What is the non-fiction storyteller’s foremost performance obligation?
Hint: It has nothing to do with content.
In a previous post, I suggested Self-Director Directions that can assist a narrator in becoming a more compelling, more employable fiction storyteller. To that end, this post will suggest five non-fiction Self-Director Directions.
In advance of these directions, some preliminary notions that illuminate why non-fiction’s unique performance challenges are, in my experience, more problematic for narrators than fiction’s, and in so doing, brighten the light on why non-fiction narration is too often reminiscent of what it might be like to listen to paint dry.
First: Collectively, these directions seek to reinforce the non-fiction narrator’s foremost performance obligation: To enthusiastically engender listeners’ enthusiasm.
Second: Most narrators record solo, or without the benefit of a storyteller’s director (i.e., one who can identify when a performance appears to be incompatible with the subtext’s demand, and suggest actable directions that can be internalized and implemented by the narrator in order to address that demand). These actable, non-fiction self-direction directions help narrators become their own storyteller’s director.
Third: The singular impediment to compelling non-fiction storytelling is lack of subtext. Non-fiction is devoid of subtext! No subtext means that non-fiction’s content is not actable. It is this subtext deprivation that causes non-fiction to be more problematic for narrators to perform than fiction. Here's the crux of the subtext-problem:
Most narrators are trained actors; they’re trained to engage fiction’s subtext demands. Vainly searching for non-fiction’s nonexistent subtext, these same actors are aesthetically lost. Like reaching for a black cat in a pitch dark room, they’re frustrated, unable to intuit feeling that’s not there; which explains why too many non-fiction narrators default to vocally presenting non-fiction, affecting a newscaster’s emotionally disconnecting reportage, for example, and worse, in the mistaken belief that all one can do with non-fiction is voice it.
To be clear, this subtext-void should never imply that non-fiction storytelling isn’t acting (except to Aunt Mary). As we’ll see, no acting, no compelling non-fiction storytelling!
If performing non-fiction is dictated by subtext, how do narrators discover an actable, non-fiction pathway? Here, it may be valuable to dig further into subtext-related issues that ultimately challenge narrators to think appropriately (i.e. differently) about the nature of non-fiction, and fiction. And remember, we’re always peering at these issues through a performance lens.
Fiction and non-fiction’s syntax is apples and oranges:
Like fiction, non-fiction may include characters, bizarre plots, and a broad range of emotional experience. That’s where the similarity ends. Upon a closer look, fiction writers imbue their characters with lived feelings (subtext); storytellers emotionally connect to these characters’ lived feelings, and that connection enables their performance of these feelings. The result: Storytellers engage the fiction-narrative in-the-moment. In summary, fiction’s subtext provides the storyteller an actable connection to the text.
Non-fiction’s nature is about something only. It’s syntax may describe torture, and in gory detail, but because non-fiction is only about torture (or about the torturer, or about the tortured one’s feelings) rather than a lived torture (as if characters and events are living these experiences right now), there is no actable pathway that enables the narrator to intuit torture, much less connect its experience in-the-moment. And remember, about something, no matter how vivid, isn’t actable.
The outcome of fiction and non-fiction is apples and oranges:
Audiobook listeners expect to be emotionally impacted by fiction and non-fiction, and that’s where the outcome similarity ends.
For the performer, fiction’s outcome is a magic carpet ride that connects listeners to characters and events in-the-moment.
In-the-moment doesn't exist in non-fiction. Non-fiction tells listeners about something that is, or should be, meaningful to them (or why bother telling them). Non-fiction’s specific mission may be to inform, convince, increase understanding of a given thesis or proposition, etc.—from five ways to color your hair, to the meaning of a great war, to a harrowing celebrity-life, to catastrophic social and political events. But the author’s bottom line is: Have I got something important to tell you about!
And here is where the non-fiction storyteller begins to discover his calling: Enthusiasm for this incredible story. Speaking as the author’s surrogate, the non-fiction storyteller intuits an enthusiasm-bridge that connects the listener to the author’s incredible story. And that bridge is actable.
Fourth: Enthusiasm is synonymous with compelling non-fiction narration.
Given that non-fiction’s characters and story are not actable (no subtext), the storyteller’s only viscerally accessible option is listener-enthusiasm, emotionally connecting the listener to this amazing story. And remember, a blasé non-fiction author is an oxymoron. The narrator is obligated, therefore, to represent the author’s high stakes emotional commitment to this story, enthusiastically.
As the author’s surrogate, anything less than the narrator’s devotion to listeners’ enthusiasm disaffects, and disconnects them: If listeners aren’t convinced the author is enthusiastic about this incredible story, why should they be?
At this juncture, it’s imperative for narrators to remember that their level of enthusiasm must reflect the author’s, whose personality is informed by the text’s vocabulary, syntax, and format. From intellectually staid, to airy and effusive, the narrator’s enthusiasm-obligation is to accurately replicate the author’s emotive voice.
Fifth: Non-fiction narrators are especially susceptible to Aunt Mary Non-fiction Syndrome (AMNFS)—voicing, rather than acting, non-fiction. Enumeration shortly.
On to creating compelling non-fiction storytelling in five easy self-director directions:
Self-Director Direction #1: It’s All About the Listener. Content is irrelevant. Because non-fiction is devoid of subtext (not actable), to whom does the storyteller devote her unwavering attention? You guessed it: the listener.
Self-Director Direction #2: Engender Listener Enthusiasm, Enthusiastically! As the author’s surrogate, and cheerleader-in-chief, the only actable point of view the non-fiction narrator can reflect is her own enthusiastic desire to remind the listener with each breath: You are hearing an incredible story!
Self-Director Direction #3: Educate About, Enthusiastically! Activating this indispensible performance tool is precisely how the narrator generates the listener’s enthusiasm. At its core, all non-fiction educates us about something of great significance to the author. And so the non-fiction narrator may also properly regard himself as the author’s educator-in-chief.
In working with non-fiction narrators, I often suggest, imagine you’re an empowering teacher, or expert, dedicated to wide-eyed students sitting before you with their mouth agape, and thinking, Wow!
Self-Director Direction #4: Emphasize, Enthusiastically. Non-fiction is replete with myriad words and phrases the author (the authority; the educator) needs us to heed so that we fully grasp the story’s gravity. In order to engender listeners' enthusiasm, the narrator is obliged to intuit, and then emphasize those important words and phrases, with authority!
Along with vocal punch, emphasis is also achieved by pausing before, after, even during a salient passage, phrase, even a word; by raising or lowering volume; by periodically changing cadence (slowing down, or speeding up).
It is imperative to remember that helping the words must be achieved organically! Or the only one clapping will be Aunt Mary, whose modulated sing-song emanates from her misguided belief that the voice can act, that the voice can educate; it never crosses her mind that the narrator’s emotional commitment to the listener’s enthusiasm for the story is the actualizing agent for organic emphasis.
Self-Director Direction #5: You’re the Author, So Keep It Real! Non-fiction listeners willingly suspend their disbelief, and imagine they’re hearing the author. And to listeners, the author is a real person, not a thespian, not even a voice-actor. Keeping it real—easier said than done because real is so counterintuitive to the narrator’s need to sound professional—is achieved when the narrator prioritizes the listener’s enthusiasm over the impact of their voice.
And that brings us to the non-fiction narrator’s most egregious misconception: that unlike fiction, non-fiction needn’t be acted! And it’s precisely this toxic delusion that lowers their resistance, and triggers the onslaught of Aunt Mary Non-fiction Syndrome.
Once felled by the erroneous presumption that non-fiction isn’t about acting, AMNFS victims succumb to this syndrome’s most virulent symptom: affecting an impressive non-fiction sound. Impressive, maybe. Engaging, never. Ironically, a vocally affected performance discourages, rather than encourages, listener and narrator connection. Ironically, listener enthusiasm has nothing (as in zero) to do with the narrator’s wonderful, or powerful, or smooth, or distinguished, or impressive voice.
For narrators stricken by AMNFS, here’s the self-director direction antidote:
One: Stop talking, immediately!
Two: Think, narrating non-fiction is acting.
Three: Think, the voice can’t act.
Four: Think, I’m a storyteller; I’m not here to vocally impress the listener and myself, and then heave your golden voice out the booth’s door.
Five: Breathe, and repeat: My objective is to enthusiastically tap into the listener’s enthusiasm for this incredible story.
If engendering an enthusiastic listener sounds like a reasonable non-fiction game plan, then I hope this blog post serves as a template toward that end. If vocally impressing the listener is the outcome, then I recommend Aunt Mary’s Self-Aggrandizing Guide to Voicing Audiobooks.
So, there it is! Five Self-Director Directions that remind us storytelling is acting, and that non-fiction storytelling is simply acted differently than fiction.
I’m looking forward to this September’s NY Narrator’s Workshop, which is filled, and the January LA Narrator’s Workshop (contact Michele Cobb: firstname.lastname@example.org) where several openings remain, and to this week’s upcoming audiobook recordings with Eileen Stevens, and Nicola Barber, and to working with Johnny Heller and other talent and audiobook professionals at next year’s Chicago APAC.