suspect one reason shows employ this device is so when scenes they’ve shot turn out poorly they can just scrap them and have the narrator cover the information.
But other times it feels like characters are talking to the camera just to be stylistic. There’s always the danger that you’ll take the audience out of the moment by shattering the reality. So the question becomes – is the device really necessary?
I find this less concerning in the theatre where stories are generally told stylistically, but the reality of film and TV makes it harder to buy… at least for me. JERSEY BOYS is an example where narration worked on the stage, not on the screen.
Some may argue that a narrator is necessary because there are so many facts and the exposition is very dense. The audience would be confused without it. If that’s so I question whether the story itself is too complicated.
Another problem with narrators is that they often just drop out after awhile. You hear them at the beginning and maybe an hour into a movie for three sentences and that’s it. If you establish that the narrator is your vehicle for telling the story then stick with him. To have him just pop in when you need a hole patched is again, lazy writing.
I have no conclusion here. It’s not like writers are going to stop using narration because of this post. Or Woody Allen is going to send me an apology. But if you’re an aspiring writer I want you to challenge yourself. I want you to avoid shortcuts. I want you to rise above. Or I want you to just say screw it and write a novel.
By Ken Levine at 6:00 AM