Reading aloud 1: The basics

I’ve been thinking about discussing reading aloud for a while now and John Joseph Adam’s recent post about Harry, Carrie and Garp brought it to mind again. I know it seems like reading aloud ought to be self-explanatory, but I’ve heard a lot of authors who should not be allowed to read their own work.

I used to compete in Interpretive Reading back in college. (It was a branch of the debate team.) What with that and the radio theater, I know a couple of tricks about character distinction and such which might be helpful for those folks who have readings scheduled with book signings, or who want to record something or who just want to read aloud to their kids.

The first place to start is with your selection. When you pick a story or an excerpt from a novel, make certain that it is something that is suitable for being read aloud and fits your voice. So, what makes something suitable?

Primarily you’re looking for a small cast of characters. The more characters you have, and the narrator counts as one, the harder it will be to vocally distinguish between them. Unless you’re Mel Blanc, four characters, including narrator, is probably your safe upper end. (This will vary, obviously.) Within that cast, it will be easier if your characters are disparate in terms of type. For instance, a woman and a man are easier to distinguish than two women.

Secondarily you want a self-contained scene, so that the audience gets a beginning, middle, and end, even if it’s part of a larger whole. Now, if you are doing a reading to sell your book there is something to be said for ending on a cliffhanger, but make sure that it’s really a cliffhanger and not just a random stopping place.

Thirdly, language that lends itself to an almost onomatopoeic sense. Rudyard Kipling’s Just So stories were written specifically to be read aloud. He uses rhythm and onomatopoeia to make really dynamic sentences that are just plain fun to read–he’s also writing for children. But an extreme example is sometimes useful, eh?

Really, what you want are words you can linger over and play with. Read this out loud and try to bend the words. “He jogged to the train station, three blocks from his house.” There’s not a lot you can do with it.

On the other hand, “…they ate wild sheep roasted on the hot stones” you can do a lot with. “Hot” for instance isn’t a true onomatopoeic word because hot makes no sound, whereas “sizzle” does. Make sense? But it’s a word that you can twist in a lot of different ways.

Try saying “hot” thinking about the following definitions and make the word mean something different each time.
Very sexy

Try the same thing with “wild,” which is a great word.

So, you’ve found a selection with a small cast of characters, in a self-contained scene, with an almost onomatopoeic sense. Those are stories that will sound good read aloud, but are you the right person to read the story? Does it suit your voice?

If it’s a first-person story, you really, really need to be the same gender as the narrator or your audience will have a hard time getting past the audio cues. Even in third person story, you need to be aware that the narrator voice will often echo the thoughts of the Main Character, so picking a section where the gender matches will be easier on the audience. There are people who can get away with cross-gender roles, but it’s not easy. Know your limits.

Next week, I’ll talk about some ways to create character voices that don’t sound hokey. Feel free to ask questions.

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7 thoughts on “Reading aloud 1: The basics”

  1. Gee Whiz! A person should get at least three credits for this course. Wonderful information!

  2. Pingback: Mary Robinette Kowal » Blog Archive » Reading Aloud 11: Making Sense

  3. Came here via boingboing and your typewriter page, and stumbled to this one.

    Your post reminded me of all the reading aloud I did when my children were small. The specific mention of the word “wild” make me recall “Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak.

    This is a delicious book to read aloud…after-all, how often do you get to say the work “gnashed”?

  4. Oh, that’s a wonderful read-aloud book. A lot of kids books are, because they are written to be read aloud. It’s part of why I always read my own writing out loud during the editing process.

  5. Mary–You’re profile picture is gorgeous. Where did you have it taken?
    What a great web site! I had no idea you were an author, and I’m so impressed. Are you doing any theatre in New York?
    All my best!

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