Before continuing: If youʼve just emerged from hibernating in a cave the past century, or recently touched down on Earth from outer space, youʼre likely unaware of the iconic television series, Dragnet. In order to address this serious pop culture deprivation, please visit YouTube and listen a moment to Jack Webb, and perhaps one of twentieth century televisionʼs most enduring musical signatures.
MUSIC: Dragnet Theme
Just The Facts: A Storytellerʼs Guide to Narrating Nonfiction
MUSIC: Dragnet Theme
FADE IN: A NONFICTION BOOK COVER—a memoir, how to, biography, autobiography. You name it.
The Announcer: Announcer
The Director: Joe
The Asst. Director: Bill
The Nonfiction Narrator: McGuffin
The Engineer: Tony
Ladies and gentleman, the story youʼre about to read is true! It is, after all, nonfiction. The names have been changed to protect the modulators.
INT. RECORDING STUDIO CONTROL ROOM. TONY is sitting at the console in front of the Iso booth.
DIRECTOR JOEʼS VOICE-OVER
This is the studio. New York, New York. I work here. Iʼm an audiobook director. Narrators record books here. Sometimes I hold auditions. Like this one, for my upcoming job. Itʼs nonfiction. Here comes the next narrator.
A NARRATOR strolls into the control room, smiling, iPad in hand. He enters the booth. He sits.
DIRECTOR JOEʼS VOICE-OVER
Name’s McGuffin. He’s like a lot of hot-shot, nonfiction narrators Bill and I run in to. They come in: eager, prepped. They think, I got this gig. Itʼs in the bag.
Tony nods and we can read MCGUFFINʼS lips: Chapter One. We silently observe him auditioning.
DIRECTOR JOEʼS VOICE-OVER
And why not! They figure, whatʼs there to narrating nonfiction. Read the book in advance. Look up a few pronunciations. The rest? A snap. Piece of cake! McGuffin here is one of those narrators! Or was...
CLOSE ON MCGUFFINʼS FACE. He abruptly stops reading. He looks up from the mike. Heʼs scared. Plenty scared. Sweat rains from his face as if each pore was a hydrant.
INT. CONTROL ROOM. McGuffin is seated in a black, swivel chair. JOE, and his partner, BILL, are both standing in front of McGuffin, so really, he never has to swivel. Tony is calm and collected; heʼs seen it all before.
(Oh, and no more stage directions. You get where this is headed).
Read McGuffin his rights, Bill.
Youʼre a narrator, so you donʼt have the right to remain silent. Anything you inorganically say can and will be used against you. You donʼt have the right to an attorney. It wonʼt help. But you do have the right to an acting teacher.
And based on your audition, maybe you better get one.
Hey, whatʼs this all about?
Weʼll ask the questions.
Careful, Joe. I think heʼs carrying.
Hey, I ainʼt armed.
Doesnʼt mean youʼre not dangerous.
BILLDid you carry that melodious voice of yours in the booth with you?
MCGUFFINYeah, but the voice is my secret weapon.
Told yaʼ he was carryin.ʼ
The way you modulated your voice, son.
JOEShoulda kept it a secret.
MCGUFFINWhatʼs that supposed to—
BILLBefore you walk in that booth, deposit the voice outside the door.
JOEThatʼs the law at this studio.
MCGUFFINBut Iʼm a voice actor!
JOEEasy. You can keep your voice.
BILLWe just donʼt want you to hurt listeners with it.
JOESo, McGuffin, youʼre a narrator.
Voiced thirty books.
JOEYou mean acted, performed, right?
MCGUFFINPerformed! Acted! Whatever!
BILLHeʼs incorrigible, Joe.
JOETell me what that means, later. McGuffin, we assume youʼve narrated nonfiction books before.
My voice has the perfect combo fellas—bass and charm. Bellissimo, eh!
Watch the salty language, son!
Letʼs get started. Did you just read the nonfiction bookʼs first two sentences?
MCGUFFINIʼd have read three, but you guys interrupted me!
Heʼs recalcitrant, Joe.
JOENo salty language, Bill. Remember, weʼre role models.
Whyʼd you stop me?
JOEIʼm a director. I stop narrators.
MCGUFFINMaybe you shouldnʼt.
JOEYouʼre not the first actor to tell me that. Now, back to your specialty.
BILLSon, what do you mean, specialty?
MCGUFFINLike I was tryinʼ to say, Iʼm authoritative, resonant, pleasing, smooooth!
JOETechniques your Aunt Mary taught you, huh.
MCGUFFINYou know my Aunt Mary. Hey, sheʼs innocent—
If he only knew, Joe.
JOEEver occur to you that nonfiction narration is about acting?
MCGUFFINI let it go. Itʼs nonfiction. Whatʼs to act?
You donʼt mean that.
BILLI think he does, Joe. Maybe you do need a lawyer, son.
JOEOkay, McGuffin, we got another narrator cominʼ to audition in ten minutes.
MCGUFFINSo let me finish.
JOENot until you get straight about the facts.
Nonfiction. The facts. How to narrate ʻem.
BILLWeʼre on your side.
Now, pretend youʼre a listener.
BILLYou wanna hear ten hours of vocal sing-song?
MCGUFFINNever thought of it that way.
BILLOr you wanna hear a storyteller?
MCGUFFINI thought storytelling was fiction.
It is. Nonfiction, too.
JOEWith a few differences. Big ones.
MCGUFFINI donʼt know what youʼre tellinʼ me.
MCGUFFINI listen to you guys, do I get to finish my audition?
BILLYour secret weapon.
Itʼs a story killer.
JOEGive it up.
MCGUFFINBut itʼs what I do?
Think of the dazed listener, son. The sing-song. Have you no mercy?
Letʼs start at Chapter One.
JOEWhen you narrate nonfiction, whoʼs saying chapter one?
Gonna be a long ten minutes, Joe.
JOENo. The author. Thatʼs who is telling the nonfiction story. Thatʼs who listeners think theyʼre hearing. So, thatʼs who you are.
MCGUFFINBut Iʼm a voice...Iʼm an actor.
BILLThen act like the author.
MCGUFFINSo, I gotta act like a real person. Hey, somethinʼs fishy here.
Weʼre givinʼ it to ya straight.
You gotta sound like an author, who is no actor.
Just how do I pull that off?
JOEAuthors aren't in possession of your snazzy cadence.
Or the smooth tone.
JOEThey donʼt turn words into wavy music. You dig?
BILLListeners wanna hear a real person. No characters, either. No character voices.
MCGUFFINBut I gotta make the book sound interesting.
BILLNot your job.
You gotta make the listeners interested in you!
BILLAnd this amazing story you are dying to tell them.
MCGUFFINSo, I canʼt make the words interesting.
Unless youʼre a magician.
BILLThe bookʼs the book. Canʼt juice the words. Not possible, son.
MCGUFFINThatʼs it? I canʼt do characters. Canʼt use my voice to make the book sound interesting. Have to act like the author who canʼt act! Thatʼs boring, fellas.
BILLOnly boring when your amazing voice interferes with your enthusiasm to tell this amazing story.
MCGUFFINSo, youʼre sayinʼ my m.o. should be, listen to this amazing story?
MCGUFFINHow do I interest listeners in hearing about five-hundred ways to get a job promotion when I canʼt emphasize nothinʼ? Stumped ya, huh?
Threw us a slow softball.
JOELetʼs get this emphasis idea straight, once and for all.
Itʼs about time!!!
JOEYouʼre the author telling this story, right.
JOEExactly how enthusiastic are you?
MCGUFFINOver the moon. This book is my baby.
BILLWhat do you want listeners to understand about your baby?
JOEJust the way you do, right.
BILLThink a listenerʼs understanding requires a lot of emphasis?
JOEThink the ideas, concepts, language they gotta understand in order to be as enthusiastic as you, as smart as you, is gonna take a lot of emphasis?
MCGUFFINYeah, ʻcause Iʼm the expert, but theyʼre just gettinʼ started.
JOEYouʼre the expert, McGuffin, the teacher, the majordomo, and all you wanna do is educate, inform, and convince us listeners to be as excited and informed about this topic as you are.
MCGUFFINThen I can emphasize.
JOENow youʼre cookinʼ!
BILLSo long as the emphasis helps your listener understand this subject.
Emphasize till the cows come home.
JOEBut remember, McGuffin.
This is a family show, son.
Look, Joe and I here. Our beat is modulation patrol. Twenty-four-seven.
JOESing-song that comes from your swanky voice is a crime.
MCGUFFINYeah, on what grounds?
JOEEmphasis that comes from a passion for listeners to be as enthusiastic about this story as the author is keeps the narrator on the straight and narrow, son.
Youʼre repeatinʼ yourself.
JOEIʼm a director. Occupational hazard.
MCGUFFINYeah, yeah. Do I get to finish my audition?
We're all yours.
MCGUFFINFirst, I gotta confess somethinʼ.
Figured you would.
MCGUFFINWhen Iʼm narrating nonfiction, I never really picture my listeners, who Iʼm speakinʼ to. Iʼm just sorta yakkinʼ at the page. So, how do I imagine my listeners, like you guys right now, huh?
JOEWide-eyed. Weʼre your students. Eager to learn from you.
To absorb your brilliance.
JOETo be wowed.
BILLAnd remember, weʼre taking notes.
So, donʼt rush it.
JOEWeʼre here to think about what you have to say, so you say it like you want us to think about it.
BILLNot forget about it.
MCGUFFINAnd that will slow me down?
BILLUnless you believe we can take notes like Superman.
JOEAnd if youʼre talkinʼ a mile a minute, or makinʼ us woozy with the vocal sing-song...
BILLWeʼre sleepinʼ, not thinkinʼ.
JOEOne last thing. You love havinʼ us listen, donʼt ya?
When you speak, remember, we wanna feel that love from you.
BILLWe listeners canʼt always concentrate. So you gotta love us, tickle us with your enthusiasm.
JOEMake us putty in your hands. Now, get in there and audition.
We forgot the oath, Joe.
JOECanʼt audition for nonfiction without takinʼ the oath, son.
Raise your right hand.
Iʼm a southpaw.
BILLHeʼs got moxie like his Aunt Mary. Okay, raise the left and put the other one on this how-to book.
JOEWhen you record nonfiction, do you solemnly swear: to tell the story, the whole story and nothinʼ but the story, as if youʼre the author?
JOETo speak as if to a small group, like a classroom?
JOETo remember that every word in this book is gold?
Worth a kingʼs ransom.
JOEThat your enthusiasm for the facts—and not your swell voice—will cause you to emphasize words?
MCGUFFINWhat voice? I left it outside the booth.
JOETo never forget your nonfiction m.o.?
MCGUFFINDevotion to the listenerʼs enthusiasm for this amazing story.
I like his moxie, Joe.
JOEOkay, itʼs storytime.
BILLGive us the facts we wanna hear.
JOEThe way we wanna hear ʻem!
Music: Dragnet Theme
In silence, we peek through the booth and observe McGuffin narrating. We also see JOE and BILL. Theyʼre nodding, impressed. Tony is calm and collected; heʼs seen it all before.
DIRECTOR JOEʼS VOICE-OVER
There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of audiobook narrators—in this city, in LA, and in home studios from Pittsburgh to Peking—who know that recording nonfiction is a tough job that demands concentration, stamina and true grit. Sometimes, these narrators all sound like plain vanilla. But sometimes, when they get nonfiction right, get what the listener wants from ʻem, get how to give listeners what they want, and deserve, these narrators distinguish themselves; theyʼre proud of themselves. Damn proud. Iʼm damn proud, too!
Iʼm eagerly looking forward to working with Seattle narrators in March and during a soon to be posted April 12/13 narratorʼs workshop in New York (for information, contact Michele Cobb: email@example.com). And September in LA (tba). Additionally, looking forward to participating on the Cracking The VoiceOver Code panel, Feb. 27th at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York, and on an APAC roundtable with some truly sublime storytellers.