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I wanted to share the system I use for prepping any non-fiction title I narrate; though I, and many of my students, also use this method in a slightly different form for fiction titles, as well. Its purpose is to allow me to gather as much information as possible regarding the project, so that when I finally punch the record button, I can feel confident that I’ve done my due diligence.
I’m hoping that all this work will show in my performance and give the listener an entertaining, educating, and enlightening experience. Because, let’s face it, one of the reasons that so many non-fiction audiobooks are boring is because the narrators didn’t do their homework!
Think of yourself as being a detective on the search for clues; you may not immediately see what one small piece of information can do to help you in your quest to find an answer, but when you put them all together, they create a map that will help guide your performance choices. There are three steps, or levels of scrutiny involved, that I call Macro, Middle, and Micro. They’ll take you from viewing the book at 10,000 feet, so to speak, right down to the individual words and punctuation used by the author. As I said previously, you can modify this system and use it for your preparation of fiction titles as well.
So, let’s get started…
The Macro Level
Viewing the book in relation to what it represents, who it’s for, what it’s meant to do, and who the author is.
1. The author
• Who are they?
• What is their background?
• Do they have a website, Facebook page, Twitter feed, etc.?
• Is this their first non-fiction title?
• What are their qualifications for writing about this subject?
• Are there YouTube videos of them giving presentations that you can watch in order to get a feel for their personality?
• If they’re a celebrity, what is their style of delivery and should that influence your performance for this particular book?
2. The genre
• What is it specifically? There are definite expectations that listeners have when it comes to a narrative style as it relates to particular genres. Self-help books tend to be upbeat and positive but a tome on warfare would call for a more somber tone, etc.
• What have other narrators done with this genre? You may want to give a listen to how other narrators approached a book in this genre to give you some guidance.
3. The audience
• Is the author writing for the general public? The clue to look for is if they take the time to define their terms and ideas.
• Is it for their colleagues and peers instead? The clue here is the reverse. They’ll breeze right past those same terms, assuming that they will be understood.
• Interesting observation! – Occasionally, in fiction, this impulse to go into the details will get turned on its head. An author writing for hardcore Sci-Fi fans, for example, may spend quite a bit of time delving into the minutiae of the science behind the plot and setting, whereas in a book for the general reader the writer may skim over this, not wanting to slow the narrative drive of the story.
• Are they preaching to the choir or trying to convert you to their point of view?
• All these things will directly affect your tone and attitude toward the listener.
4. When was it written; or when did it take place?
• Modern books tend to have a snappier and quicker style, while older books can come off as more measured and slow. This will affect pacing and energy.
• Also, does the fact that the book is written in or about a specific location have any impact on your narration choices? A story set in the Deep South may call for a different tempo than one set in Boston.
5. What is the topic being explored?
• Though this should be very obvious and mentioned somewhere in the title of the book, there may be several other “meta-ideas” or digressions from the main topic. What are they and why are they included?
• If the chapters have names, what kind of clues do they provide as to the narrative thread of the book?
• This information will give you some insight into how the authors want to frame their arguments and ideas.
Delving into the structure of how the book was put together and what kinds of research will need to be done.
1. How is the book broken down into its component pieces?
• Here we’re looking at parts, chapters, exercises, testimonials, breakout boxes, etc. Why do you think they structured the book in this way? How will you handle these different elements during your recording to let the listener understand what’s going on in the text? (For some help on this, see my earlier article – The Four Voices of Non-Fiction)
2. Foreign words, phrases, and people etc.
• Since guessing is really not an option here, the index is a great place to start in generating a list for research, but be prepared for it to be incomplete! Have your highlighter and a pen and paper handy as you read the book…you’re going to need it!
3. Tables, charts, and illustrations.
• Will you need to have the author write you something in order to describe them to the listener, or if they are unavailable, can you do it yourself?
• If there are too many of them, or they are too complex to describe, you may want to suggest having the author or publisher create a PDF of them for the listener to download.
4. Appendix and footnotes
• Based on your judgment as to their direct relevance to the book, will you include some, none, or all of them? You may need to speak with the author or publisher about this, as well.
Parsing the minutiae of the writing, by doing an analysis of each chapter, in the search for the “writer’s voice”.
1. Finding the Spine of the Paragraph – This involves taking a marker and highlighting just those passages in the paragraph that form the intellectual idea or thread of their argument. By doing this, you’ll also identify all the digressions of thought. Then you’ll be able to decide if a particular digression is MORE or LESS important than the spine, and narrate it accordingly. Remember this old adage from the theatre – If you make everything sound important, then nothing is important!
2. Text layout (paragraph formation) – This clue comes from the world of graphics design. For instance, if the author has been writing in nice chunky paragraphs and then suddenly writes a stand-alone sentence, what are they trying to do or say?
3. Style of writing – As individual as a fingerprint, this is where you’ll find their “voice”. For example, do they set up certain patterns of delivery? Perhaps stating their main idea at the beginning of every paragraph, writing the summation in the next to last sentence, then offering some personal comment at the end?
4. Tone and attitude – Grave and serious? Sardonic? Introspective? While a good writer can switch between these and many other emotions, there will be at least one, maybe two, overall tones to their writing.
5. Point of View – 1st person; I, me, my. 2nd person; you, we. 3rd person; he, she, they. Each of these will have a slightly different style of delivery.
6. Sense of Humour – Not only do you hope the author has one and is skilled enough to put it in writing, but you’ll need to develop the ability to “sense the potential for humour” when prepping the book. If you say this sentence or word in a certain way or with a particular attitude, or timed in such a way, will you illuminate their humor?
7. Words, words, words – Writing, like acting, is about choices. So why did they select this word or phrase over that one, and what does that tell you about their intent?
8. Punctuation – Think of these as musical rests or pauses that can indicate tempo, rhythm, and intensity. For example, a writer in love with dashes and semicolons may be telling you to keep the energy of the sentence moving along; like a stone skipping across water.
Alright, Sherlock, get busy… the game is afoot!
Sean Pratt has been a working professional actor in theatre, film, TV and voice-overs for over 30 years. He holds a BFA in Acting from Santa Fe University, NM. He has been an audiobook narrator for 20 years (aka – Lloyd James), recording over 900 books in almost every genre and has received 8 AudioFile Magazine “Earphones” awards and 5 “Audie” nominations from the Audio Publishers Association. He narrates for such companies as Blackstone Audiobooks, Tantor Media, Gildan Audio, Hachette, Random House, Penguin, and Christian Audio. Currently, Sean coaches performers on audiobook narration technique. Find him on Twitter, Facebook and his own website here.
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