Paul Alan Ruben

Paul Alan Ruben

Monday, July 16, 2012

To Prep Or Not to Prep? That Is The Question: but perhaps not the relevant one

Several weeks ago the proposition - should narrators ‘prep’ their book before recording –  surprisingly (from my perspective) provoked a flurry of divergent opinions among a dozen or so Audio Book Crowd participants.

Why surprisingly? As a director/producer, I imagine querying a narrator soliciting employment:
“So, when you prep-”
 “Ya know, Paul, really, prep/schmep? C’mon, what’s the diff? Just, like, hire me, okay.”
 Really, I’d be thinking: Hire you? Ah, no thanks. But I will have the vegetable plate.

Grover Gardner (Studio Director for Blackstone Audio in Ashland, Oregon and an award winning narrator) spoke succinctly for me when he unequivocally urged narrators to ‘prep’ before entering the booth. I’d echo Grover’s instructive advice for what seems to me to be the obvious: There is an axiomatic relationship between preparation and confident storytelling.

If it’s fair to argue that prepping the book is a must (Is there really a downside to confidently knowing what you’re talking about in advance of saying it?) the emerging salient concern for narrators, and the thesis of this post, is: What exactly should the narrator be prepping? Additionally, what’s preppable, what isn’t and, importantly, what shouldn’t be prepped (because some prep may be hazardous to the listener’s experience).

M-W defines preparation as: “The action or process of making something ready for use…getting ready for some occasion.” Let’s localize this definition by determining how it applies to (cover your eyes, Aunt Mary) the narrator, or, to substitute my preferred nomenclature (an aesthetic, and more accurate and respectful characterization of this performance artist) the storyteller.

The Prepping Process:

Sort of like Spock’s mind meld, as storytellers read the book in advance their purpose is to emotionally engage the subtext so that when they enter the booth to record they can confidently tell the story because they’ve already been in touch with what’s coming emotionally. And the more confident the storyteller the more opportunity he or she has to accurately reveal the subtext’s emotional nuance.

So, if  emotionally engaging the subtext is the process (which I’ll discuss further), what, ultimately, does the process seek to accomplish? My answer: Connecting the narrative’s emotionality to the listener. That’s the storyteller’s bottom line: evoking listeners’ willing suspension of disbelief so they can uninterruptedly be emotionally involved with the story as if it’s happening in real time.

The Process: defining, locating and actualizing the subtext

The storyteller understands subtext. Still, it always feels useful to briefly define it in advance of prescriptively suggesting where to locate subtext, and then how to ‘prep’ it.

The author’s words – the text - are not actable because their sole preoccupation is intellectual, that is, meaning. So, looking through a performance lens, a word or a sentence is not, itself, actable. The word becomes actable only when its subtext (its feeling, its emotional consequence) is construed. As storytellers prep the book, what they are actually doing is discovering and engaging the feeling and the emotional consequence that is embedded in every single one of the author’s words so they can confidently reveal those feelings during the recording.

Simply stated: Subtext is preppable. Text isn’t. Try, as a storyteller, to get a handle on how to say “She eats carrots” without first investigating their emotional intention. Impossible.

To be sure, it is important for storytellers to intellectually grasp the text, to literally get what’s going on in both fiction and non-fiction, to know who are the good guys, the bad guys, and to generally understand the intellectual issues the author may be posing and/or grappling with. But intellectual acuity is, from a performance point of view, the low hanging, tasteless fruit. Why? Because, as I’ve suggested, you can’t act intellect. At the risk of redundancy it’s important for the storyteller to remember that, strictly speaking, just because he understands the Civil War better than anyone doesn’t mean he can compellingly tell its story. Authors who read their own work are living examples of why, if they value storytelling, they’ll always leave their book to a storyteller.

If it’s fair to suggest that acting is largely intuitive, as narrators prep the book, they must intuitively focus their eyes, as if they are dual X-ray ovals, on the ‘feeling’ (subtext) buried inside the syntax. And feeling is buried there, under each and every word, oscillating unhappily, as if it were a lonely, fallow soul, anxiously waiting to be discovered and plucked from inside the (non-actable) syntax, so that it can intentionalize the words with its emotional consequence.

As their eyes pass over the narrative, it is every storyteller’s task to reflexively ask: What’s this character feeling (not thinking)? What are the emotional stakes? And then, as only an intuitive performer can, the storyteller must inhabit and engage that feeling with the sole purpose of vocally transferring it, as the author’s conduit, to the listener.

Until the subtext has been identified (happy, sad, morose, elated, etc.), engaged, and internalized, there is no opportunity to liberate that emotionality and then deliver feeling’s consequence to the listener.

Prep Hazard

Narrators who prep the book by underlining or highlighting or drawing curvy lines above words and phrases for the purpose of remembering to emphasize them may, albeit unintentionally, aesthetically compromise their best intentions, sometimes damagingly so. Why? Because emphasis that occurs non-organically (that is, when it’s not the result of in-the-moment sub textual revelation) is an emotional disconnector, the dead opposite of what the storyteller wants to create.

I would argue that narrators who are intent on engendering interest by vocally imposing emphasis or modulation, risk the unintended consequence of compromising their emotional connection to the listener. If severing willing suspension of disbelief, removing listeners from the narrative’s emotional consequence - as if it were occurring right now - is the outcome, all that’s necessary is to vocally Aunt Mary the words, that is, impose emphasis. Non-organic emphasis may catch the listener’s attention but only because he or she has disconnected emotionally in order to intellectually consider what should be felt.

Process, it seems to me, is meaningful when it dutifully serves its correctly understood outcome. If prep’s outcome is emotionally connecting the listener to the narrative, then, like Spock, the subtext meld should be the storyteller’s primary 'prep' objective while reading the book in advance of recording.


Over the past month I’ve enjoyed working with Tony Danza, Andrew McCarthy and, on a separate multi-cast recording, a group of talented storytellers, including: Eliza Foss, Vinnie Penna, Carol Monda, Richard Ferrone, Cynthia Darlow, Emma Galvin and... more to come on the next post.

I’m also looking forward to upcoming narrator workshops in New York, San Francisco and Atlanta (www.tribecaaudio for details), to completing a non-fiction memoir (Hairpin Turn: Raising Myself Through My Son’s Teenage Years) and beginning a low-residence fiction MFA program (which will allow me to write at home while continuing to direct and produce audiobooks) in November.


  1. Wow! I've never realized this so clearly as when you explained it above: "Non-organic emphasis may catch the listener’s attention but only because he or she has disconnected emotionally in order to intellectually consider what should be felt."

    I've always felt "bad" if I didn't prepare a script in it's entirety, now - I don't! I've got the gift of being able to read with feeling (with few mistakes) right from the page. I just experienced my longest project (an iPhone app for a National Park) & it's been an interesting ride for sure.

    Thanks for sharing your insight Paul.


  2. Thanks for your wisdom Paul. And thanks for the terrific input in the long conversation we had on the LinkedIn Audiobook Voices group. Having folks like you to learn from makes resources like that group and your blog so valuable to us in the trenches.

    Cheers from Alaska.

  3. Awesome. I love this post. Keep sharing more great articles.