There are few things that can destroy a good story faster than a bad reading. At the same time, a really good reading can make an audience excited and drive sales. Short of a background in theater, how can authors improve their reading skills?
Let’s start by identifying the three pitfalls that most new readers fall into.
Many readings simply aren’t loud enough. You can’t rely on every venue having a microphone or good acoustics. Fortunately, your body knows how to be loud. The trap that people fall into is that they talk to the person closest to them, the front row.
Try this experiment. Step outside with a friend and have them walk to the opposite side of the yard or street. Now say, “Hello! How are you?” Your body will automatically make all the adjustments necessary for your voice to carry across the street.
The same is true when reading. Speak to the back wall of your space, not to the front row. If you are loud enough, you should hear a slight bounce as your voice hits the back wall and returns to you.
Many readers go so fast that their words become jumbled together. The problem is that for the listener, this is the first time they’ve heard the story. The analogy that I use is this: Imagine that you’ve got a mountain cabin. The first time you drive to it, you think, “This is the twistiest road in the world! I’m going to die!” And then gradually, you get used to it. A year later, a friend follows you home and they are driving so slow. That’s because they are behind you thinking, “This is the twistiest road in the world! I’m going to die!”
You are familiar with your text. This is the first time the listener has heard your words. Unlike printed stories, they can’t ask you to stop and repeat yourself. You need to speak slowly enough that they can understand you.
An ideal speed is about150 words per minute. It’s easy to figure out how fast that is by taking a cutting that’s 150 words and timing yourself. I’ll warn you, that it will feel like you are speaking about half the speed you think you should. Keep at it. When you get into performance, you will speed up whether you want to or not. Adrenalin.
Humans are animals and as such there are certain things we’re hardwired to do. One of those is tuning out sounds once we’ve identified them as not a threat. Droning or speaking in a monotone, sends a signal to the brain of the listener that this is a sound without information. They will, despite their best intentions, lose focus on what you are saying.
Again, trust your body because it knows what to do. Remember that the written word was created to record spoken language. When you are reading a story aloud, you are a storyteller. The way you tell as story to friends about an incident in your daily life is probably totally different from how you read. It shouldn’t be. Use the same animation and pacing that you would use when relating a spoken story when you are reading a written one.
So that’s how to avoid the biggest pitfalls of reading. But what about going to the next level? How do you make your reading exceptional?
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.
Second, 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.
Third, 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.
The human voice is very flexible and we’ll look at the ways you can manipulate it. Remember though, that the voice uses muscle and you can strain it just as easily as an ankle. Pay attention and stop if anything hurts.
Your basic tools are Pitch, Placement, Pacing, Accent and Attitude.
Pitch is fairly self-explanatory. To check your range, hum from your highest to your lowest note. Of that, you probably mostly use the middle when speaking. While it can help color a character, it isn’t a good idea to rely on pitch alone to distinguish between characters, simply because you use more than one note while speaking.
Placement – There are several resonators which affect the tone of the voice. Put one hand on your chest and the other hand on your nose. Now hum through your range again. As you do, you’ll feel your chest vibrate at the low end and your nose vibrate in the upper middle. These are both resonators.
The facial mask has several other resonating cavities, which you mostly notice with a sinus infection. Ever wonder why you sound nasally with a cold?
You can move the voice from the front of the mouth to the back of the throat. Broadly speaking Russian tends to be at the back of the mouth while British English tends to be very forward.
Let’s, start with the nasal resonator, because it’s easiest to find.
- Hold your nose, say, “Nnnnnn” and try to get your nose to really buzz.
- Now remove your hand and try to talk, keeping your voice as nasally as possible. Use the phrase, “What did you say?” as your experimental phrase.
- Try adjusting the pitch while keeping the nasality.
A little bit of nasality can be used to make a “brighter” sound.
Next we’ll move to the back of the throat. Open your mouth in a yawn. Let your soft palate rise. Try to talk. Does it feel like your voice is at the back of your mouth? Again, play with pitch. Placing your voice at the back of your throat can make a “darker” sound.
Now, we’re going to move a series of consonants from the back of the mouth to the front. As you do this, pay attention to where your voice feels like it is during the “aaaah” portion of each consonant sequence. It will be subtle.
The series runs like this. Guh, guh, guh, guh, Gaaaah, Kuh, kuh, kuh, kuh, kaah, (I’m not going to write them all out, I’ll give you the consonants and you can figure out the pattern.) G, K, D, T, B, P.
Reverse it, moving from Puh to Guh.
Try saying our test phrase, “What did you say?” at each “location” in the mouth.
Roughly, and very loosely, that’s placement.
Pacing – This covers everything from how quickly a character speaks to the types of rhythms they use. Is their voice quick, but fluid or is it staccatto. Slow and halting, or does it drawl?
Reminder: Generally speaking, always speak slower than you think you should when reading.
Attitude – You can tell on the phone if someone is smiling, right? Technically, it’s a combination of the things we’ve already talked about, but fundamentally it’s about attitude. If you know your character, you’ll know how they speak.
Take the phrase, “What did you say?” Say it as if you are angry. Now, curious. Disbelieving? Great. Now say it like you’re a parent and a kid has just talked back to you. That is attitude. Attitude is your friend.
Accent – Chances are, this won’t be something you need to deal with. If you do have a character who has an accent for God’s sake, make sure you can do it convincingly. There’s nothing worse than hearing someone butcher an accent, it will destroy the credibility of your story faster than you can say “Run fer the hills.” There are a lot of tapes that deal with learning accents for actors. If you’re going to do it, do it right
So, those are the basic tools. The nice thing about character voices is that you can be fairly subtle. Most of the time the Attitude and Pace will be enough. If you can affect Placement, that’s even better. What you are looking for is a voice that is distinct from the other voices and appropriate to the character. Of course, which of these tricks you use for each voice depends on the character for whom you are speaking.
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.
- 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.
- A period means pause and count to 2.
- A comma means pause and count to 1.
Go ahead and read it aloud, just thinking about the mechanics.
Now, the fun stuff.
Each sentence has a word or phrase that is the most important thing in it. Take the first sentence 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 conscious 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.
Now answer these questions using only “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 onomatopoeic, 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 superfluity of adjectives. It’s very easy to tip from emotional investment to verbal pyrotechnics. Make certain that you are making choices that advances the story.
With all of these points, the key thing to remember is that you are returning to a long tradition of oral storytelling. Don’t reduce your story to words on a page. Talk to your audience and tell them the story.
Mary Robinette Kowal was the 2008 recipient of the Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Her short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Cosmos and Asimov’s. Mary, a professional puppeteer and voice actor, lives in Portland, OR with her husband Rob and nine manual typewriters. Tor is publishing her debut novel, Shades of Milk and Honey, in the Spring of 2010.