The way a film is written is an integral part of its effect on the audience.
Is it lyrical or punchy? Thoughtful or visceral? Fun, frivolous, iconoclastic, authoritative…?
The film’s attitude – the pose you want the film to strike – affects everything from word choice and sentence length, to signposting, to how you bounce between commentary and synch.
These things determine your film’s relationship with the audience. They are your narrative voice.
Every film has a narrative voice, whether you want it to or not. So it’s a good idea to choose the right voice – and learn to use it to maximum effect.
For most of us, style and tone are a matter of instinct rather than deliberate thought. That’s fine. And, of course, it’s different for very film; that’s fine, too. But there are a few rules of thumb that are worth bearing in mind.
Are you on the audience’s side? Or do you want them on your side? (There’s a difference.) Are you planning to educate them, challenge them, discomfort them?
Your answers determine how you speak to your viewers. A story of everyday human life needs a different tone from a piece about high concept art.
The narrator sits somewhere between the viewer and the ‘reality’ you’re showing on screen.
(Same with presenters.)
But where exactly does the narrator sit? Is she alongside you on the sofa, with both of you chatting about what you see? Or is he almost ‘inside the TV’, handing out an insider’s insightful perspective, but from a distance?
Familiarity is a powerful tool in story-telling. At the level of story, it allows the film maker to play with the viewers’ expectations. At the level of written commentary, familiarity of tone (or lack of it) defines the viewer’s relationship with the material you are presenting.
Your narrator can be anything from a best mate to a high priest.
And, just as mates and priests both have their own distinctive way of speaking, so too should your script. Words, turn of phrase, sentence structure, lyricism, inflection, knowingness, and much more, all flow from this.
These things don’t just locate your narrative voice in relation to the viewer. They also locate it in relation to the viewer’s wider culture.
Your script will always (yes, always) reach out towards cultural touchstones. There will be turns of phrase that echo common usage. There may be references to art or literature. There will be cultural preconceptions you can riff on, or subvert…
But remember: the one preconception you challenge at your peril is the preconception that keeps your audience glued to the screen. And that is the preconception that the film’s narrative voice is somehow ‘real’. Break out of the style you have chosen – and your film will almost instantly collapse into a bag of bits. (The only exceptions I can think of to this are novels: “Tristram Shandy” and “Ulysses”; neither of them made great films.)
Choose a voice, and stick to it.
It’s an unspoken contract between you and your viewers.
If your film is deeply personal, then your contributors / presenter will be showing lots of emotion on screen. Don’t try to boost this with a similar tone in the commentary. Let those emotions speak for themselves. Your commentary should remain clear, calm and dispassionate (but not cold).
With information-driven films, your voice should be still be calm and dispassionate. If the passion in your film comes not from emotions, but from the fascination of ideas or information, then hopefully you will shoot and cut to boost that sense of wonder, fascination, intrigue. Music and pictures will be doing a lot of work for you. If they’re not, then no amount of flowery prose will change that fact.
However… You should definitely inject an element of lyricism. Use (but don’t over-use) poetical rhythms, alliteration and assonance, occasional percussives and broken metres. Lengthen your sentences slightly. Then tighten them for effect. Then pause.
Never let your artifice show, unless it’s for deliberate effect.
Even then, think twice. And then, ideally, decide against it. It almost never works.
To go back to the idea of where the narrator ‘sits’ in relation to the viewer: Even though your narrator is effectively in dialogue with your viewers, they should also be in a sense invisible. If the narrative voice draws attention to itself, the illusion of ‘reality’ is broken. Suddenly the viewer feels that someone is telling them what to think. The narrator gets in between the viewer and the story, waves his or her arms, and shouts “Don’t look at the TV, look at me!”
This is almost always bad. The best narrative voice is the voice the audience barely notices.
Those lovely phrases that you feel so proud of…? The moments of wit, the wordplay…? Lose them.
They will almost certainly intrude, and break the mood you really want to create.
It’s one of the most powerful devices in a writer’s toolbox.
If something is beautifully expressed, but not clearly expressed, it’s very unlikely to work. You can apply all the polish you want to your script; but unless the meaning is clear, you’ll be polishing… er… well, let’s just say you’ll be polishing something that doesn’t benefit from polishing.
Say what you mean. Beat it out.
Then, once you’ve made it crystal clear, that extra polish will reveal a diamond.
This doesn’t mean you can’t be subtle, intuitive or creative. It means that, unless you nail the purpose of your finely crafted words, your audience will think it’s all very arty, but they won’t have a clue what it’s about. In other words, your style will be getting in the way of your story. Not good.
Start by being clear. Then make it clearer. Then polish.
Style makes all the difference. It can lift a film to new heights. But meaning comes first.