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For Confident Storytelling, Prepping
Is A Must. But What
Should You Prep?

Note: In September and October, the author is presenting audiobook narrator workshops in New York, San Francisco and Atlanta. For details, please click here.

By Paul Ruben
Producer, Director, Casting Professional & Teacher

Several weeks ago the question - should narrators "prep" their book before recording? -  surprisingly, from my perspective, provoked a flurry of divergent opinions among a dozen or so audiobook crowd participants. 

Why was I surprised? As a director/producer, I imagine querying a narrator soliciting employment:

"So, when you prep ... " 

"Ya know, Paul, really, prep/schmep? C'mon, what's the diff? Just, like, hire me, okay."

Really? I'd be thinking:

"Hire you? Ah, no thanks. But I will have the vegetable plate." 


Grover Gardner, studio director for Blackstone Audio in Ashland, OR. and an award-winning narrator, spoke succinctly for me when he unequivocally urged narrators to prep before entering the booth.

I'd echo Grover's instructive advice for what seems to me to be the obvious: There is an axiomatic relationship between preparation and confident storytelling. 

If it's fair to argue that prepping the book is a must - is there really a downside to confidently knowing what you're talking about before saying it? - the emerging salient concern for narrators, and the thesis of this post, is: What exactly should the narrator be prepping?


What's preppable, what isn't and, importantly, what shouldn't be prepped? Some prep may be hazardous to the listener's experience. 

Merriam-Webster defines preparation as: "The action or process of making something ready for use ... getting ready for some occasion." 

Let's localize this definition by determining how it applies to the narrator - or, to substitute my preferred nomenclature, the storyteller - an aesthetic and more accurate and respectful characterization of this performance artist. 


Sort of like Spock's mind meld, as storytellers read the book in advance their purpose is to emotionally engage the subtext so that when they enter the booth to record they can confidently tell the story because they've already been in touch with what's coming emotionally.

And the more confident the storyteller, the more opportunity he or she has to accurately reveal the subtext's emotional nuance. 

So, if emotionally engaging the subtext is the process, which I'll discuss further, what, ultimately, does the process seek to accomplish?

My answer: Connecting the narrative's emotionality to the listener. 

That's the storyteller's bottom line: evoking listeners' willing suspension of disbelief so they can uninterruptedly be emotionally involved with the story as if it's happening in real time. 


The storyteller understands subtext. Still, it always feels useful to briefly define it in advance of prescriptively suggesting where to locate subtext, and then how to prep it. 

The author's words - the text - are not actable because their sole preoccupation is intellectual, that is, meaning.

So, looking through a performance lens, a word or a sentence is not, itself, actable. The word becomes actable only when its subtext, its feeling, its emotional consequence, is construed. 

As storytellers prep the book, what they are actually doing is discovering and engaging the feeling and the emotional consequence that is embedded in every single one of the author's words so they can confidently reveal those feelings during the recording. 


Simply stated: Subtext is preppable. Text isn't.

Try, as a storyteller, to get a handle on how to say "She eats carrots" without first investigating their emotional intention. Impossible. 

To be sure, it is important for storytellers to intellectually grasp the text, to literally get what's going on in both fiction and nonfiction, to know who are the good guys, who are the bad guys, and to generally understand the intellectual issues the author may be posing and/or grappling with. 

But intellectual acuity is, from a performance point of view, the low-hanging, tasteless fruit. Why? Because, as I've suggested, you can't act intellect. 

At the risk of redundancy, it's important for the storyteller to remember that, strictly speaking, just because he understands the Civil War better than anyone doesn't mean he can compellingly tell its story.

Authors who read their own work are living examples of why, if they value storytelling, they'll always leave their book to a storyteller. 


If it's fair to suggest that acting is largely intuitive.

As narrators prep the book, they must intuitively focus their eyes, as if they are dual X-ray ovals, on the "feeling" (subtext) buried inside the syntax. 

And feeling is buried there, under each and every word, oscillating unhappily, as if it were a lonely, fallow soul, anxiously waiting to be discovered and plucked from inside the (nonactable) syntax - so that it can intentionalize the words with its emotional consequence. 

As their eyes pass over the narrative, every storyteller must reflexively ask:
  • What’s this character feeling (not thinking)?
  • What are the emotional stakes?
And then, as only an intuitive performer can, the storyteller must inhabit and engage that feeling with the sole purpose of vocally transferring it, as the author's conduit, to the listener. 

Until the subtext has been identified (happy, sad, morose, elated, etc.), engaged, and internalized, there is no opportunity to liberate that emotionality and then deliver the feeling's consequence to the listener. 


Narrators who prep the book by underlining or highlighting or drawing curvy lines above words and phrases for the purpose of remembering to emphasize them may, albeit unintentionally, aesthetically compromise their best intentions, sometimes damagingly so. 


Because emphasis that occurs non-organically - that is, when it's not the result of in-the-moment subtextual revelation - is an emotional disconnector, the dead opposite of what the storyteller wants to create. 

I would argue that narrators who are intent on engendering interest by vocally imposing emphasis or modulation risk the unintended consequence of compromising their emotional connection to the listener. 


If severing willing suspension of disbelief, removing listeners from the narrative's emotional consequence - as if it were occurring right now - is the outcome, all that's necessary is to impose emphasis.

Non-organic emphasis may catch the listener's attention, but only because he or she has disconnected emotionally in order to intellectually consider what should be felt. 

Process, it seems to me, is meaningful when it dutifully serves its correctly understood outcome.

If prep's outcome is emotionally connecting the listener to the narrative, then like Spock, the subtext meld should be the storyteller's primary prep objective while reading the book in advance of recording.

Paul Ruben has produced and directed numerous award-winning audiobooks for every major publisher since 1987. His many Audie Awards include work for It's Not About the Bike, Raymond and Hannah, The World is Flat, and A Slight Trick of the Mind. He also received the 2003 Grammy (Best Spoken Word Album) for Al Franken's Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, and the 2009 Grammy for Always Looking Up by Michael J. Fox. He has directed regional and summer theatre productions, contributed features on audiobook narration to AudioFile magazine, and was elected to the Audio Publishers Association Board of Directors in 2005. Based in New York City and casting and directing many first-time narrators - some of whom have become outstanding and award-winning working narrators - he also teaches audiobook narrator workshops through his company, Tribeca Audio
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Comments (4)
Pearl Hewitt
7/20/2012 at 4:10 PM
Great article! I agree with it wholeheartedly. If there are people out there that don't think prepping is important then I'd be surprised if their work sounds professionally produced. I'm sure there are some exceptions, but very very few.

Prepping is definitely key. It's not only a necessity when narrating audiobooks but really for ANY professionally finished job! Take house-painting, for example. If you just slap the paint on the walls, you're not going to have a very nice, professionally finished look. You'll have made a total mess of the furniture because you didn't move it first. On the walls there will be small lumps and bumps under the surface from dust and dirt that's settled over time, the crown molding and base boards will be splashed and you may have little holes and problems with old plaster falling off where pictures have been previously been hung. It will look terrible. You need to start by filling in holes, sanding the surface, then washing to remove all the dirt, use painter's tape to cover the base-boards and woodwork. The prepping takes the longest time but makes the final job so much easier to do, producing a very professional finish.

Narrating is no different and an audiobook would be SO much more difficult for me if I didn't prep first. I would make SOOO many mistakes with pronunciation, the use of emphasis in certain sentences, emotions may be incorrectly portrayed. I would trip over my words a lot and not have good fluidity to my reading and I would become very frustrated, changing my mood which in turn changes my voice and performance level.

I read the book first, simply to get the gist of it, the location of the story, get to know the characters, who they are and how they interact with one another. It's important to know at the beginning how the characters should sound. If you haven't read the book beforehand you may be shocked to find out, late in the book, that your main character has a Scottish accent or is gay and sounds effeminate. Some authors don't always give a full description when they first introduce characters to a story and you may have created a voice for that character with a French accent or he's gruff and very manly! Uh oh! That would mean a total redo!

You have to know who and what you're telling the story about before you can relay that to your listeners. If you don't, then you may find out the hard way when you reach the end and have to record parts of it all over again. Be prepared!

This is my format:
- Read once through to become familiar with the contents and characters
- Read through again, writing a short summary of the key points of the story so I can always have it handy to refer to later. Also make a note of who the characters are and writing a description of their age, gender, personality type, voice type and how I will create that voice
- Create a short audio sample of each character to refer to when needed. (Uncle Henry may only appear for a short time in chapter 4 but then he walks in to chapter 27.....uhm, what voice did I use for him again.....oh yeah, I have a sample..easy)
- Start recording.

My 'comment' is so long I think I've said enough, but the moral is: Do not record without prepping first if you want to create a professionally finished job!!! It's time-consuming but worth every minute!!
Bettye Zoller
7/20/2012 at 10:04 AM
Of course, these are fundamental tenants of theatre and acting skills. Question: How can we do a reader's or listener's job of interpretation when, and rightfully so, the person wanting to hear our interp of the work of literature need not have same interp as we? Theirs may differ. Interesting conundrum, yes?

But of course, the narrator must prep. Then, delve deeper into the motivations of the actors in the story. Is that character saying one thing while thinking another? Are they really jealous but trying not to reveal it? Are they angry but sounding sweet and hiding that rage?

In my latest audiobook narration, "Rebooting in Beverly Hills," Bancroft Press, the characters are quite complex and complicated. It was a tour de force. It's available on Amazon, Audible, ITunes, stores. Hope you'll listen to excerpt there, then listen to all 50 chapters. Did I prep? You bet!

Good article here. Bottom line: It's going to be difficult, perhaps impossible, for non-actors to tackle complex fiction works. You need the acting background, the training. That's my take on it. Mr. Ruben is the master. Hope I meet you sometime. I'm a big fan.
Donna Postel
7/20/2012 at 9:25 AM
Paul, there is a master class' worth of wisdom in that post. Thank you for sharing it with us. Preparation is key, even for nonfiction. Nonfiction may present more of a problem because the subtext is harder to find, but it is there!
Don Griffith
7/20/2012 at 1:26 AM
As I step into the studio to start recording my first audiobook, this article shows up in the email inbox. Really? Wow!! A great article which pertains to not only audiobook prep but to many things in life itself. Thank you Paul! And thank you John!
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