Reading a book allows us to mentally transport ourselves to somewhere else entirely. It allows us to live in the moment of another storyline and gives us distance from our own stories. And sometimes, that mental break is enough to recharge you for tomorrow’s real life happenings.
An audiobook narrator, on the other hand, experiences the book with an emotional investment that most readers don’t experience. Being responsible for each character and every interaction within a book, as well as the ‘100% effort’ required to bring the story together in its own fully-realized world, requires preparation beyond what most of us can imagine. Voice actors who perform long-form narration for audiobooks depend on strategies quite unique to that line of voice over work.
If you want evidence, just look at this video by Audible, featuring Suzy Jackson, an audiobook narrator, as she shares how she prepares a book before sitting down to record it.
There’s no doubt that Suzy’s methodology of denoting of colors for each character and making ‘cheat-sheets’ of character traits for all main characters, is an inspiring approach to audiobook narration.
In order to help you hone your own audiobook performance, we reached out to some of the best audiobook narrators, and scoured the internet for even more input, to create a roundup of preparation strategies to set yourself up for a successful read.
Here’s your chance to dive deep into the preparation strategies of successful narrators, if you’re hungry for success, too! It won’t be your run-of-the-mill tips, like reading the book in advance or researching pronunciation, which of course is critical do to (you don’t want to be the person who pronounces “epitome” as “ep-i-tome”).
Why Understanding the Author Will Make You a Better Narrator
When it comes to narrators preparing books for recorded narration, a theme emerged from the tips we were accumulating for our round-up. In Scott Brick’s 2016 interview with theweek.com, he told them that he tries his best to understand the author and the author’s intention. And that his background in writing is a huge asset for him in that regard. That’s when it became apparent that all of these specific strategies were working towards that same goal!
Authors put a lot of care and effort into meticulously crafting each character, their emotions, reactions, relationships, backstories… the list goes on.
If narrators understand how an author has written their characters, and the series of events that ensue, narrators can help to subtly lead the listening audience through the book just as the author would lead the reading audience.
Although this seems simple in theory, there’s no doubt that audiobook narration is a craft and true profession.The ‘best of the best’ narrators have their ways of pulling a book apart to unravel the story and its characters.
Audiobook Narration Preparation Strategies
Many times, a narrator will have 2 to 3 weeks to prep a book before stepping into the recording booth with it. Here’s what they’re doing with that prep time:
Taking Care of Mental Health
Twilight narrator, Ilyana Kadushin, says that first and foremost, she focuses on her state of mind and mental health when diving into a novel. Being aware of the isolation that narrators can experience and consciously working towards finding company in the story, is one way that Ilyana nurtures her mental health.
You’re in [the recording booth] for good bits of time and you have to be at peace with that isolation. It’s that focus and that concentration that can be, at times, very tiring. But you have to reconnect your connection to the material, periodically check in with yourself and make sure you’re not on auto-pilot.
She also recommends taking physical stretching breaks to realign the body and mind to create moments of relaxation during the long hours in the recording studio.
I like to move my body and stretch. Physical exercises is important and how you hold your body in the seat in relation to the microphone is very very important. You need to make sure you’re not getting stiff because that will influence your voice.
Listening to Yesterday’s Audiobook Recording Session Before Starting Todays
Narrator, Erica Cain, says she, “a.l.w.a.y.s.” listens to her previous session’s recording before getting started on the next day’s session, to ensure that she’s in tune with the volume, pace, and character voices that she’s using for the book. It’s a great way to maintain consistency and avoid having to re-record parts of the book that are noticeably different and are from separate recording sessions.
Setting the Mood to Reflect the Audiobook Genre Before Recording
In that same interview with theweek.com (mentioned above), narrator Scott Brick explained that he gets himself in the mood of the genre he’s about to record. For instance, if you’re about to narrate a horror or thriller audiobook, try to challenge your senses to create a feeling of fear (without going overboard!). Try closing your eyes, or sitting in the dark at night, listening to the creaking of your house before going into the studio to record scenes where your characters are terrified.
Marking Up Margins with Pacing Cues
Narrator Caitlin Davies told Emily’s Reading Room that she takes her in-book markup to the next level by identifying areas where her pacing will strategically waver. As a practice, she will make a note in the margins, next to intense scenes that need a quickened pace, or scenes of lethargy and boredom where a slower pace is more suited.
Why stop there? Use the margins to note areas where there’s body language and physical expression required. Say, like a scene of prolonged physical exertion. Set notes that signal those scenes to make the story as much of a performance as it is a narration.
Coming Up With, and Remembering, Character Voices
Finding the inspiration for character voices can be quite the feat, especially when you have numerous characters to differentiate from one another.
Narrator Joshua Alexander expressed the importance of creating a character voice management plan before sitting down to record in a video interview with us:
Jim Dale, the narrator of the Harry Potter series, told Audible in a video interview that he finds inspiration for character voices in the people he meets in his everyday life. Here’s a tip from Dale on selecting the final voice: Record yourself doing a passage of the character’s dialogue in 3 to 5 potential voices. Listen back and make your selection based on the one that rings most true to how you plan to portray that character.
Of course, the Harry Potter series offers the unique challenge of having 300 plus characters in it, all requiring their own voice. Even coming up with – and remembering – 10 can be a challenge!
Another pro tip from Mr. Dale on remembering who’s who: As you encounter characters in the book, record yourself saying “Character 1: *say character’s name* ” in the voice you’ve decided to use for that character, and again for character 2, and so on. In doing so, not only have you created a reference recording of each character voice to assist in remembering them all, you created it in order of how you encounter characters in the book!
Diagram Characters’ Relationships to Better Channel Their Motivations
In Audible’s video above, Suzy talks about ‘cheat sheeting’ character traits to help her emphasise the characters’ personalities.
Tavia Gilbert, 2017’s Best Female Narrator Audie Award winner, takes it one step further to build a character profile that includes details like their socio-economic background, which sheds more light on how that character would sound. And since Tavia loves performing characters, she incorporates every piece of identity available into the voice she crafts for each character.
Narrators can go above and beyond by diagramming character relationships as well. Create a web of who’s who, how they feel about each other, why they feel that way, and how their relationship develops chapter by chapter. Putting the prep work into recognizing these relationships and their development boils down to understanding the author and assisting with leading the listener through the book as organically as the author does for their readers. Imagine noting that in chapter 7, two of the main characters get heated and have a disagreement. The vocal inflections in the characters’ dialogue during chapters 5 and 6 can subtly grow into that turbulence.
Recognizing that the Narrator is a Character, too
Tavia considers the narrator of the story to be a character too. Providing not just the story characters, but the narration with its own personality as well, is one way that Tavia excels at bringing stories to life.
I love performing characters, but the narrator of a book – whether a piece of literary or genre fiction or a work of non-fiction – also has a distinct sound, point of view, pacing, tone…If it’s a business or self-help book, that narrator is still a character – a person with a unique and specific perspective.
That’s a Wrap on Audiobook Narration Tips
If nothing else, these tips surely got every audiobook narrator thinking outside the box. Seeing how other successful narrators nail their reads can inspire other narrators to rework their process and find new ways to give 110% in their work. Even if you’ve seen variations of similar tips before, it’s always good to remind yourself that a stellar performance is all about understanding the author and tapping into the unique story they’ve entrusted to the narrator to truly bring it to life.