Voice Overs and Off Screen Voices

When a Character Heading appears in a script it will be assumed by the reader/director the character's lips will be moving and the character will be within the camera's frame.

But what if that's not the case? What if we are hearing the character's thoughts? What if we are hearing an unseen narrator? What if the words are coming from a character in the room, but not necessarily within the frame of the camera? What if we hear only the voice of someone on the other end of a phone call?

In this section, we'll explore all these options and more and see how each situation can be accomplished within the Character Heading using Voice Over (V.O.) or Off Screen (O.S.) extensions.

These will be typed in ALL CAPS, with a period after each letter and enclosed in parentheses, like this: (V.O.).

Character Thoughts:

When the audience hears what a character is thinking, the writer can't simply write a common Character Heading. The Character Heading will need a Voice Over extension to the right of the character name.

Let's look at two examples:

In the first example, the audience hears what the character is typing as she types it. In the next example, Maria reads from a book, and we hear her thoughts as she reads.

Here is another example:

In the example above, had the writer left off the (V.O.) the director would assume Elvira speaks the line aloud to herself. But since the Voice Over extension is included, the director knows the line should stream from Elvira's thoughts rather than her lips.

Narration:

Another use of the Voice Over extension is when there is a Narrator. Sometimes the narrator is a unknown, omniscient voice. Sometimes it is the voice of one of the characters in the film.

Sometimes the narrator is even the voice of a character in the scene! Here is an example of such a narrator:

Other times, the narrator may be a character we hear during a flashback who is telling the story of something from his/her past. It might look something like this:

In the example above, when inside the flashback, Trager's voice is a narration, therefore earning the Voice Over extension. Had his character spoken WITHIN the dream, that speech would NOT have had an extension.

Of course, if Trager would have been the narrator within the flashback AND his character spoke within the flashback, it might be a good idea to further differentiate between the two dialogue blocks. This could be accomplished by having the narrator's Character Heading be TRAGER AS NARRATOR (V.O.) while his character's dialogue is simply labeled as TRAGER.

Writing Note: In scenes like the one above, you want to be sure the narrator doesn't say what the audience members can see with their own eyes. That would be redundant. So, since there is a Direction paragraph detailing Trager waking up, discovering a gun in his hand, and then realizing there is a dead blonde on the couch, the writer WOULD NOT want to write dialogue like:

"I awoke on the floor, unsure where I was. That's when I noticed I was holding a gun! I looked around the room, and that's when I saw her... the blonde from the bar, dead on the couch with the back of her head blow out."

Telephone Conversations:

There are many ways a writer can write a telephone conversation depending on how he or she wants it to appear on screen. One way is for the person on the other end of the line to be heard, but not seen.

Such a situation is handled with a Voice Over extension, like this:

That's pretty simple, huh?

I know, some of you are looking at this and saying, "Shouldn't that be an Off Screen extension since Carlos is Off Screen?"

No. Even if Carlos in the next cubicle over, if the voice is coming through the phone, then use the Voice Over extension. Now, had they been talking on the phone near one another, and the writer wants the conversation to be heard over the cubicle walls and not on the phone, then the writer could have used the Off Screen extension.

Another question: "But if we are hearing someone's voice through a phone, shouldn't we put the parenthetical (filtered) below the character name?"

Not necessary. We COULD do that to cue the director that Carlos's voice should sound as if it is coming through an electronic device and thus might "sound" differently as opposed to a regular human voice, but then we'd be telling the director how to do his or her job. We've made it obvious Carlos's voice is on a phone with the Voice Over extension. Let the director decide how that should sound.

(filtered) was a pretty popular parenthetical once upon a time. Today it is slowly being whittled out of use.

Other Electronic Voice Overs:

One of the most common ways a Voice Over extension may be used is for an Off Screen voice coming through a television. Here is how that might look:

In the beginning of the scene, we only hear the voice of the Female Reporter, earning the Voice Over extension. But once the camera's focus is clearly on the television, the writer can drop the extension.

How about a scene where a character is listening to answering machine messages? Well, then, try this:

And if we hear voices speakers, such as a doctor being paged at a hospital, or an overhead announcement at an airport? Handle it this way:

Whether coming through TVs, radios, overhead speakers, walkie-talkies, answering machines, telephones, or any other electronic device, if the speaker isn't on the screen, the Character Heading needs a Voice Over extension.

Now let's switch gears a little and see when a writer might need to use an Off Screen extension.

Off Screen Extensions:

A writer would use an Off Screen extension if a character is not in the frame of camera lens, but is still within the scene.

A character may just be sitting across from the character who is within the frame:

In the example above, when Loni first speaks, the camera is focused on Peter. The audience hears Loni, but doesn't see her. Since she is in the scene, her initial Character Heading is given an Off Screen extension. Once the camera is on Loni, the extension is dropped.

A character may be outside the room, but still within the scene:

In this example, even though the policeman isn't seen and is outside the room, he is still a character within the scene. Even if the policeman never kicks in the door and the audience never actually sees him, his presence in the scene earns his voice an Off Screen extension.

A character may be a good distance from the main action, but still be a character within the scene:

Even though Billie isn't in the room, he is still in the scene. So when we only hear his voice, he gets an Off Screen extension.

I know, I know. Some of you are looking at what was written and thinking, "Shouldn't that be a POV shot through Amelia's window?" It could be. I opted to leave it to the director. More writers should consider doing so. I think the fact I didn't call out a new scene heading of the driveway makes it obvious.

Dream Sequences:

Dream Sequences may create special situations in the realm of Voice Over and Off Screen extensions.

Let's say a character is having a dream in which we hear a voice, not of a narrator, but of someone in the character's waking world. It could look like this:

Since the mother isn't a character in the dream, we use a Voice Over extension.

Of course, if she HAD been a character in the dream...:

In this case, we use the Off Screen extension, while at the same time killing the sex drive of every member of our audience.