For someone looking to get started in audiobook narration, there is a ton of research that needs to be done. At the highest level, understanding the different kinds of narration will help new-to-the-industry narrators figure out what they like, what they’re good at, and how to develop skills for each type of narration.
In this Q&A interview, Audie award-winning narrator, Tavia Gilbert, gives an overview of the different types of narration, her experience and preferences for narration styles, and gives her insights into the most important skills that an audiobook narrator can develop.
Can you define the different types of narration?
A handful of narrators I know don’t vary their voices at all [known as solo narration], but, by and large, successful audiobook voice actors are differentiating each character with their voices. At times, they’ll act out a large cast of every gender, race, and geographic origin imaginable, which is still referred to as solo narration.
A duet-narration is when two actors cut in every line of dialogue in the scene, like an audio play.
Multicast is a distinction that could describe, for example, a book written in four distinct points of view, with four actors performing each individual character.
Lastly, a full-cast production is like an audio drama, with individual actors performing various roles.
What type of narration do you usually do? (solo-narration, duet-narration, multi-cast, or full-cast)
Most of my narrations are solo voiced, fully-characterized narrations, but I’ve done a wide variety of work, from multicast to full cast work, too.
What is it like to voice multiple characters? What is it like to work with multiple voice actors on the same book?
Voicing dozens, or even over a hundred different characters, demands not only acting skill, but careful organization and thoughtful choices. You have to keep clips of character voices and refer back to them to ensure that they’re consistent throughout a book or even a series. Coordinating with other actors is usually about keeping continuity of pronunciations, and checking in about character voice choices, as well.
What type of read is your favorite to do? Narrator? Character voices?
I love performing characters, but the narrator of a book – whether they’re reading a piece of literary or genre fiction or a work of non-fiction – also has a distinct sound, point of view, pacing, tone. The narrator is also a character in the book. If it’s a business or self-help book, that narrator is still a character – a person with a unique and specific perspective. Performing a wide variety of characters in a project can definitely be fatiguing, but it’s tons of fun.
Do you think different genres of audiobooks require a different type of narration?
No! No matter what the book, the narrator’s work is to be a medium between the author’s intention and the listener. So, whether I’m performing a mystery, science fiction, philosophical nonfiction, or anything else, I’m being attentive to and intuitive about pacing, rhythm, emotion, specificity, character, the story arc, diction, relaxation, etc. I’m being present, moment to moment, thinking the thoughts of the character or the narrative, feeling the feelings.
What would you say to other voice actors looking to become an audiobook narrator?
If you’re a reader, you love language, and you have both acting skills and small business skills, then audiobook narration is for you. A successful narrator has a small business as a voice talent independent contractor, and the work requires stamina, organization, communication, professionalism, and self-management. You’re responsible for delivering 8, 12, 16 hours of work at a time to a publisher or producer, and coordinating with their team to get it ready for the listening public. That is a serious responsibility.
There’s money in audiobooks — I’m a SAG-AFTRA member and most jobs contribute to my pension, and afford me health insurance. But it’s very demanding work. For those who think they might be interested, try reading alone, out loud, in a closet, and going back to the top of the phrase every time you make a mistake. If you still enjoy it after an hour, then consider putting in the time to develop the skills necessary to make a go of it in audiobooks. Join the APA. Listen a ton. Just because you’re successful in another genre of voice acting, or on stage or screen, doesn’t mean you don’t have new skills to learn behind the mic. It’s a technical art form and you have to be able to manage at once all aspects of the work — acting, self-directing, engineering, delivering a great performance.
Developing Narration Skills
A critical part of developing the ability to narrate audiobooks includes exploring every type of narration and finding ways to manage those projects that work for you.
Over time, Tavia has experimented with all forms of narration and has figured out how best to tackle each project regardless of what kind of narration her projects call for. In another interview, Tavia said that she “definitely takes risks” when it comes to providing her cinematic and performative narrations.
Read more from Tavia on how she manages the ‘business side’ of being an audiobook narrator, and how she prepares a book for narration before stepping into the studio.