Today a children's television writer, Robert Greenberg, came to speak to my young adult writing class. His claim to fame was working on such classics from my childhood like Round the Twist (based on Paul Jennings' fabulous short stories) and Lift Off. He's latest project is Stormworld which I believe is currently screening in Canada. He showed us a snippet and I got all goosepimpley and awed. It's YA dystopian, what can I say!
Greenberg ran through such writerly principles as setups and payoffs and status. Then he told us about the secret of good voice-overs. This made me sit up and pay attention. I hate clunky exposition, whether it be in film, television or books. There's nothing worse than the narrative stopping so a character can soliloquise for a few minutes. As Greenberg said, unless you're Shakespeare, you probably can't pull it off.
The trick to good voice-overs it seems (and this is more film and TV than books) is that the speaker should either tell the audience something they don't already know, or the voice should contrast with the character's actions. Bad voice-overs, on the other hand, tell the audience what they can already see, and is therefore redundant.
OK, maybe that's totally obvious to everyone but me, but when Greenberg said this the clouds parted and I had one of these eureka! moments. Particularly as it solved this: why I don't like Dexter.
I tried my hardest to like Dexter. When it first came on TV, I watched it. I love cop dramas, and I love black humour and the Six Feet Under and so on. I just didn't like Dexter, and I couldn't work out why. I found myself rolling my eyes and getting that dirty, corny feeling whenever he opened his big, fat, voice-overed mouth.
The clincher came sometime late in one episode when he was handing out doughnuts from a box. He looked down and the last one had been taken, and he thinks, "Oh look. Empty. Like my heart," which is all fine and dandy, except that his face also says, "Oh look. Empty. Like my heart." I gave up on the show right there and then and I couldn't work out why. Until now: the show totally over does it with voice-overs.
Maybe Dexter gets it together in later episodes, and the voice-over thing was just overused at first because the producers were worried people wouldn't be able to relate to a vigilante murderer. When really, aren't we all gunning for someone to go nab the bastards that got away?