Narration in Film

Narration in Fiction

External Narration

External Narration is the basic narrative point of view of the film medium. All stories in film are presented from a point of view outside the story. The dual-channels of image and sound presenting the story perform the role of the External Narrator in fiction.

External Voice-over

Third-Person Voice-over is used in some films, which adds another dimension of external narration to the narration of the moving image.Third Person Voice-over can serve a range of narrative functions:


Film also uses graphics and Intertitles for external narration. Examples:

External Narrator Commentary

The Cinematic Narrator in film, like the External Narrator in writing, can make comments and judgments about the characters and events within the story. In principle any aspect of the film medium can be used to create external comment on the story.

Internal Narration in Film

Film Narration can use a variety of First-Person Narrators to enrich the story. In both fiction and film, Internal Narrators are characters within the story who speak their minds directly to their listeners, readers, audience. There is no difference in the mediums on this point. The major difference is that in fiction the whole story can be narrated by an internal narrator while in film first-person narration is always only partial--embedded in external narration. The film medium has no equivalent of the complete first-person story in fiction.

The medium has two basic ways of incorporating internal narration into an externally narrated story: Characters who tell their stories to others within the story; characters who tell their stories to the audience outside the story.

  1. First-Person narration within the story-world.

    • Sound and Image Simulating Telling

      The dominant type of First-Person narration is a character telling his experience--memories, dreams or fantasies--to other characters in the story. The character begins to relate an experience. Then by means of a transition device--a cut, dissolve, etc.--her words are translated into image. The images and sounds simulate the telling. Frequently the teller's voice (VO) will be heard over the sequence, which among its many functions, reminds the audience that we are "seeing" her words.

      The use of image and sound shifts the narration in words to the dramatization of the words. The words of the Narrator are translated into scenes of characters actions and dialogue. This technique is a convention of the medium for the simulation of the telling of words.

      This simulation of telling of past experiences by means of the dramatization of action and dialogue, marks a major difference between the mediums of fiction and film. First person narration in fiction is the telling of an experience that is past. When the first-person narrator in film tells her past experience by means of the dramatization of the words in action and dialogue, the viewers experience that past experience as present. The unique power of the film medium is that it allows viewers to imaginatively enter into the past and experience it as it happened.


    • Sound and Image Simulating the Act of Writing

      A character is shown writing (typing, keyboarding) in a diary, journal or letter accompanied by a Voice-over. The audience understands that she is not speaking--they are "hearing" the character expressing herself in written words. The Voice-over briefly simulates the writing, which then frequently cuts into a visual representation--the dramatic ennactment through action and dialogue--of what she is writing. Examples:

  2. First-Person Voice-over narration outside the story-world.

    Like the First-Person Narrator in fiction, the character's voice is not addressing anyone in the story and the context indicates that the Voice-over is not Interior Monologue. Examples:

    This First-Person Narrative Voice that speaks outside the story-world can perform a range of narrative functions.

    • Present expository information.

      Again, Kubrick: a perfectly legitimate and economical way of conveying story information which does not need dramatic weight and which would otherwise be too bulky to dramatize.

    • Create character.

      The Voice-over is a means of expressing the character's most intimate thoughts and feelings--aspects of the self which cannot be expressed through the action and dialogue.

    • Comment on the actions and characters in the story.

      The First-Person Narrating Voice-over presents a consciousness reacting, reflecting and interpreting the events and characters. Filmmakers frequently use the First-Person Voice-over for ironic effect. The Narrator's judgments can be accurate criticism of what is presented in the story's action--Willard's comments in Apocalypse Now. Or the Narrator's views can be naive, ignorant or wrong--Holly in Badlands.

Portals to the Brain: Film Techniques for presenting Consciousness

Film, by arranging external signs for our visual perception, or by presenting us with dialogue, can lead us to infer thought. But it cannot show us thought directly. It can show us characters thinking, feeling and speaking, but it cannot show us their thoughts and feelings. (George Bluestone, Novels into Film, pp. 47-48.) A common view, but not true. The film medium from its inception has created--to use an expression from Adaptation--"Portals to the brain." The medium has at least five major techniques for going inside the minds of characters--directly presenting their thoughts and feelings.

  1. Mind Flash

    A Mind Flash in film is the direct presentation of what is taking place in the mind of a character. It is the simulation of consciousness through image and sound. A character's actions or speaking is interrupted by a transition moment--a cut, dissolve, etc.--and replaced by a completely different image or sequence of images. This is a simulation of what is going on directly inside the mind of the character at that moment. Hence, the metaphor of a Mind Flash--the sudden entrance into the consciousness of a character like a flash of lightening.

    There are three forms of Mind Flash:

    • Memory Flash (often called Flashback).

      A Memory Flash is a character having a memory not telling a memory to someone in the story. Examples:

      • In 8 & 1/2 Guido's encounter with Maya and his old friend the Magician, triggers his memory of his childhood encounter with Saragina: Asa Nisi Masa (yt). What we see is not Guido telling us his memory. By means of a cut we enter Guido's consciousness and view the memory that is occuring in his mind. All of his memories in the film are Mind Flashes--the direct presentation of what is happening inside his mind at that moment.
      • The moment in Vertigo when she remembers what really happened in the bell tower: Vertigo (yt).
      • Leonard in Memento has numerous short Memory Flashes of the attack on his wife. These are the equivalent of a Narrator in fiction telling us what's in Leonard's head, saying: "Suddenly, Leonard remembered that horrible look on his wife's face."
      • Joel's memories of Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

    • Dream Flash.

      Most simulations of dream life in film are forms of Mind Flash. A character is dreaming, which we see him experiencing in his mind. We enter his mind by means of some transitional device--a cut, a dissolve--at the beginning. Or we discover that we have been viewing a dream sequence by a transition back to waking reality at the end of the dream. Examples:

    • Fantasy Flash.

      Filmic representations of fantasies about the present or imaginings about the future are also forms of Mind Flash. The film technique is the same as for representing memory and dream--a transition into or out of a different sequence of images and sound that simulate what is taking place inside the mind of the character. Examples:

    ( Important Distinction: The difference between having a Mind Flash and telling about a Mind Flash. Having a memory, dream or fantasy is a direct flash into the mind of the character in the present. Telling a memory, dream or fantasy is a form of First-person narration--a character in the story telling about a past experience.)

  2. Voice-over: The Voice that Simulates Thinking

    There are three major forms of Voice-over that simulate what is going on inside the mind.

    • Interior Monologue.

      When we hear a character's voice and his lips don't move, the Voice-over can be interior monologue--a representation of thinking, not speaking. Examples:

    • Reading.

      When we see a character reading a letter and hear a voice, the voice is a simulation of the mind's act of reading--a silent internal activity. Example: Adaptation.

    • Audio Mind Flash.

      A character "hears" in his mind the voice of a character in the story--an audio flashback or fantasy. Examples: Kiss Me Deadly; Stage Fright. In Apocalypse Now Willard 's memory of his encounter with the General. We enter his head by means of the voice Willard is hearing (VO) and his mind flashes of his memory of the interview. The voices in Marion's head in Psycho--her imagining what others will say about her theft in the future.

  3. Superimposition of Images

    Superimposition of images can simulate consciousness. Apocalypse Now (yt) appears to open with an establishing shot of a jungle and helicopters. With the sudden closeup of Willard upside down, under the sequence of the jungle, copters and fire, we begin to realize that the multiple layers of images are simulating his inner world of reverie--memory, fantasy, obsessional thinking. Willard doesn't tell us what's in his mind, we see and hear what is in his mind--the medium opens a portal to his brain.

  4. The POV Shot--Plus

    The so-called "Subjective" POV shot does not by itself present subjectivity--the mind of the character. The POV shot alone is only the perception of the character, not his subjective reactions to what he sees. In order to convey the consciousness of the character perceiving, other techniques must be combined with the POV shot. One common method is to distort the image of what the character perceives, which simulates some quality of subjective response. Examples:

    • The simulation of Sam Spade's loss of consciousness after being drugged in The Maltese Falcon.
    • The woman's response to being sexually assaulted by the Bandit in Rashomon. Her POV shot is combined with a blurring of what she sees, which suggests that her response is changing from resistance to desire.
    • In Notorious when Alicia realizes she's been poisoned by her husband, her POV shot is combined with both sound and image distortion to convey her drugged consciousness.
    • Vertigo (yt) simulates Scotty's experience of vertigo: A POV shot combined with the movement of tracking out plus zooming in within the image of what he perceives.
    • In Being John Malkovich the simulation of "being "John Malkovich is the POV shot combined with the Voice-overs of the characters who tell what they are experiencing "inside" Malkovich. Or in this instance, Malkovich enters his own head via the POV shot, which is combined with his reactions to the experience: Malkovich Malkovich (yt).

  5. Slow-motion

    Slow-motion can be used to simulate memory, dream and fantasy states of consciousness. Examples:

    • Opening of The Pawnbroker.
    • The Man Who Wasn't There: The Barber's isolation expressed by a slow motion sequence of him walking along a busy street, while the Voice-over expresses the feeling, which is suggested by the images.
    • Travis' first vision of Betsy in Taxi Driver (yt).

Narrative Structure: Linear and Non-Linear

Film narratives are about characters and events in time. There are two basic options for structuring a story: telling the story in a linear, chronological way or in a non-linear, achronological way.

Resources for the study of Film Narrative

John Hartzog
Revised, 5/09