By voiceover, we mean a character’s or a narrator’s voice talking over the visuals of the movie without physically appearing on screen or, if they do appear, they’re silent.
Voiceover narration has gained a little bit of a bad reputation in recent years. Many consider it a cheap and boring way to convey exposition because it is often used to explain what happened / what the characters are feeling instead of using it creatively.
In some movies and TV shows manage to make it even more boring by adding an unnecessary voiceover that describes literally what is happening on the screen.
In the first season of Insatiable for example, there’s a voiceover made by the protagonist Patty, who talks about her feelings and her intentions. Most of the time, what she says is fine and necessary to understand what’s happening, but sometimes the situation is overexplained for no reason.
“I wanted him dead…” Yes Patty, we heard you scream exactly that at the top of your lungs.
“… and then he was…” Yes Patty, we were watching and we saw him die as well.
“… and I was happy.” Yes Patty, we can guess how you feel by the context and your smile, no need to spell it out.
Fortunately, though, there are also shows that use voiceover to its full potential and become all the more enjoyable because of it.
How The end of the f***ing world uses voiceover
This TV series is a dark comedy that follows two British teenagers who run away from home and end up being investigated for murder.
In my opinion, this British comedy is one of the best examples of how to use voiceover creatively because the writers managed to find many different ways to make it entertaining, instead of keeping it as a simple tool for exposition.
1 – Deception
The show would be impossible to understand without a voiceover that lets the audience know what the characters are thinking. This is the crucial difference between this and other stories that use it for the same purpose: here, the characters are constantly lying to each other.
Alyssa tells James that she wants to leave and asks him to come along. Despite having a cold expression on her face and an angry tone of voice, her “Please say yes” tells us just how desperate and lonely she actually feels.
Meanwhile, James is only pretending to be in love with her (or to even like her) while he’s just waiting for the perfect chance to kill her. Obviously, he cannot outright say “I want to kill her” in a line of dialogue, I mean, who would he tell it to?
The voiceover that lets us listen to his thoughts is absolutely necessary to understand his character. Without it, we wouldn’t know why he decided to bring a hunting knife with him on their trip.
2 – Romance
Every story that involves romance has that “awkward phase” where the characters become aware of their feelings but don’t have enough courage to confess. In movies, it lasts usually a few days, in TV series a few months and in shoujo anime something between 20 seconds and 28374 years.
In The end of the F***ing world this particular phase is explored purely by listening to the characters’ thoughts.
At the beginning of their adventure, Alyssa keeps repeating that James is someone she “could” fall in love with, while never saying it out loud. James, on the other hand, goes from thinking that he wants to kill her, to believing that he can’t live without her, and just like her, he never voices his thoughts.
3 – Comedy
Probably my favorite way to use voiceover is the comedy. Everyone knows that there is a pretty big gap between what people think and what they actually say. It’s a pretty standard and well-known gag to have a character’s inner monologue contrast with what he chooses to say.
Damn, I wish I could kill that bi-
“Oh hi, Nancy! How are you? Is that a new blouse?”
The end of the F***ing world doesn’t overuse this trope, the gag comes up naturally and doesn’t end up being predictable.
I’m trying to think about what adults do in situations like this…
“Should we go downstairs and have a glass of wine?”– The end of the f***ing world (season 1)
4 – Meta commentary
Movies like Deadpool or Anchorman, always use a hilarious voiceover narration to comment on the conventions of the genre they’re making fun of.
This show does the same thing while also making a reference to its source material, the comic, where the two protagonists were supposed to be American.
“Do you think it’s going to explode?”
“It’s not a film.”
If this was a film we’d probably be American– The end of the f***ing world (season 1)
5 – Character arc
And, last but not least, voiceover is a great tool to explore a character arc.
I’m James, I’m 17, and I’m pretty sure I’m a psychopath.
Having finally murdered a human, I realized something quite important…
I was pretty sure I wasn’t a psychopath.– The end of the f***ing world (season 1)
During his trip with Alyssa, James undergoes a pretty radical transformation as a character.
From not being interested in Alyssa to realizing how much she means to him. From hating his father to acknowledging that even though his behavior was annoying he wasn’t a bad person. From thinking that he is a cold-blooded killer to realizing that he is just a normal teenager with feelings.
The change is not unmotivated or rushed, it makes sense and it shows his character’s real strength, but most importantly it’s explored almost completely by using voiceover.
Since James couldn’t confess to anyone that he believed to be a psychopath before, and he didn’t tell Alyssa about his change of heart now, the only way to let the audience know what’s going on with him is by using his thoughts.
The end of the f***ing world became one of my favorite TV series both for its heartwarming/heartwrenching story and for its clever writing that doesn’t hold back.