Whether I’m coaching emerging or experienced narrators, my outcome is to assist them in becoming compelling storytellers. My challenge is to suggest and then direct narrators to employ various performance tools that locate them in the storytelling ballpark.
In order to act like storytellers, I’d argue that narrators must become storytellers, not only while recording, but before, while prepping their book. Consistently and correctly narrating like a storyteller means: Prep the book like one, so that once the recording begins, narrators have become their storyteller selves.
How does the narrator prep as a storyteller? The question argues for a redefinition of book preparation’s purpose by moving away from focus on the words and towards focus on the words’ feelings. And what’s the larger implication of prepping this way? I’ll argue, care for the storyteller-self. And that care’s direct consequence: Compelling storytelling.
Whatever prepping the narrative may imply, for storytellers, it must be no less than caring for (or exercising) the storyteller-self. This care prioritizes identifying storytelling muscles and then creating a routine, or practice, that literally exercises (or strengthens) them.
I’ll argue that when book prep is envisioned as a storytelling practice, the result is powerful, reflexive responses—while recording—to the narrative’s emotional demands, and a more consistently compelling and employable narrator as well.
I’m characterizing this book preparation process as: Care For the Storyteller-Self.
First, some definition. And then I’ll identify individual storytelling muscles and practices.
Let’s begin with care. And then unpack storyteller-self.
Care should be regarded in two fundamental ways: the first is from the dictionary; and the second is outside a traditional understanding. Care has numerous definitions. One (from my MacBook) that seems particularly applicable to narrators is: “Serious attention or consideration applied to doing something correctly.” The non-traditional definition I’d suggest is: Consistency.
In defining care I’m arguing that, along with the first definition, if whatever is practiced isn’t repeated consistently it cannot be regarded as care. Working out at the gym, perfectly performing every routine you’ve learned, sometimes, or whenever, even if you’ve never missed a membership payment, isn’t qualification to say: Yeah, I work out.
For the purpose of this essay, care is defined as: Consistent, serious attention or consideration applied to doing something correctly.
What is the Storyteller-Self ?
First, what is self? Back to the dictionary: “A person’s essential being that distinguishes them from others.” Place storyteller (the aesthetic narrator) before self, hyphenate it, and I’ll propose an added term to the lexicon.
My definition of Storyteller-Self: A performance consciousness (or soul) that committedly inhabits the narrative’s emotionality.
(And, FYI, we are officially above Aunt Mary’s performance pay-grade).
It is worth repeating that Care For the Storyteller-Self is a practice whose objective is to strengthen narrators’ sense memory so that they can reflexively, and committedly, respond to the subtext (or the narrative’s emotionality).
Prepping the Book, Caringly
From a performance point of view, the words’ intellectual meaning is secondary. Why? Meaning is not actable. Yes, you must understand fiction’s story and the characters. You must be familiar with non-fiction’s intellectual purpose. But content is the performer’s low hanging fruit. Connecting to the narrative’s emotional consequence is what transforms reader to storyteller. Therefore, the subtext—all that’s actable, ever—must be the narrator’s dominant concern.
1 1. Feeling Lifts
Correctly prepping the book means imagining the feelings inside the words, intuiting them. Feeling lifts involves consistently hoisting each word to reveal its emotional consequence. (And parenthetically, feeling lifts include the title and chapter headings.)
THE PRACTICE: Notate feelings in the margins, rather than words you’ve pre-determined to emphasize or modulate (that’s Aunt Mary’s bailiwick). Stop when you’re uncertain about a section’s emotional consequence, hoist the words, and peek beneath them: Highlight what’s going on emotionally.
2. Discovery Reps
Like real life, the author’s story is about discovered feelings that occur in the moment. And discovery maintains the present. Axiomatically, no discovered feelings, no here and now, no storytelling! At best, indicated emotion. At worst, emphasis-fakery. (For more on how to successfully inspire non-organic emotion, you can sign up for Aunt Mary’s post-APAC seminar: Word Whacking).
THE PRACTICE: Highlight punctuation, not for a breath or a pause (don’t worry, nature will see to it you inhale and pauses without intent are merely dead air) but for the ah-hah moment when a new feeling—from a significant to a subtle point of view shift—occurs. Remember, while point of view shifts throughout the narrative, it always occurs after punctuation (a comma, semi-colon, colon, period, exclamation point, etc.). As you read the punctuation, do your reps: Discover, discover, discover.
3. Weight the Stakes-bar and Pump It Up
If I donated a nickel for the following interaction I routinely have with narrators, I’d put a dent in our national debt.
Paul: So, on a scale of 1 to 10, what are the emotional stakes in the line you just read?
Narrator: Oh, big. High.
Paul: Give it a number.
Narrator: A ten.
Paul: And how intense did you just sound?
Narrator: Oh, ah, a six.
Paul: The truth?
Narrator: Four? Three?
THE PRACTICE: Vocally match the narrative’s emotional stakes! While prepping, weight the feelings. Ask yourself: How intense is this scene? How intently does this non-fiction author want to educate or instruct me? And then, read aloud, a little or as much as is necessary to insure that your intensity is commensurate with the intensity embedded in the subtext.
Hint: Too often narrators err on the side of too little intensity (or energy) so weighting the stakes and then pumping them up should be their valued practice.
Pet Peeve: I’ve repeatedly heard: Well, see, I was actually saving myself for later, ya know, when the story really gets going. Note to storyteller-self: Make life easy and act what’s in front of you, what’s occurring now. Storytelling has no later; only now!
4. Speak Nutritiously: Eschew Empty Emphasis
While prepping, narrators hear themselves speak. But what actually are they listening to? If it’s the sound of their own groovy voice, they’re likely ingesting the performance equivalent of empty calories. Writers always expect their words to be organically energized. How else can listeners become emotionally involved with them?
THE PRACTICE: Dramatic Fiction: While prepping drama, it is useful to literally flatten each word as you read it, as if it had died. This counter-intuitive practice deprives the narrator of vocal sugar (modulation). Flat permits the narrator to locate the word’s emotional consequence, intuit its import, and then emphasize it, organically. In dramatic fiction, flat, flat, flat nutritiously produces real, real, real.
Comedy: Organic exaggeration is comedy’s performance vitamin. It’s important to remember that exaggeration never means commentary. Why? Commentary (comedy’s empty calorie sugar high) deprives comedy its own reality that the actor must honor. Caring for the comedic storyteller-self is practiced by organically exaggerating what is felt and discovered, not commenting upon, or reporting, emotions.
To be sure, there are other performance muscles the narrator can prep in advance of their recording. I haven’t touched on dialogue, for example. But the themes I have explored seem central to addressing the narrator’s fundamental prepping obligation: Care for the storyteller-self.
I’ve addressed all these individual performance issues in the past. But I’ve never regarded them as muscles. And I’ve never thought of exercising or strengthening them by way of a correct and consistent practice. And I’ve never conflated this practice with something holistic: Care for the storyteller-self, as if it were a narrator’s wellness program.
I am grateful to my son, who introduced me to a philosopher named Michel Foucault. In his book, Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, Foucault discusses care for the self in several essays, including, Technologies of the Self and The Ethics of the Concern for Self as a Practice of Freedom. Foucault’s essays instruct me that by focusing on daily practices that literally care for our physical being, we actualize our potential as a human being.
As I apply Foucault to care for the storyteller-self, I realize the following possibility: The narrator (actor) who correctly and consistently practices engaging the subtext while prepping will organically actualize his or her storyteller-self.
With APAC a month away I’m looking forward to our pre-APAC, self-directing confab at John Marshall Media. And also to working with the talented (and this year’s Audie finalist) Nicola Barber.