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As Narrator, Should You Seduce
The Listener
- Or Satisfy Author?

Note: The author teaches a two-day Narrator's Audio Book Workshop, April 28-29, 2012, in Studio City, CA - a small session in which participants will be coached, directed and recorded. Please click here for details.

By Paul Ruben
Producer, Director, Casting Professional & Teacher

Confronting all narrators as they prep a book is an either/or proposition that is located in their relationship to the narrative: Either I "impress" the text by prioritizing my vocal acuity or I defer to the author's syntax and play the subtext. 

In effect, will I seduce the listener by flaunting my vocal stuff, highlight words and phrases I'd prefer to emphasize, as if they somehow require my input, or will I reflect inwardly in order to mine my performance cues from the author's emotional intent? 

Clearly most narrators would agree that the text should arbitrate the storyteller's vocal choices. 

If that's true, then what's the problem? 


I think what's at stake is that narrators - particularly those who work alone, or with an engineer, or without the benefit of subtextual feedback from a director - may have a tendency to prioritize their vocal technique (ironically, especially if they are experienced, facile storytellers) over the author's intent, rather than the reverse. 

Why? I'm not sure. 

But I suspect that at least some of this desire is perpetuated by a kind of low hanging and tempting performance fruit: accolades and congratulatory notices from listeners and reviewers who mistake rock 'em, sock 'em energy for storytelling. 


The more authentic performance fruit (the subtext), I'm suggesting, sways - equally plump and tasty - beneath the words, where the text's feeling is located. 

This fruit - which supplies vitamin point of view - need only be acknowledged and then prioritized by narrators in order for them to take their direction from it. 


Bottom line: In order to address the listener's needs, the narrator must satisfy the author's. 

To further unpack this notion, read the following text and think: So, okay, how would I respond emotionally to these words so that I tell the story, not as I'd prefer, but as the author wishes me to? 

"The trees had begun to change with the sugar maples leading the way, their golden-red leaves glowing through the rain-spattered windshield. 

"It was October. Sam loved the ephemeral majesty and beautiful decay of fall, yet she couldn't enjoy it. 

"Winter loomed. The promise of cracked lips from parched indoor heat, burned cheeks from pin-prick winds, the grit of sand and salt everywhere. 

"This would be their third winter in Madison and she wondered how she would bear it, stuck inside with Ella who was increasingly mobile, crawling circles around the living room, as darkness closed them in by four o'clock." 


The narrator's seduce-the-listener approach might be:

"Hmmm, melodramatic stuff. I can feel the tension. And, yeah, certain words just beg for my highlighter pen so I can be sure to stress them. 

"Yeah, I'm gonna really pace this up and, let's see, I'll highlight 'rain-spattered,' 'cracked lips,' 'pin-pricked' - ohh that'll give 'em the creeps - and, yeah, 'crawling circles.' Scary, scary!" 

And so the narrator begins looking at this text from the outside, in. 

That is, she immediately calls up her performance melodrama model, knowing she's gonna scintillate the listener with her vocal technique. 


By contrast, the narrator's satisfy-the-author approach might be:

Unpacking the text from the author's lens, believing that the subtext will, if prioritized, direct the narrator, alerting him to volume, pace, emphasis, etc. 

How does the subtext direct the narrator's emotional choices? Primarily by alerting the narrator to "point of view." 

Regard each sentence and wonder, whose POV is this? 


So, with this paragraph, I'd ask the prepping narrator to focus on highlighting POV as a way to consider vocal choices. 

Sentences one and two: "The trees ... spattered windshield." "It was October." The omniscient storyteller. 

Sentence three: "Sam loved ... enjoy it." Sam's POV. 

Sentences four and five: "Winter loomed ... and salt everywhere." The omniscient storyteller. 

Sentence six: "This ... four o'clock." Sam's POV. 


Once narrators engage point of view - that is, allow the text to direct them vocally - volume, pacing, and emphasis have an opportunity to occur organically (from the inside, out). 

Intuitively, the narrator comes to understand that because his vocal choices are now dictated by the text,  they'll match the text, they'll give back emotionally what's given to them. 

For narrators, the question may not be, do I prepare, but how do I? 

Do I value the text first? If I do, what do I look for?

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, 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)
Suzanne Toren
3/20/2012 at 10:00 PM
I agree, Paul, but I would argue that the paragraph beginning "Winter looms.." is the character's POV, not the omniscient narrator's. I think there is a link--an inferred "because"--- between the previous paragraph and this one, as tho the character is thinking "I love fall," but what it means is that winter is around the corner, with all its concomitant unpleasantness, eg, cracked lips,etc., AND (next paragraph)being isolated at home with the baby...
James Lewis
3/20/2012 at 4:51 AM
Wise words! Thank you, Paul.
Elizabeth Wiley
3/19/2012 at 11:20 PM
Terrific article, Paul! Using the passage as an example was especially illustrative. Good reminder for all of us!
Lori Furth
3/19/2012 at 7:33 PM

So interesting! Talk about "food for thought"! I think many VOs think of narration as their chance to bring out their storytelling talents, but you make some excellent points. Thank you!

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