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Screenplay Format 101: Voice Over vs. Off Screen

vo vs os

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Two of the most commonly used techniques in screenwriting are voice-over and off-screen. Both of these techniques allow writers to incorporate dialogue into their script without having the character that is speaking on screen. While they share many similarities, some key differences between them make each suitable for different types of situations.

In this brief post, we’ll take a look at what those differences are and when you should use one technique over the other in your screenplay.

How to format a voice-over in a screenplay

Writing voice-overs in a screenplay is actually pretty straightforward in a technical sense. You simply need to add (V.O.) to a character’s name to indicate the dialogue is a voice-over element.

The most obvious use of voice-over is in the form of a narrator.

Voice-Over Example #1:

INT. OFFICE – NIGHT

Mary sits at her desk, smoking a cigarette and staring out the window.

NARRATOR (V.O.)

Mary couldn’t believe what she had done. How could this have happened?

Mary lets out a sigh.

In this example, the narrator is simply called “narrator,” but just as easily, this could be any character in the story.

Another example is the use of voice-over to express a character’s internal thoughts.

Voice-Over Example #2:

INT. OFFICE – NIGHT

Mary sits at her desk, smoking a cigarette and staring out the window.

MARY (V.O.)

What was I thinking…

Mary lets out a sigh.

In this example, we have established that Mary is in the scene, but the indication of voice-over tells the reader that the line of dialogue is happening in her mind.

Yet another example is the use of voice-over for dialogue that is transmitted through a device.

Voice-Over Example #3:

INT. OFFICE – NIGHT

Mary sits at her desk, smoking a cigarette and staring out the window.

Her phone vibrates on the desk, she sighs and taps the green icon to accept the call.

MARY

What?

BOB (V.O.)

Are you still at the office?

Mary lets out a sigh.

In this example, we are using voice-over for a character that is in the scene but not present in the location. The voice is coming through the speaker of the phone on the desk.

While in our example, Bob is alive and actively communicating with Mary, this technique could also be used for a voice recording of a deceased character or any number of other situations.

How to format off-screen dialogue in a screenplay

Similar to the voice-over technique, off-screen dialogue is also pretty easy to format in a screenplay. Instead of adding a (V.O.) to our character’s name, we’ll add an (O.S.) for off-screen dialogue.

Off-Screen Example #1:

EXT. PARK – NIGHT

Mary walks through the park, on high alert her eyes dart from side to side.

BOB (O.S.)

(whispering loudly)

Mary!

Mary spins, tries to locate the source of the voice.

In this example, we have both Mary and Bob in the same scene and in the same location physically. Bob is off-screen, indicating that he is not on camera.

This technique can be useful when trying to build suspense, land a joke, or for any number of other reasons.

When Should I use Voice-Over vs. Off-Screen?

In short, voice-over should be used when the speaker is not physically present in the scene, and off-screen should be used for characters that are physically present but not on camera. This is the advice of David Trotter in The Screenwriter’s Bible, and it is a sensible approach.

That said, others will choose to reserve voice-over strictly for instances of narration. Ultimately, the choice is yours, but you whatever you choose, be consistent with your choice.

Wrapping Up

Although voice-over and off-screen are often used interchangeably, there are technical differences, and all writers should strive to use the correct option for their situation.

Voice-over and off-screen dialogue techniques are useful tools for the writer, allowing them to communicate something to the reader that might not be communicated through on-screen dialogue or action. Knowing when and how to use these techniques will help you craft a great screenplay that is sure to captivate your audience.

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