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.”
As experienced and hopeful narrators cruise the Javits Center during APAC, 2012, searching for employment, garnering the attention of publishers and producers so they’ll be favored with the opportunity to record a book for them, it is worthwhile, I hope, for them to step back and consider that, as storytellers, their obligation 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 its 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, as if indicating in order to create emotionality isn’t oxymoronic - in other words, Aunt Marying the subtext.
Narrators who intuit the stakes and 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 (to be sure, 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 oscillating inside the words. And then listen to the author implore you: Recognize the stakes, keep them upped, organically.
Over the past week it was my pleasure to have worked with Jeff Woodman and Elisabeth Rogers. During the coming weeks I look forward to working with Barbara Rosenblat, Chris Delaine and Nicola Barber.