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The Secrets of Successful Audiobook Narration

I wrote this article for Readerly Magazine back in 2015, but it’s been brought to my attention that it’s no longer findable online, so I’m reposting it here, with a few edits for clarity.

Jen Karsbaek wrote (way back in 2015 in her blog Devourer of Books) an article to kick off Audiobook Month with what I thought were wonderfully practical tips on getting started as an audiobook listener.

Her first three suggestions: using audiobooks to re-read books and choosing books which are engaging and fast paced but not overly complex. These make a lot of sense to me. In our current age, we take in information primarily through our eyes and in short bursts. Audiobooks demand that we take in information only through our ears, concentrating for long periods of time. In Shakespeare’s day, 400+ years ago, it was the opposite. People talked of going to hear rather than see a play. A written sentence at that time averaged over twenty words in length. When I was studying all this as a teaching artist twenty-five years ago, the average sentence’s word length was seven. Today, I imagine it’s even shorter.

All this is to say that our brains are certainly capable of the kind of concentration that audiobooks require, but many of us may never have developed these neural pathways. But they are there for the using, and many devoted audiobook fans report that building up this particular muscle is relatively painless and worth the effort. The reward is receiving an intimate performance that is like no other.

And that brings me to Jen’s final suggestion: listen to the best narrators.  As a narrator myself, I hope I can give you a backstage peek as to what skills and talent are involved in creating an excellent audiobook performance, and why it makes a difference.

I have been privileged to serve on a few panels on the topic in the past few years. In April 2015 a group of narrators recorded a chat for the AudioGals blog moderated by Lea Hensley and in May a group of nine narrators, led by the indomitable Johnny Heller, taught a workshop to a group of more than eighty narrators in New York. I learned a few things from my colleagues, but also realized that there are values we all share in our work.

Audiobook narration is a subset of the acting profession. While some non-actor narrators may get away with innate storytelling instincts, having a solid base of actor training is considered the professional standard. Learning to break down a script into playable actions, studying a wide variety of genres, and training one’s body and voice so that they are as expressive as possible are all necessary components. And while “good acting is good acting” whether you’re on stage, screen, or behind a mic, audiobook narration requires a unique set of skills in addition to basic acting training. New narrators mistakenly believe that since they can read and act, they can do audiobooks. Most are disabused of this fallacy on the first day of recording. Not only is recording an audiobook a marathon versus the sprint of working in commercial or animation voice over, but, as many listeners can guess, it requires one to “play all the parts”. Theatre actors have experience with creating a character that is believably going through some sort of psychological journey in a fictional reality, night after night. Audiobook narrators have to keep the through-lines of every major character going, as well as keep every single character consistent and distinct from the others. This does require some practice. And while in the theatre and sometimes in film and TV there’s a rehearsal process to develop the character and overall story, there’s no rehearsal in audiobooks.

What narrators have instead is preparation, another essential element of audiobook excellence. While we all may have different techniques for marking our scripts or remembering various character voices, everyone reads the book, carefully, at least once, before beginning to record (unless time pressures or secrecy absolutely don’t allow). This preparation not only allows us to make character choices that are built on the author’s words, but it allows us to get to know the author’s writing style. As a director of new narrators, I’ve found that the hardest thing to learn is not the recording of dialogue, tricky in that you have to play both sides of a conversation, but the recording of narrative, where we have to find a way to make the author’s voice our own. This requires a somewhat academic understanding of literary styles and genres, listening to audiobooks to get an appreciation of what works, and something perhaps a bit more difficult to pin down.

We seek to honor the author’s words. The best way to achieve this is to be present as one records every single word. This is impossible, of course. Some narrators practice meditation or yoga to exercise this particular muscle; some find it through the process. Thorough preparation, plus a well-developed storytelling instinct allow the top pros to get lost in the words, immerse completely in the story and achieve that highly sought after sense of creative flow. This not only makes recording a book more efficient, but more fun. Most importantly, being in the moment creates a product that is unique as well as excellent. It allows an intimate collaboration between at least three people* who may never be in the same room together: author, narrator and listener.

Yes, you, as listener, have an important role to play as well. Your imagination is engaged as you take in the author’s words, spoken by a single voice.  They move through your ears directly into your mind where your imagination takes the words, the performance, your memories and experiences and builds something new: a whole new world complete with sound, color, smell, texture, even taste.

If you follow this blog, you likely read with your ears already. So, feel free to pass along this advice, and let me know how it’s received!

* Many others may add to the process, including publishers, producers, casting associates, directors, engineers, editors, and proofers.

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