Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Voice-over Epiphany

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?


  1. I am sorry to hear that you did not like Dexter. I only recently was introduced into it. I think it was about the third episode when I really got hooked into the series. For me, the voice overs were a little weird at first, but they are now really funny and add a lot to the series.

  2. I find this hilarious - I am watching Dexter right now, and then I come here and find Dexter the subject of your post! *Cue Twilight Zone Music*

    On Dexter and voiceovers - I agree that in the first season, in the first few episodes especially there is some cheese. There's no subtlety to Dex's voice-overs and they really ham up the "empty, I feel nothing" aspect for a while. That said, things really heat up about mid season...don't even get me started on seasons 2 and 3 (which I am watching right now for the third time!).

    The voice-overs are an integral part to the show, though. Even though the writing and plotting gets exponentially better as the seasons go on, the voice-overs are always there, and are a cornerstone to understanding Dex and his feelings (or lack thereof). So, if it's the frequency of voice-overs that bothers you more than the initial cheese, then you probably won't like the later episodes regardless!

    (I really like Dexter. If you couldn't tell. LOL.)

  3. I must say I'm glad to hear that I wasn't imagining the cheese, and that you both think the show gets way better as it goes along. I can see I'm going to have to give it another go!