I began my search for The Text’s co-director, You, at John Marshall Media in New York. I’d interviewed some promising candidates but finding the right You proved to be an elusive and exhausting endeavor: Aunt Mary showed up under thirteen aliases. Often, I observed even articulate Yous struggling to coherently express their function as the narrator’s significant other co-director in succinct, actable vocabulary.
Finally: A minor miracle. My last You of the day wafted into the studio. After minimal pleasantries, a perusal of You’s Narrator’s award-winning audio book vitae, I was treated to an itemization—proffered with seminal clarity—of You’s co-director responsibilities. You’s actable directions immediately convinced me—and here transparency compels me to note that my condition for acceptance was that You’s views on technique be commensurate with those I espouse and teach—that I’d found the narrator’s quintessential co-director: You.
I said, impetuously: “You, I want you.”
Surprised, You said, “You?”
“No, You!” I repeated. “Not me.”
“You,” said You, raising a congratulatory fist in the air.
This interview was going to be a pronoun nightmare. I sputtered: “You, I’ll head into the booth-”
“But, what about You?” said You.
At that point I sprinted out the control room for our engineer, Tony Van Hoorn. I beckoned: “I have You.”
“Me?” said Tony.
Having worked with Tony over a decade, he politely and typically nonplussed, ignored my obfuscation, and trundled into the control room.
“Take You into the booth,” I asked Tony. “Please.”
“Me?” Tony said.
“Oy. Sorry, Tony. I pointed. “You.”
“Oh,” said Tony. “You!”
Settled in the booth in front of two mikes, I tentatively began.
PAUL: You, welcome. Ah, this is gonna get syntactically tricky. Can you, I mean, we, can we sort of try and figure You out?
YOU: You is an open book.
I noticed Tony’s head had disappeared in his hands.
PAUL: So, you are You only. No me or I?
YOU: You does prefer You. But let’s go grammatically conventional.
PAUL: I thank you.
YOU: I—ugh!—thank you. I! So déclassé.
I exhaled prayerful relief.
PAUL: Okee-dokee. You. Remember what you initially told me needed definition before you could enumerate a single actable direction for narrators?
YOU: You do. Sorry. I do.
I felt identity-secure.
YOU: That my directions are techniques. And technique is defined as an actable performance tool whose purpose is to cause compelling storytelling. My job-one is to provide the narrator with an actable, self-directing roadmap that compensates for what appears to be the irreversible trend.
PAUL: Working either alone in a home studio or with an engineer.
YOU: Directionless storytelling.
PAUL: How about I specify various narrator acting challenges. You then tell me how You, as the storyteller’s co-director, actably address them.
YOU: Glad actably was used. That’s vital. Only actable directions transform performance, and quickly I’d add.
PAUL: Narrators don’t have all day.
PAUL: Some narrators sound emotionally uncertain, whether it’s about what a character is feeling or the narrative’s mood.
YOU: Because they haven’t emotionally connected to the text and therefore can’t help reading or announcing it.
PAUL: Problem noted.
YOU: Now the actable antidote. While looking at the text in preparation to record, Direction #1: Verbalize your emotional state, silently or aloud. Don’t utter the first word till you know how you feel: Happy, sad, frustrated, angry, etc. Whatever the subtext is telling you.
PAUL: You are directing your narrator to hit the page emoting.
YOU: Precisely. Too often, I’ve tapped my narrator’s psychic shoulder in mid-sentence and whispered, ‘hey, what are you feeling? Right now?’ Silence.
PAUL: And why was that?
YOU: Because my narrator wasn’t acting, just speaking words unfelt.
PAUL: And your narrator’s eventual response?
YOU: Something like, ‘Well, I’m just painting the picture, setting the scene, or the character you know, comes from a bad home.’
PAUL: But what if the text isn’t emotionally clear?
YOU: The narrative’s subtext—where emotionality quivers—may not be immediately recognizable or obvious or, arguably, evident. But, think of it this way: Does the author ever intend for the listener to be disengaged? Ever? Besides, emotionality is inherent in language. So it is incumbent upon narrators to dig into the subtext, like a crazed ferret if necessary, locate feeling, reveal it. Trust me, an emotionless word is an oxymoron.
PAUL: Okay, so assuming the narrator immediately connects to the text, what other actable directions can they employ to maintain that connection?
YOU: Meaning, what specific techniques can narrators physicalize, like a switch!
PAUL: If you say so.
YOU: Name the challenges, I’ll name the switches. Oh, and these techniques are all modulation eradicators. Just thought I’d mention that perk.
PAUL: Okay: Point of view, the moment, characters that speak like real people and most importantly, emotional commitment to the subtext.
YOU: Direction #2 covers all those bases: Hold back, hold back, hold back; don’t let the words out easily.
PAUL: You have some explaining to do.
YOU: Well, that’s what You, ah, I am here for.
PAUL: Hold back suits all genres, comedy and drama?
YOU: One size fits all. And it’s physicalized like a switch, flick!
PAUL: So, axiomatically.
YOU: Hold back, you’re in the ballpark; pour forth, you’re out.
PAUL: You’ve got my attention.
YOU: When I catch my narrator la-dee-da modulating in a syncopated, smooth, or sing-song rhythm, where the micro spaces between each word and sentence are identical, I direct: Hold back! Don’t let those words come out easily, metronome-like, as if you know what you’re going to say in advance.
PAUL: So you’re directing the narrator who is speaking one word behind the other at the same pace to pause non-rhythmically.
YOU: More like choke off the next word or sentence, and do not speak it.
YOU: The subtext is discovered.
PAUL: And literally holding back flicks that discovery switch?
YOU: That’s the technique.
PAUL: What triggers the emotional discovery?
YOU: Ask a neurologist. I only know that this physicalized technique forces narrators out of their inauthentic (because they’re merely rhythmically vocalizing words) comfort zone, and in those micro, held back moments, guess what pops through the text?
PAUL: The subtext.
YOU: Voila! And in those hesitated, non-articulated moments lurks point of view, the moment, discovery and a rhythm that more accurately represents the way real people speak.
PAUL: That’s storytelling.
YOU: You would say so!
PAUL: You did. So, let’s narrow our focus to drama.
YOU: Direction # 3: Flat, flat, flat.
PAUL: Not applicable to comedy?
YOU: No. It is a dramatic narrative’s best friend direction.
PAUL: Best friend?
YOU: Because, whether fiction or non-fiction, Flat, Flat, Flat simultaneously liberates organic emotion and eliminates PBES.
YOU: Phony Baloney Emphasis Syndrome.
PAUL: You mean non-organic modulation. How so?
YOU: First book my narrator recorded, all the words were reported, as if their emotionality had been surgically removed. Oh, myriad voice-over special effects, but no feeling. Psst! Try this: As you narrate, no emphasis.
PAUL: Not a single word?
YOU: Boring? The absolute opposite.
YOU: Flat, flat, flat deprives the narrator his reflexive lurch to PBES. And when the narrator is reeeaaally flat, it’s as if a trap door opens, revealing?
PAUL: The subtext.
YOU: Begging for connection.
PAUL: But what about emphasis?
YOU: See, flat, flat, flat isn’t an outcome whose endgame is speaking in a monotone. It’s an actable, storytelling technique that switches on organic subtext discovery and is simultaneously lights out to PBES.
PAUL: Bottom line: Each time narrators literally flatten the voice?
YOU: PBES scoots and the luscious subtext is revealed to be intuitively felt.
PAUL: So long as we’re on dramatic threes-
YOU: Direction #4: Less, Less, Less!
PAUL: Less what?
YOU: Volume, voice!
YOU: Caution: Axiom risks one size fits all. But it also provides a palpable measure the actor can at least use to concretely regard the concept.
PAUL: Okay, then. Axiomatically!
YOU: Less is more.
PAUL: Kind of trite, no.
YOU: I stand by trite! Take a third person description of some unsuspecting lamb of a character about to be slow-mo sliced and diced by the scythe-wielding serial killer.
PAUL: There’s a ten on the dramatic stakes scale.
YOU: Ya think!
PAUL: So you, I mean You-
YOU: Yeah, yeah, I know.
PAUL: Right. You direct your narrator, how?
YOU: Les, less, less! Stage whisper if the stakes are threatening, painful, gruesome or just plain horrifyingly gross.
PAUL: Doesn’t less volume remove dramatic choices that demand volume?
YOU: The dead opposite! Less voice opens more vocal choices, not fewer.
YOU: Remember, audio book narration occurs in a booth where the technology can tolerate limited volume. You can scream your brains out in a stage whisper, but not in full voice.
PAUL: So, listeners’ willing suspension of disbelief means that they will emotionally connect to a viscous, stage-whispered howl, even if the line says, ‘She screamed at the top of her lungs’?
YOU: Yes. Audio book storytelling is an intimate medium: So, you scream intimately.
PAUL: Full blast would disconnect the listener.
YOU: And deafen the engineer. Finally, less voice imagines drama’s aesthetic soul: Fear, suspense, anger, etc. Less voice is an actable technique that instantly warns: Uh-oh, something is up here, and it’s gruesome.
PAUL: What about comedy? Since time is short, your most potent comedy direction.
YOU: In threes.
YOU: Direction #5: Big, Big, BIG!
PAUL: Opposite of less.
YOU: Of course. Humor is predicated on intellectual recognition—of an event, human characteristic or foible, etc.—rather than empathy for what’s occurring.
PAUL: So big comes in where?
YOU: Big alerts us that even if a character is talking about murder, the author’s aesthetic request is an associative recognition that will hopefully tickle our funny bone, rather than cause us to empathize or feel. And, axiomatically-
PAUL: What else.
YOU: Broad means big, broader means bigger.
PAUL: Now translate in actable parlance.
YOU: The more exaggerated the narrative’s syntax, axiomatically, the more license the text gives the narrator to vocally exaggerate: Long, melodramatic pauses; heightened energy, exaggerated emphasis, etc.
PAUL: Non-fiction. What’s the fundamental actable direction that addresses this genre’s unique performance challenge?
YOU: Direction #6: Dispassionately teach passionately.
PAUL: Sounds cryptic.
YOU: I’ll open the crypt.
YOU: Fiction emotionally connects character and story to listeners. Non-fiction connects only the author’s feelings about his narrative to listeners.
PAUL: How do you account for non-fiction’s powerful events and characters?
YOU: Right, but the non-fiction narrator’s only performance obligation is matching the author’s feelings about characters or events, not becoming the actual character or internalizing the event as fiction demands.
PAUL: So, is the non-fiction narrator still emotionally involved?
YOU: Absolutely! And here’s your actable trigger: Involved with the author’s need to teach this amazing story.
PAUL: Why teach?
YOU: Because that’s non-fiction’s performance purpose: Whether it’s 50 ways to leave your lover, the rise and fall of an empire or the next disruptive technology.
PAUL: Where’s the emotionality then?
YOU: The non-fiction narrator’s job-one is to imbue the narrative with the author’s passion to tell his story.
PAUL: Kind of like that great teacher we all had or wished we did.
YOU: Yes, and to be clear, dispassionately teach passionately directs the narrators’ passion away from involvement with the story and its characters and to the author’s need for this important story to be understood and appreciated by the listener.
PAUL: That’s it?
YOU: Oh, no!
PAUL: One last, all encompassing, ballpark direction.
YOU: For the turnstile to move—whether its comedy, drama, non-fiction.
YOU: Direction # 7: Up the stakes. Up, up, up.
PAUL: This is about performance commitment to storytelling, eh.
YOU: When my narrator fails to commit to the emotional stakes embedded in the narrative, we have a situation: WNA—Wet Noodle Acting. Trust You, nothing emotionally disconnects listeners more than WNA.
PAUL: The antidote to WNA?
YOU: If the stakes look like a 5, make ‘em an 8, an 8, make ‘em a 10, and a 10: Drop your socks and grab your-
PAUL: Hey, this is a family blog!
YOU: Then swing on the chandelier!
PAUL: What about over-commitment: Over-acting?
YOU: Over commitment occurs at about the same rate as having quadruplets. Too often WNA visits and stays like an unwelcome guest.
PAUL: Okay. How about a wrap-up tweet-count of actable directions?
YOU: Verbalize feeling; Hold back; Flat; Less; Big; Dispassionately teach, passionately; Up the stakes!
PAUL: Whoo-hoo! Thank you, You.
YOU: Isn't that redundant.
I’m looking forward to my upcoming NY and LA Narrator’s workshop and, despite the demands of my MFA creative writing program, to trying to keep up with regular blog posts. In the future I hope to explore possible relationships between creating narrative fiction and performing it: Some interesting similarities, I think.