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If An Author Had Just One
For The Book’s Narrator …

By Paul Ruben
Producer, Director, Casting Professional & Teacher

If Lisa Scottoline, Philip Roth, Ben Coes, Tui T. Sutherland, Ron McLarty, Maggie Stiefvater, T.C. Boyle, J.M. Coetzee, Franz Kafka, Jhumpa Lahiri, Neil Gaiman and Henry James (or any author from any century, regardless of merit or popularity) were seated around a table and were permitted the opportunity to speak with the narrator who'd been hired to record their book, but limited to only one sentence - so they'd better make it count - what might they say? 

I'm certain they'd plea in unison: "Recognize the stakes and keep them upped, organically." 

Consider that as a storyteller, your job as narrator is to fulfill the narrative's performance demands that are located in the subtext. 


From the author's point of view, as I imagine it through a performance lens, nothing is more compelling within the subtext than the "stakes." 

The stakes are the "degree of consequence embedded in the subtext." The stakes aren't the emotions - whether it's anger, happiness, melancholy, confusion, nonplussed disillusionment, or any feeling from subtle to palpable - but rather the degree or amount of consequence narrators assign them as they literally speak the words. 

And parenthetically, every single one of the author's 100,000-word book is impregnated with emotion, so there's always consequence, always stakes. 


Organically upping the stakes means heightening the consequence assigned to them as the narrator allows the subtext - where organic, that is, authentic, feeling is located - to direct him emotionally, rather than him directing the subtext by modulating or emphasizing or vocally.indicating feeling.

Narrators who intuit the stakes and who are committed throughout the recording to keeping them upped, organically, should have authors clamoring for them to narrate their book, as well as potential employers. 

There are, to be sure, myriad assets narrators can bring to a performance, but I'd argue that none - from the most sublime voice to the sweetest mic to the best Boston accent - match, even when packaged together, this most pressing performance demand: playing the stakes and keeping them upped, not just now and then, not in passages where it appears obvious, like when the victim's tongue is surgically removed while he's awake, but continually, no matter what's being described. 


Axiomatically, loss of consequence, or its diminishment, renders the narrative's emotionality less consequential, less urgent, even unimportant sometimes.

When consequence deprivation lowers the stakes it's an author's worst nightmare because authors never, never regard the emotionality embedded in their words as, "ah, whatever."

Ironically, many narrators are dogged - some more than others - by consequence loss, more commonly and euphemistically known as, lack of energy.

Though no narrator would purposefully tell a story with low or insufficient energy, that is precisely what often occurs while recording a book, more with emerging narrators, yet with experienced storytellers as well. 

Why? I'm not sure. But when the consequences sound to my ear unaddressed, as if the author had written undeserving, lukewarm, lazy syntax - and remember we're not judging quality, only intent - I often suggest to the narrator: "Up the stakes." 


So, what's the stakes-slip antidote, especially if you're an inexperienced narrator and uncertain about just how committed, or intense, or passionate you should sound, and especially if you're working in a home studio or only with an engineer?

How are the stakes upped? And where are they, again? 
  • First, it's essential for the storyteller to be mindful of the stakes and to remember that they're ubiquitous. 
  • Second, to regard, from a performance point of view, a work of fiction or non-fiction as about one thing only: feeling. 
  • Third, to remember that you're not playing the words, you're digging the subtext, responding to and then connecting the listener emotionally to whom or what you're talking about. 
  • Last - whether at home or with an engineer or even a director - to sit back occasionally and interrogate the subtext by literally imagining the emotional consequence inside the words.
And then listen to the author implore you: Recognize the stakes, keep them upped, organically.

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 (3)
Alan Sklar
6/16/2012 at 9:00 AM
Lee Strasberg used to say; "The actor's job is to illuminate the author's intentions." The author can be Will Shakespeare, Neil Simon, Philip Roth, or an ad agency copywriter. The subtext contains boatloads of intentions.
Donna Postel
6/16/2012 at 8:26 AM
Thank you for your adroit observations Paul. My studio is now papered with sticky notes reminding me to "up the stakes"! This is something all of us - not just audiobook narrators - can and should use in every session.
Jen Gosnell
6/16/2012 at 3:05 AM
Paul, spot on - thanks for this summarization! It's a good reminder for me.

I just had a conversation last week with an audiobook consumer who commented upon the wide variety of skill level she noticed in the narrators of the works she listened to. I wish I could say that it surprised me to hear that. But all I can do is strive to make my own work live up to the kinds of standards you outlined.


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