Structuring Your Doc With Your Voice - and Vision

Fernanda Rossi October 27, 2009

Dear Doc Doctor: I’m told the only way to structure my doc is by adding narration. Others tell me the opposite, that with voice over I’ll ruin the film. Who is right? Should I try narration or not? I’d rather not if can avoid it.

Doc Doctor: You are not alone in your reluctance. I have heard that reluctance in nearly every one of the hundreds of docs I consulted on over the past 10 years—I kid you not. The aversion is understandable. Decades of docs being voiced by God or "father" (i.e. a white male in his fifties) left the subsequent generations rebelling against it (or him). But doc history aside, narration, commonly called voiceover, vilified by some as a verité killer and adored by others as a story structure savior or the fast way to editorialize, is just a story element like any other: Its worth is not intrinsic but relative to its use and function within the documentary.

I’m not one to defend or force the point when a filmmaker doesn’t want to use voiceover—especially if used as a Band-aid to fix a limping structure. However, you have to make sure your choices are informed ones and not knee-jerk reactions to everything you’re being told, because such comments are often intuitive at best and unfounded at worst.

First of all, do you think you’re less of a storyteller because you "have to" use narration? When I ask this question in session, most filmmakers will open their eyes wide as if I had read their minds and then lower them admitting they would feel they failed somewhat. Some others, more stoic, will answer, I’ll do whatever is best for the film! Needless to say what makes a less than proficient storyteller is not the use of narration per se but the inappropriate use of it.

Consider then, what you have in mind when you think of narration. Your voice? Some actor? A character in the film? Have you seen films you liked that had narration? How much narration do you foresee? Wall-to-wall? Just to bridge sequences? Do you worry about the added cost of a recording studio? Directing voiceover talent? Do you fear you’ll have to hire a writer adding cost and maybe losing control of the film to another strong creative force?

Narration can be intimate and enhance a story, or it can flatten it. It can save time by replacing a few scenes with one single sentence, picking up the pace. Or it can lengthen a film, forcing the editor to scramble for much-in-demand cutaways. It can be written and voiced by you, lending the film a poetic feel, or written by somebody else and voiced by talent, making the film sound more "objective?" There are no hard-and-fast rules, but rather, a balance among all the other story elements and this new one that you’re trying to introduce.

Now that your hearing registry has expanded beyond the thunderous sound of God, you can evaluate structure freely without the pressure of making choices that are guided by avoidance of voiceover. Even if you are convinced narration is the only way to fix structure—something that has never happened in my experience—it’s worth trying without. I dare say you MUST try without. That’s because narration is a very malleable story element—as well as titles, graphics, etc.—and can be adapted and adjusted to the hard, non-flexible story elements, such verité scenes, interviews, etc., more easily than the other way around. Something like needing a well baked pie before putting the soft cream on top.

Filmmakers with a background in TV might have the opposite feelings. They run to select sound bites, put them in a timeline, write narration and only then add images. It can be done, but such an approach, which gives the initial feeling of having a rough cut really fast, will result in many hours of adding b-roll later on to only end with a “slide showâ€? type of film. Then it’s an uphill battle to make that first rough cut into an actual dynamic doc. Historical docs, nature films and some strong advocacy pieces work well with this method, but pretty much nothing else benefits from relying on narration as the main structuring element.

Regardless where you stand in the spectrum of lovers or haters, when it comes to narration, the overall vision is more important than a single voice.

International speaker, author and story consultant Fernanda Rossi has doctored over 300 documentaries, scripts, and fundraising trailers around the world including two Academy Award Nominations. In addition to private consultations, lectures, and seminars worldwide, she has served as festival juror and grant panelist. She is also the author of the book Trailer Mechanics: A Guide to Making your Documentary Fundraising Trailer. More info and book at

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