5 Voiceover Writing Tips to Make Your Scripts Spectacular
Posted on: Jan 16, 2024
Voiceover (VO) is an essential storytelling tool. When VO copy is written well, it can energize a familiar story, forge a unique tone and atmosphere for a project and inject a needed dose of humor or suspense into a narrative.However, when written poorly, it can be cheesy, drag the pace, confuse the viewer, state the obvious and induce eye-rolling and channel changing. The voice actor can’t always save bad copy.
My first experience writing VO came on my first story-producing gig on MTV’s Made. Each episode was told from the point of view (POV)of a different real teenager who wanted to escape the high school stereotype (jock, punk, nerd, drama kid). To break free, they would attempt a new goal in order to be “made” into something different (an opera singer, cheerleader, actor, wrestler, etc.).
My first story followed Abby, a girl from New Hampshire who was the daughter of two preachers. A competitive fencer and straight-A student, Abby wanted to go to Harvard. She also wanted to be “made” into a pop & lock break dancer. In post, the Made story producer (me) watched all the vérité footage (up to 150 hours), structured scenes and wrote paper cuts for edit. This included writing VO that Abby later recorded with me vocal coaching. In this way, I helped Abby tell her story in her own voice.
Because each Made kid was totally different, writing VO on the series was challenging and interesting. I was lucky to have strong dialogue skills from years of writing scripts, but having to write (and rewrite!) VO on Made brought home some crucial tips that I still use when writing nonfiction VO on tight deadlines.
Be Active Not Passive
The primary function of VO is to move the story along or explain something to the audience. VO often lays out complex background details clearly, allowing interview bites and vérité to tell the “fun” part of the story.
Using passive grammar construction and indirect phrasing in VO weakens the link 99% of the time.
The script might read:
“MARY IS GOING TO VISIT THE HOUSE WHERE JOE HAS BEEN STAYING SINCE HE WAS RELEASED FROM PRISON TWO DAYS AGO.”
This sets up what’s happening, sure.
This reads stronger:
“MARY ARRIVES AT JOE’S HOUSE. IT’S BEEN TWO DAYS SINCE HIS PRISON RELEASE”
It’s quicker and more dynamic, because the verbs are active.
Even in a historical documentary, where VO is in the past tense, the verb construction can be active. “THE POLICIES OF JOSEPH STALIN RESULTED IN A MAN-MADE FAMINE THAT LED TO THE DEATHS OF MILLIONS OF UKRAINIANS, A GENOCIDE WHICH CAME TO BE KNOWN IN UKRAINE AS THE “HOLODOMOR”—is an accurate sentence. But its passive construction makes it dry, boring and overly long.
An active version would be: “STALIN’S POLICIES FUELED THE GENOCIDE KNOWN AS THE “HOLODOMOR”—A FAMINE WHICH CAUSED BETWEEN 3 and 5 MILLION DEATHS.”
It’s not a “juicy” VO, but it’s active. You could use text on screen to shorten the VO even further.
Less is More
Sometimes a block of VO can’t be avoided, but whenever possible, VO needs to be short and sweet. If you have to have multiple lines, try to break them up with either vérité or an interview bite—even a quick noise/sound up in vérité can help make VO less drone-like.
Write VO to Showcase Vérité & Bites
This goes hand in hand with breaking up VO blocks. Young producers sometimes think of VO as a chance to be a screenwriter and write the character’s dialogue. Don’t do that. There’s no quicker way to have your VO copy handed to someone else to revise than if you overwrite.
VO should be snappy and should push the pace. Rewatch The Shawshank Redemption to see how Morgan Freeman’s character VO gives crucial information, jumps time and sets the atmosphere without stepping on the toes of the true stars—the characters and plot.
I recently spent three seasons working on Netflix’s How to Become helping to write VO for Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones). VO is a huge part of the series, but we had very strict rules about its usage. Our VO was biting and incisive, clever and informative, but not expository. It would be tempting to make the entire show just Peter Dinklage telling the story, but what makes his VO fun in the show is that it’s not overused.
Nonfiction VO should set up the real stars for the format: vérité footage of either real life subjects interacting or expert talking heads who are going to say it better. Ideally you should be able to tell a nonfiction story with no VO at all.
Create Unique Voice and Tone
This is one of the things I’m most proud of that we achieved in How to Become. The first season’s premise was tricky: a satirical “how to” guide on how to become a tyrant, using examples from the lives of Stalin, Hitler, Saddam Hussein, among other authoritarian leaders.
The tone and POV of the VO was clear for the format. Since we knew Peter Dinklage would be doing the VO, that helped shape the tone even further. We threw out a lot of adjectives to help hone the VO through the editorial process (playful, smart, deadpan, shocking, occasionally nauseating, etc.). We threw out a lot of adjectives to help hone the VO through the editorial process.
Most nonfiction/reality shows, particularly true crime shows, tend toward a generic “Voice of God” VO. Even when you don’t have a specific mandate, thinking deeply about how the VO should sound and feel in your series is crucial. Well-written VO helps define tone and atmosphere in a story, which only deepens its entertainment value.
If you’re having trouble figuring out what your VO should sound like, use my last tip:
Remember Who Your Audience Is
This is easy to do if you’re working on a commissioned show for Bravo, History, Discovery, etc. If you’re working on a reel for a project you’re hoping to sell and you need VO, thinking about the genre and network you think you could sell to will go a long way toward determining tone and style.
If you’re doing a show about fashion, for example, you’re probably not going to imagine your VO being read by a deep twangy male cowboy type like Sam Elliott. Likewise, if your show is about cowboys, modeling your VO after Julie Andrews in Bridgerton won’t add much.
Your VO needs to match and amplify the show’s genre (although it can occasionally contrast for humor, like we did in How to Become at certain points). You need to appeal to the demographics you think will most likely be watching the show. It doesn’t have to directly reflect the exact demo (your audience might end up being broader than you think), but it has to appeal to them.
Voice-over can be your best friend or your worst enemy in a series. As a producer tasked with writing VO, your job is to sidestep its liabilities and use it as a tool to make your narratives tight, dynamic and unique.
Kellen Hertz has over 15 years of experience as a writer/producer and co-EP on shows ranging from Vanderpump Rules (BRAVO) to MTV’s Made and Netflix’s How to Become … series. She is interested in new opportunities.
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