More than other creative artists, audiobook narrators seem beset by the most downright unfair paradox: The most obvious performance tool at their disposal—their voice—is of no use to them.
With few exceptions, audiobooks are performed by a single narrator. Successful storytelling rests solely with the narrator’s vocal proficiency. There is no visual, no music, no other performers to compliment, or enhance the voice. Or, so it might seem.
But, as I’d argue, if reliance on the voice to affect performance is anathema to storytelling, and the surest way to disconnect the listener from the book’s emotional import, what can the narrator rely on to create a compelling story?
The short answer is: Acting.
A longer answer is: Leave the voice outside the booth. Don’t let it in, despite its protestations. No matter how vociferous and convincing its plea—I’m so smooth, so resonant, so, so sexy, everyone loves me, you know that, so please, trust me, I can help you—do not vainly succumb! Concentrate! Concentrate on mining the subtext.
A more precise, efficacious answer—and what I’ll attempt to enumerate on—is: First, relegate the voice to its primary function—a sound-delivery instrument. Second, remember that a voice isn’t sentient; it doesn’t possess cognition; it doesn’t house feeling, and therefore has none to offer. It can be trained to imitate (or indicate) feeling, echo what seems like acting, but then, seems like isn’t acting. Unfortunately for some narrators, seems like suffices for acting.
Narrators who reflexively (i.e. unwittingly) employ so-called vocal techniques (I’ll identify the most troubling to me shortly) to tell the author’s story only exacerbate seems like, and the outcome is detrimental to themselves and consumers. And for narrators who consciously insist on their voice’s veracity, the paradox transmutes to paroxysm, and their resoluteness becomes like a virulent plague on the emotionality embedded in the author’s syntax.
Ironically, the more narrators vocally manage the words, the fewer vocal choices they have at their disposal to shade the story with nuance, the more distant and uninterested they sound, the less likely they are to connect the listener to the text’s emotional consequence.
Given what to me is an immutable rubric—the voice can’t tell a story, only an actor can—why do many narrators continually send in THE VOICE to do the actor’s job? Additionally, if narrators can agree that the voice is little more than a sound system (to be sure, some are more ear-pleasing than others), how can they disabuse themselves of putting their faith in what amounts to a false-note prophet?
Unpacking the first question, I’d speculate that many narrators secretly understand that the voice can sell, but can’t tell, a story. Especially if they’re trained actors. But, for whatever reason, they keep this secret comprehension in the vault, as they say. Perhaps it's due to the fact that they’ve been rewarded by publishers and commercial professionals precisely because of their exceptional articulation and timbre.
Despite my speculation that many narrators know the voice is not their ally, when I listen carefully to their narration, I sense they’ve accepted a kind of performance-doctrine that equates voice quality with talent. And when they prep a book, I wonder what those narrators are thinking (perhaps subconsciously). I wonder if they focus too heavily on, how will I sound, rather than, how will I feel? How will I vocally distinguish these characters, rather than—to coin a phrase I heard recently from Nicola Barber—how will I “dial in” to what these characters are feeling? How will I make this terrible book sound interesting to the listener, rather than, how will I connect this terrible book’s subtext to the listener.
Ultimately, I’m more confident about discussing a few specific voice habits narrators employ to affect the syntax, and what they can do if they choose to tell, rather than sell, the story.
Prioritizing the Words
How emphatically should I render the sound of this adjective, or that verb? How do I authentically mimic a Mexican accent? What does a nineteenth century Dakota territory Sioux sound like? The book says, Jane has a throaty voice. How do I realistically portray that quality?
If narrators' hierarchical eyes are primarily focused on word and phrase emphasis, a foreign or regional American accent’s authenticity, or how to match an author’s vocal attribution, then by definition, they are less likely to take seriously the feeling inside these words. And when authentic emotion takes a back seat to authentic vocalization, the text, the narrator, and the listener, suffer. At best, narrators who prioritize what sounds right over what feels good, divert their attention from the subtext (where all the performance eggs rest). At best, they risk imitating, and indicating feeling; at worst, they one-dimensionalize their characters, as well as their performance.
Pimping the Words
A pimp finds customers for prostitutes whose behavior he controls. Narrators who pimp the words (albeit graciously and with honorable intentions) are effectively controlling them, vocally gussying them up and selling them to the listener. They sing the words, modulate them, accentuate and emphasize them; their vocal mastery shows off their words (and them) to the impressed listener.
When the narrator vocally takes charge of the words, the rightful boss (the subtext) is deprived of the opportunity to direct them, to cause them to organically react to its emotionality, and the opportunity for authentic interpretation is lost.
Pushing the Words
Push asserts itself as a result of the misinformed dictate: more is more. When the story, or the characters, just aren’t big enough, present enough, the way to sell them is to activate what sounds to my ear like some glottal, thrusting-lever that literally pushes out more air, more volume, that growls, grunts, heaves, and gasps, all to make the point: I’m really mad, really hostile, really happy, really in love, really a Chinese bad ass, really gonna kill you dead.
The Voice Antidote: Acting
It may not be easy (though I’d argue it’s a lot more fun and aesthetically rewarding for consumer and narrator), but when narrators treat storytelling as an acting process, only then do they have the opportunity to build an organic connection-pathway between themselves and their listener. Only then do they encounter an acting lens that asserts: The actor, not the voice, acts; the subtext, not the voice, controls the words; when the narrator acts, there is no push, because the actor, not the voice, is running the show.
Summarizing this essay’s theme, Aunt Mary does a mean Australian accent; actors connect that Australian’s meanness to the listener.
I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s NY Master Class, and the next NY Narrator’s Workshop (Jan. 10-11), as well as Chicago’s (Feb. 7-8). (For information and to register, contact Michele Cobb: firstname.lastname@example.org.) And, with some trepidation, looking forward to being Johnny Heller's quiescent guest at his narrator’s workshop on Nov. 9th. And finally, to the upcoming publication of my short story, “An Actress Prepares,” that will be narrated by Kathleen McInerney at the end of November.