Paul Alan Ruben

Paul Alan Ruben

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Hire The Text: Digging Your Director

If a passerby caught a snippet of audio book narrators confabbing over their directors, they could be forgiven for assuming the conversation was about some endangered species. It is by now axiomatic that while a qualified director’s assistance is valued by talent, this special relationship is in decline and not likely to rebound.
 Since working alone is the trend, how can a narrator – particularly when a book they’re prepping offers them vexing performance questions – compensate for either no-director-and-an-engineer or home (studio) alone?
The short answer might be: Hire the text! And given the diminishing herd of directors, the text may eventually be the only place to turn when there’s a performance-related concern.
This doable proposition may yield some very positive results, assuming the narrator knows what to look for.
Though the book’s author (and this includes non-fiction as well) never intended her story to include a director’s manual, ironically, it does. And this applies to every book, regardless of its perceived literary merit. In terms of performance, all books are the same: They are imbued with feeling and point-of-view.
Upon hiring the text to, in effect, direct you, one immediately notices some obvious emotional indicators, and perhaps some subtle, less visible ones, as well. There may be dozens of insights strewn about the text that, properly decoded, stimulate the creative process and assist the narrator in producing a compelling audio program.
Before looking at textual clues I’ve discovered since I began directing audio books, let me first assert that authors are working overtime to direct narrators. Believe me, they’ve got your back. A brief, supportive anecdote:
In a recent issue of Writer’s Digest (July/August 2011) author Adair Lara says in her instructional article, Make Your Tone Pitch-Perfect, “Often when we feel something is missing from a piece of writing, the key lies in examining the tone.” Before suggesting ways writers can make their work “resonate,” she provides her inclusive definition of tone: “…conflict, surprise, imagery, details, the words [the author] chooses and the way [the author] arranges them in sentences.”
Suffice to say, Ms. Lara is talking feeling, “wow!”, not informational blah, blah, blah.
For the narrator, the performance issue is, how do I unpack what is emotionally at stake in this narrative, because I know it’s there? 
When I observe the actor missing what the text is directing him to do, I mention it. I direct the actor to see what the text is telling you. (That’s also my truncated definition of directing).
When the narrator is working alone, how can she direct herself to see what she’s missed? If she digs the text, it will direct her.
Obviously when the author writes, “he said petulantly,” we understand what to do. But what about when there isn’t a clear emotional notation?
Whether fiction or non-fiction it’s important to remember that sub-text rules: it is beneath every single word’s skin. No exception. And sub-text is purely emotional: all feeling.
Whether a narrator is describing the character’s dress or rattling off the ingredients of a cake, these words count emotionally. From a performance point-of-view, a list is a feeling about that list; a character’s clothes represent a feeling about those clothes. Always. No exception. Sub-text – the word’s spirit - is never not present.
When the storyteller accepts that he is absolutely never emotionally uninvolved, that there’s no such thing as a spiritless word, he begins to see the syntax as an inextricably linked duel proposition: information and feeling. Can’t have one without the other.
How then does the storyteller feel a list, much less act it? How does he act the clothes a character is wearing?
The short answer (this may be worth fleshing out later) is that the narrator imbues these things with point-of-view. The list of clothes, for example, was purchased by someone, or someone chose to wear this apparel because it means something to that person, etc.
Said differently, when the narrator reels off the litany of people and things occupying a park, someone (the author or a particular character) feels something about those things. It’s the narrator’s job not only to inform the listener about the park, but also to visit its inhabitants from the author’s or character’s point-of-view. Emotionally, there’s always something at stake (see sub-text).
Syntax (word order) provides performance clues, along with the particular words. As does punctuation.
The very order of a sentence or paragraph is indicative of point-of-view. Word order, as Adair Lara alludes to, may provide numerous emotional clues, what she refers to as, tone.
For example, the text may say: “I opened my front door, stood a minute, really tired and next minute, splish splash, I’m taking a bath.”
Or it may read: “I opened my front door. Really tired! Stood a minute. And, next minute: I’m taking a bath. Splish. Splash.”
Read both sentences aloud (Aunt Mary: don’t try this at home, you won’t get it). It is fair to suggest that the alternate punctuation and word order create a different - though maybe subtle, maybe not - feeling or tone.
Finally, it is important, I think, to emphasize the text’s ‘beats,’ the white space I mentioned last post that reverberates with point-of-view, that is inhabited by the “Wow!” Between each comma, colon, semi-colon, dash and sentence, there exists not merely another thought but a point-of-view about that thought.
When a professional narrator (sorry, auntie) allows that he must, as he pre-reads the book, immerse himself in the syntax's point-of-view, react to the undulating white (beats) between punctuation, he is hiring the author to guide his performance. He’s digging his director.


This week I’ll be working with Peter Berkrot on the novel, The Accident, by Linwood Barclay.


  1. Exceptional wisdom once again, Paul. Truth be told, I think most of us would be grateful for and prefer to have a good director vs. having to work alone. Any plans to move to CA in the future? :-)

  2. Thanks, Paul. I have found poetry reading to be great practice in the discipline of 'hiring the text.' Similar to what you've outlined above, poetry generally requires thoughtful preparation and analysis before reciting to make the difference between lucidity and missing the boat-- or worse, gibberish. In a way, as narrators, I suppose we are revealing the poetry within the prose.

  3. Very telling, Paul, and so nicely said. Thanks. Your reflections put me in mind of a recent New Yorker review by Adam Gopnik of several books on machine intelligence. In distinguishing human intelligence, toward the end, he wrote:
    We interrupt, infer, guess, exclaim, ignore. And, at a deeper level, we express a “meta-attitude” about what we’re saying and doing even as we say and do it....Empathy and sympathy, jokes and wordplay, are as necessary to intelligence as pure reason....Wit and puns aren’t just decor in the mind; they’re essential signs that the mind knows it's on....Intelligence is an affect engaged in an *activity.* It flits between the empty spaces as much as it takes place in the exchanges.