Reading Aloud 3: Narrating

Narrating is at once the easiest part of reading aloud and the hardest. It is the easiest because you don’t have to worry about character voice or distinction–or do you?

You do. That’s why it’s one of the hardest parts. The narrator is a character in your story and is the one that needs to connect to the listener. The voice needs to be distinctive enough that when you say a line of dialogue and then return to the narrator, the audience recognizes the voice. At the same time, it cannot distract from the story by being so distinctive that it overshadows the words.

The initial instinct is to use your own voice. This is a good instinct, but I’m going to suggest that you use a specific form of your natural voice. When we’re talking, there’s a number of different shadings that happen with our voice most of which have to do with Attitude. Your voice changes, subtly, depending on whether you’re talking to your mother, your boss, your lover, or answering the phone.

Your phone voice is a really, really useful voice. It will probably sound professional, fairly neutral, and slightly more modulated than your hanging-with-chums voice. You know the one I mean, right?

So let’s take that voice out for a spin. I’m going to give you a chunk of text to play with from Ray Bradbury’s The Fruit in the Bottom of the Bowl. Read this silently first.

William Acton rose to his feet. The clock on the mantel ticked midnight.

He looked at his fingers and he looked at the large room around him and he looked at the man lying on the floor. William Acton, whose fingers had stroked typewriter keys and made love and fried ham and eggs for early breakfasts, had now accomplished a murder with those same ten whorled fingers.

He had never thought of himself as a sculptor and yet, in this moment, looking down between his hands at the body upon the polished hardwood floor, he realized that by some sculptural clenching and remodeling and twisting of human clay he had taken hold of this man named Donald Huxley and changed his physiognomy, the very frame of his body.

Here are very rough, basic rules to start with.

  1. Speak slower than you think you should. As you become more familiar with text you will naturally speed up. This is the first time your audience has heard the words. You should be painfully slow, in your own ears.
  2. A period means pause and count to 2.
  3. A comma means pause and count to 1.

Go ahead and read through it, just thinking about that.

Now, the fun stuff.

Each sentence has a word or phrase that is the most important thing in it. Take the first sentance of the second paragraph. “He looked at his fingers and he looked at the large room around him and he looked at the man lying on the floor.”

What’s the most important thing here? “the man lying on the floor.” Underline it, so that when you get there you put a slight emphasis on it. Now in that phrase, what’s the most important word? Man? That would be my bet. So a slight line goes underneath it, but you don’t want to do too much or you’ll break the rhythm of the sentence.

Placing emphasis can be as simple as putting more stress on that part of the sentence, the same way you put more stress on the accented syllable of a word.

There’s a simple exercise to make you more concious of using stress in a sentence to change the meaning. Say “The ball is on the table.”
Now I want you to answer each of these questions with the same sentence, changing only the emphasis of one word to answer.

  • What is on the table?
    The ball is on the table.
  • What is the ball on?
  • Is the ball under the table?
  • The ball is not on the table, is it?

There are other ways to do it as well. You can use a vocal tremor, a dimenuendo, a crescendo, tempo, aspiration or a dozen other tricks. The key is to decide how your character, the narrator, feels about the moment. Remember Attitude? Go through this block of text and mark the attitude that you think your character feels. The deeper the penetration into the POV character, the more attitude your voice should display.

Bradbury uses the word “looked” three times in that sentence. The echo of the word can be powerful if it’s used right. Take a minute and think about how William Acton feels about each of the things he’s looking at. Perhaps the emotions could be wonder, disorientation and horror.

Another section to pay special attention to is this bit, “he realized that by some sculptural clenching and remodeling and twisting of human clay”

The verbs “clenching” and “twisting” are particularly visceral. When I was talking about words that were almost onomodopaeic, I meant words like this. When you clench something it doesn’t really make a sound, but you can manipulate the word to create a vocal description of it. If you tighten your throat–clenching it–the sound of the word will change. Find words like these and see if you can wring the vocal description out of them.

So read that chunk o’text again–after marking it–and see how much emotion you can get out of it.

What we’ve done with this exercise is gone from an emotionally neutral narrator to an emotionally invested narrator. There are times when each will be the most appropriate choice. Remember when I said about each sentence having a word that’s the most important in it? When you are using these ornaments try to pick only one per sentence, otherwise it’s like having a superflity of adjectives. It’s very easy to tip from emotional investment to verbal pyrotechnics. Make certain that you are making choices that advance the story.

Questions? Requests? Complaints?

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6 Responses

  1. Pingback: Mary Robinette Kowal » Blog Archive » Reading Aloud 2: Character voices

  2. Joan

    thank you. I just ‘discovered you’ and this is very useful advice. I was looking for help with wet mouth sounds. How do I eliminate it for recording readings? Should i be asking a speech therapist? Or just sucking on a lemon?
    Joan

  3. Mary Robinette Kowal

    I had to research this a little. According to Sam A. Mowry, who is a more experienced voice actor than me, mouth sounds usually come from a dry mouth. He said they come for one of two reasons. Either your mouth is dry so your tongue sticks (a little) to the inside made makes a wet sound when it pulls away. Or, your saliva glands over-react and produce a lot of extra saliva to compensate.

    Either way, the solution is apparently to drink more water.

  4. Joan

    Thank you Mary. I’m sure I should be drinking more water for all sorts of health reasons so this is one more incentive!
    JM

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