Interpreting a Script

In your classes with a voice-over instructor you probably learned the basics about voice-over but did you learn about acting, about how to take a script and really internalize it? As mentioned earlier, voice-over is at its heart acting and that applies to all voice-overs, no matter what type you're recording.

Acting is, in large part, interpreting the script and personifying a character. You will bring the character to life; no matter how big or small the role is. Using only your voice, you will educate, enlighten or entertain a listening audience.

Before a listener ever hears the client's message (whatever that may be) you get to decide how to bring that message to life. So, if you have no prior acting experience, in addition to voice-over classes we recommend that you take acting lessons as well. Your voice, the emphasis, tone, and mood will influence how the audience interprets its meaning.

Interpreting Your Role

Some clients will provide live creative direction so that you get their message across spot-on; while others will leave the creative direction up to the talent. If you don't have Skype yet, you should download it. It's free and will allow your clients to listen in and provide you with direction which is the absolute best way to match your read to their vision.

Either way, when you receive a script you will need to go through the process of interpreting what your role is, which words should have inflection (usually the adjectives) and what the copywriter's intentions are. In order to perform a script well, sit down with it for a moment and analyze the copy.

Every character has a backstory. As a voice talent you will be entrusted with a big responsibility; developing that backstory in your mind to enhance your role.

Who are you playing?

When reading the script, look to see who you are in the script and what role you play. Are you a narrator who is supposed to be all knowing? Are you a character in need of a back story? When trying to figure out who you are in the script, you also need to read between the lines to gain a better appreciation for who your character is, why your character is relevant, and how your character relates to other characters in the script.

The “who” question also refers to other characters in the script. Make a list of all the characters you come into contact with and write down bits of information about them to see how they relate to each other. This information can help you to understand the story or script better as a whole and make your interpretation more fluid and believable. Each character is there for a reason, so you need to know who your character is in relation to you and everyone else before you pick up that script and hit record!

What do you want to communicate?

You also need to answer the “what” question regarding the plot, including what is going on, what needs to be communicated, and what the theme or the subtheme of the script is. Answering the “what” question gives you a firm place to stand and sets the expectations. When you’re reading from a place of confidence and have laid a firm foundation, your read can be more believable simply because there are no unknowns or ambiguities. You know what you’re talking about because you have all the facts and can therefore set the mood and listener expectations by communicating to your audience with authority.

When did the story happen?

The third “W” question you answer when reviewing the script is “when.” Figure out when the story takes place, including the time period. What is the time-frame for the story unfolding? Does it cover an hour, or cover many years before reaching a conclusion? Answering the "when" can help you establish a timeline and gain the historical context that will form your character.

Where does the story take place?

One of our favourite questions to ask is "where?" The "where" allows you to create a physical environment for yourself, or for a stage to set your players on in the theatre of the mind. Having an idea of your physical location, based upon a place that could be either fictitious or real, can help you to visualize your surroundings and understand the world that the characters live in. An understanding of this particular element can help you to suspend your audience's disbelief as you paint word pictures and soundscapes.

Why?

Answering the “why” question helps you better understand the story’s context, which tells you what’s going on, how it affects the characters, and why it matters. (Refer to the later section, “Understanding Context” for why you need to know the context of a script.)

When you answer these why questions, you’re able to more fully comprehend the author’s intent with the characters, plot, theme, and so on. On a deeper level, you can also discover the purpose for a character or gain an understanding of the reason for a particular situation by answering “why.” An appreciation for these answers allows you to picture beyond what the audience would see.

How?

The "How" is a problem-solving question. When you ask "how," you instinctively need to find a solution. How does this factor into the story? How should you interpret this phrase? How can you best deliver your lines? Studying the script reveals the answers to these different questions. A good author or text will provide you with many clues.

 

 

Performance

Analyzing Your Answers

When answering these questions, you're looking for clues that can help determine who your character is, why you're saying what you're saying, and who you are speaking to. Doing so is important because you need everything you can get your fingers on to help you create a believable and effective read. You can dissect from all kinds of angles when you know what to look for. The more you know about the script, the better you can interpret that script. A good understanding results in a richer performance and, thus, the best experience possible for your audience.

Beyond interpreting the script and your character's role, there will be times when you're handed a script with typos be they spelling, grammar, or punctuation mistakes. From run-on sentences to block paragraphs and everything in between, you will be responsible for deciphering the meaning and interpreting what the client's message is.

Developing Your Character

Knowing the ins and outs of your character is essential for any voice actor in order to give a believable performance. You can develop a character in many ways, including writing a character sketch and understanding how your character relates to other characters in the script. You also want to take note of any physical characteristics each character has. The following sections explain the different ways you can identify your character and understand the role you’re playing.

The author (or copywriter, depending on what you’re reading) has provided you with some clues in the text about who your character really is. Authors tend to have more to share regarding how characters behave, what motivates them, how they relate to others, and why they do the things they do. You, as the voice actor, need to find out who your character is and what makes him tick.

A copywriter may only have a paragraph at most to share her vision for voice roles in the script. As a result, making the determination about your character may not be easy. Even if the details are handed to you on a silver platter, you still have to create a distinct voice that fits your given character description.

Break Down The Copy

Break the copy down by asking yourself simple questions. The answers to these questions can help you get in your character’s skin and what makes him breathe. You can delve deeper into the script and ask yourself more who, what, why, where, when, and how questions as we explain here. (These questions focus on helping you figure out your character, while the previous discussion on questions deals more with breaking down the script as a whole.)

To help, write a character sketch, which is a detailed description of your character, including everything known about his personality and any physical attributes. In your sketch, include physical attributes and personality traits. You may even want to draw a picture of what you envision your character looking like to help you get a complete grasp of who he is. By setting the stage for your character and developing a persona for him, you can slide into the role and create a more authentic, organic performance. You may also consider how your character sounds. Does he have an accent? Does he have a speech impediment of any kind? How does he or she speak?

  • Who: Decide who your character is and give him a life history. What makes him tick, what does he like, and what kind of person is he? Is your character an influential person?
  • What: What is your character trying to say? Whose attention is he trying to get? What makes his message important and worth listening to? If you can distill what your character’s main objective is in relation to whom he is trying to reach or persuade, you have more purpose and authority behind your words.
  • Why: Why should people listen to your character? Why does your character need to share his message? You really need to get inside the head of your intended audience for this question. Make your audience members care about you and help them to grab hold of your cause by way of artfully communicating the message.
  • Where: Where is your character when delivering his lines? You may not think this question is all that important, but you need to know where your character is in terms of physical location while he’s delivering his message. This knowledge can affect your read and also make it easier for you to create an ambiance if you’re using sound effects or including music in your recording to complement the voice. Having music in the background can do much to support your read.
  •  How: How is your character relevant to the people he is speaking to? How is your character motivated? Revisit the character sketch you created earlier in this list. Now identify the target market or audience (A target market represents the people an author or advertiser wants to reach with the message.) For example, the audience for a popular laundry detergent is generally women of a certain age with families who have lots of laundry to do. What inspires your character to speak to this audience in particular? How much does he have invested in successfully delivering the message to those people and what is the desired outcome?

Each script that you read, whether for an audition or a booked gig, demands that you make distinct and motivated choices in order to do proper service to the words. Knowing the script and your characters well gives you what you need to read between the lines. When reading between the lines, you’re able to infer important elements, such as motivation and tone.

Understanding Context of Your Character

Context gives you a 360-degree view of the story and your character, and how your character and his story relates to others and his surroundings. Knowing everything you can about the production can aid you in building a plausible back story from which you can draw upon to flesh out your character.

In addition to providing a solid foundation for your choices, context supports your back story and helps direct how your character would react in any given situation.

Building a back story can be a lot of fun. Each character you voice for, and even ones you don’t, require a back story in order to deliver a thoughtful, well-engineered performance. These sections explore what a back story is and how a good back story can set you up for a successful read and an informed acting experience.

Building a back story

A back story is all the information about a character that an actor creates, based upon clues the author has given the actor, and through character development and details the actor infers from his own imagination from the text. Essentially, having a comprehensive back story allows you to make solid choices about how to be the character you’re assigned. The choices you make concerning your character are very important and need sound reasoning to support them.

The back story can include details such as where your character grew up, what his family was like, what he likes to do, what types of people he associates with (basically who his friends are), what his political leanings and religious beliefs are, and any experiences he has had that shaped who he is up to the point he is presented within the confines of the script.

In order to truly understand your character and present him well, you need to know the lens through which your character sees the world. How a person sees the world determines how he views himself, what’s most important to him, how he makes decisions, and how he relates to other people.

When you make a choice as your character, such as choosing what to say, how to say it, or when to flesh out your character’s back story, make sure you commit to the choice or otherwise it won’t come across with authenticity. Then physically play the character in your voice and act on those choices with conviction. For people to believe you, you need to first believe in yourself and the choices you’ve made for your character.

Gaining an appreciation for your character in its relation to other roles

Another aspect of character development includes making sure you know in great detail how your character relates to other characters in the script. Look at this experience as an adventure and have fun exploring.

Understanding relationships between characters isn’t only important in longer scripts and productions; it can also be critical for giving a believable performance in shorter projects like commercials.

Relationships fascinate people. Stories are interesting mainly because they involve people and how they relate to each other. Just think of all dramas, sitcoms, and reality TV shows. Although the show’s genre or plot may initially pique your interest, the characters and their relationships with each other pull you in and keep you interested.

When you first receive a script, we suggest you do the following to help you figure out as much as you can about the characters:

  • Take note of who the characters are and jot down a little bit about them. You may want to know, for instance, if certain characters are related to each other. Whose lives are interwoven? What do these people have in common with each other? Are they part of each others’ lives for a reason, a season, or a lifetime?
  • Create a mini character sketch for each one. (Look at the earlier section, “Understanding your role: Back to basics” for how to create a character sketch.)
  • After you know who the characters are, categorize each one in terms of their significance to your character. By categorizing, we mean that you identify which characters are most important to your character and also note whom your character interacts with most. This ordering can tell you whom your character has loyalties to or feels strongly about. Relationships between your character and those characters listed near the top of your list will be different than relationships your character has with characters who are lower on the list.
  • If you’re a narrator, consider how each character impacts the story and other characters as well.
  • Draw a family tree. Doing so can help you visualize how the characters are connected to each other.

Considering the plot

All stories have a basic plot. A plot consists of the main events of a work that the author devises and presents as an interrelated sequence. A well-devised plot is critical to telling a great story and helps you understand what happens to your character. Characters need a challenge or an obstacle to overcome and are often presented with this challenge at the beginning of the story.
These four basic plots include

  • Man against man
  • Man against nature
  • Man against himself
  • Man against the supernatural or the sub-natural

When doing research on anything you read, consider what the plot is and if there are any subplots. If there are subplots, consider what their purpose is and if they strengthen or weaken the principal plot.

IDENTIFYING THE MORAL OF THE STORY

Identifying the takeaway message, or premise, of a project can help you to better deliver on what the author’s intent was and give your read a richer, more informed interpretation. A premise is a statement that is assumed to be true and from which a conclusion can be drawn. This exercise is important regardless of project type or length of copy.
By focusing in on the premise, you can also find that getting where you need to go in terms of direction where plot is concerned is easier. Some examples of premises you may find in scripts are:

  • Good triumphs over evil.
  • Love conquers death.
  • Pride comes before the fall.
  • Honesty is the best policy.
  • Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

In our research online and via published works, we discovered a number of traditional literary genres, including but not limited to the following. Although voice-over scripts are very short, they often have some of these same elements:

  • Mythic: The triumph of God or gods; triumph of a hero because of an act of God.
  • Heroic: The hero is triumphant because of his own strength.
  • High ironic: The hero triumphs because of a twist of fate.
  • Low ironic: The hero fails because of a twist of fate.
  • Demonic: The hero is overcome by evil forces or uses evil to defeat evil forces.

Marking Up a Script

Have you ever looked at an actor’s script or peered at a musician’s score? No doubt you noticed as many pencil markings as ink! Although the effort may seem over the top, those thoughtful markings can help you better navigate your script, color your read, and keep it consistent. Following a well-marked-up script is like reading a well-written map.

When marking up a script, consider a number of factors:

  • Where to breathe or pause
  • What tone of voice and inflections to use
  • The volume of your voice

Some voice actors prefer to print off a script and mark it with a pencil, making sure that their erasers are handy should their interpretation change during the process. Others read directly off a screen and find ways to mark up copy using italics, bold, different colored font, and so on.

Practing With The Script

Acting lessons will teach you how to interpret scripts and we highly recommend that you take part in them. To help get you started though, we have compiled a list of key points that you can practice in your own time at home. Children's books are particularly effective for acting practice as they tend to have more character variation and comical drama.

Intonation

Intonation is how your voice sounds in terms of how it rises and falls as you speak. You can think of intonation as how your voice cadences at the end of a sentence, when you ask a question, and so on. As an example, most people's voices go up in pitch when they ask a question. Intonation can vary between cultures and may affect how the listener receives what the speaker is saying.

Phrasing

Having good phrasing means you're able to get through sentences in a script with ease, making the most of your breath, support, and tone in order to technically and artistically communicate the text well. A phrase can consist of an idea or fragment of a sentence or it can be an entire thought. Punctuation is important to consider as a guide to help you determine how you observe phrasing on a phrase by phrase basis.

Fluctuation

Fluctuation is how your voice can go up and down at will. This differs from intonation because fluctuation refers to the mastery of a vocal range and intonation refers to speaking in a certain manner, such as having your voice go up in pitch when asking a question. For example, fluctuating your voice means that you're able to bring your voice up or down in pitch, kind of like singing up and down a scale. If you have a wide vocal range, you can hit a wide range of tones. If your vocal range is limited to less than an octave (think of a musical scale representing one octave), you can practice to maximize your range and make it work for you. Fluctuating your voice adds interest and flair to a read. Think of how the use of pitch, meaning the relative position of a tone within a range of other tones, can affect how others pay attention to or perceive a message. The last thing you want is for your voice to sound flat or monotone, you would lose much of your audience! Adding colour to your reads by fluctuating your voice can greatly improve your performance.

Elasticity

Elasticity is in direct correlation with how well you have prepared your voice to perform and determines the ease in which your voice fluctuates or leaps around. That's why warming up your voice is so important like we discussed earlier in this section. Warming up the full extent of your range provides you with confidence and the ability to experiment, play with, and shape your voice. This is a very important aspect of voicing for people who do character voice work. Keeping your voice well hydrated by drinking plenty of water helps significantly in this area. Always have a bottle of water handy wherever you go and be sure that you're well hydrated before attending a recording session or using your voice.

Versatility

How far can your voice take you? Versatility refers to the different ways you can use your voice and your ability to change how it sounds. For our purposes, versatility takes into account your vocal range, timber (relates to the tone colour or tone quality of your voice), tone, enunciation, and other vocal qualities. A voice actor who can read for a variety of applications or characters may be considered versatile. Some people, for example, are good at recording commercials and can also do animation voice acting. Although these fields may seem polar opposites, a versatile voice actor can work in very different fields of voice acting and be very successful

 

You've taken some lessons, you've got your first demo produced, and you're practicing your acting skills at home. You're off to a great start. But, you can't build a house without a hammer.

Next, we'll talk about the tools you'll need as a freelance voice talent.

 
THE BEGINNER'S GUIDE TO VOICE ACTING