WEB banner

The nuance of the narrator

May 15, 2018

From sitting around campfires in loincloths, to hearing Morgan Freeman's expository account of Ohio State Prison in Shawshank Redemption, the power of storytelling has always fascinated humankind. And throughout these years, the narrator has remained a common fixture of the stories we tell. Join us as we explore how and why this feature endures in modern media, and why the voice of a narrator is so important in achieving the right effect for the story.

WEB banner-image

Throughout history, our greatest stories have been made accessible through the retellings of a narrator. In Ancient Greece, oratory allowed tales like Homer's Iliad and Odyssey to survive millennia before anyone even wrote a sentence, and the tragic Greek plays always took to the stage with a chorus to describe and comment on the main action of the play. Fast forward to the Shakespearean age, and the renowned bard spearheaded an all-new version of the narrator, with plays like Henry VI and Romeo and Juliet. His chorus becomes a social commentary, pointing out staging qualities and bridging the gap between the fictional world and the audience in reality.

Looking at the examples above, there's one thing narrators have in common – memorability. If we look back to the first ancient source, Aristotle wrote three simple rules on what it takes to be an effective narrator:

  • Ethos – convincing the audience of the speaker's authority
  • Pathos – creating an emotional or impassioned response
  • Logos – convincing a listener through reason

These rhetorical rules of still apply today in all manner of mediums – from literature and advertising to film. A perfect example of Ethos comes in the form of Morgan Freeman as 'Red' in Shawshank Redemption, who opens the film with, 'there's a con like me in every prison in America, I guess. I'm the guy who can get it for you.' By making his status in the prison hierarchy clear, he earns our respect at once. 

Blog Quote

The Shawshank Redemption isn't the only film to make effective use of narration, and Wes Anderson's distinctive canon of work is renowned for this feature. One of the most notable is Alec Baldwin in The Royal Tenenbaums, who takes speech rooted in Logos (like 'she was known for her extreme secrecy – she'd been smoking since she was 12 and no one in her family knew') and presents it with both sharp inflection and a subtle melancholy. And just last month, Anderson once again employed the technique in his latest indie blockbuster, Isle of Dogs. Courtney B Vance's tones begin the film with a news-reporter-like script, reading: 'The Japanese archipelago. 20 years in the future. Canine saturation has reached epidemic proportions, an outbreak of dog flu rips through the city of Megasaki'. Vance reads these harrowing words with a velvet tone and eloquence, not dissimilar to the effect Freeman creates.

Each of the famous filmic speakers mentioned above succeeds as a narrator not only because of the words they speak, but their vocals too. Freeman's smooth, storybook quality adds real presence and drama to the piece, yet his worn edges are notably clear through his local accent and prison lingo. Baldwin takes a rather more dimensional, sharp-edged approach – perfect for his status in the Royal Tenenbaums as an outsider looking in. And if we look at another example of Ray Liotta's performance as Henry Hill inGoodfellas, his performance is steeped in local accent and identity – adding more ethos to his vocal as a commentator on his own remarkable life.

The voice and tone of a narrator remains film's most indispensable tool when it comes to gaining an understanding of a character, and persuading an audience of an argument – and exactly the same applies in the world of audio branding. The voice of your brand is key to capturing your company identity and getting your persuasive message across to customers – so it's vital for every business to find their very own Morgan Freeman or Ray Liotta.