Audiobooks: The Magic Of Good Narration: How To Interest A Listener

audiobookIt’s time I talk about something else after my experiences over the last month or so. It feels good to not have an aberration over my shoulder again. But I think I will ease my way in slowly.

I haven’t done my equivalent to a direct opinion piece article in a while. The last was the one I wrote at the beginning of January on music and sound in audiobooks. So why don’t I write one on my opinion for how to create good narration in audiobooks?

Firstly I should tell you some of the Don’ts or some of the things that drive me up the wall personally. If I tell you the Don’ts hopefully you can figure out the Do’s yourselves but if not I can tell you at the end. Let’s start with celebrity narrators. That to me is something of a dirty phrase or a personal sin. Now don’t get me wrong if you hire a narrator who happens to be famous and genuinely has a personal interest in the book or series they are narrating or the subject in general in the case of a nonfiction audiobook it usually shows. A case in point would be Stephen Fry as he was a person who was on record in interviews as being a Sherlock Holmes fan. Then not too long ago he ended up with narration duties on Audible’s version of the Sherlock Holmes canon which I previously reviewed. He even took part in Audible’s marketing for the release, repeatedly saying how thankful he was for the opportunity. Plus his enthusiasm is clear when you hear him speak or doing his narration. He’s thankful and happy to be doing it! That is very important!

However in many cases of celebrity narration there is one simple problem: They simply don’t F*****G CARE! I have a horror story of my own which is probably why I care so much about this. Forgive my earlier language.

About three years ago around this time I heard about an upcoming release. The Romanovs: 1613-1918 by Simon Seabag Montefiore. I was genuinely excited! I had watched a BBC three part documentary on the Romanov family hosted by Montefiore himself. He obviously  cares about the subject or he wouldn’t have written the book in the first place and that was clear in his hosting duties. Then I heard a famous actor known for theatre work called Simon Russell Beale was going to narrate. I knew the name but I knew nothing about his work so I didn’t know what to expect. I preordered and waited for release day. When that day came I downloaded and listened eagerly only to be…gravely disappointed. Sure Beale sounded classy or like a lecturer but there was one problem. Not too far into the book he started to sound BORED. Not just tired either. Mind numbingly bored. While narrating a book full of political intrigue, assassinations and all sorts of interesting ways to die and facts and events. Now let me ask you as my readers. If the narrators can’t sound interested in a book why should I care!? It just sounds like they only took the job for a pay cheque. Not because they actually care. So quite simply just because you can spend the money on a famous actor, musician or whatever to narrate a book doesn’t mean you should. The only obvious exception being if it’s that famous person’s autobiography or a book actually written by them. Save that money and use it either to market the audiobook or to improve the experience with good music or sound effects.

Another common issue with narration is the tone some narrators use. This occurs most often in nonfiction audio releases but it can happen anywhere. Something which baffles me is the fact that certain narrators tend to keep the same tone of voice throughout the entire release. It doesn’t matter if they are discussing a politician passing an important legal bill, James Clarke Maxwell and his ‘Demon’ or an action scene with one man taking on an entire corrupt police force. They never change their voice! They don’t sound excited, interested or enthusiastic and they don’t make it clear why the audience should care. Long story short almost every problem with badly made audiobooks can be boiled down to this.

If the producers and narrators and everyone involved can’t make the effort to make me care, why should I bother to give you my money?

Another problem is the issue of accents. In a lot of cases the accents aren’t a problem. Many narrators either don’t put on an accent if they don’t feel they can pull off an accent a character is supposed to have in the story or potentially they take an opposite strategy of putting on an accent they can do which is just close enough to the character’s supposed accent that you can suspend your disbelief and pretend for the sake of the story the character has that voice instead.

However that is the best case scenario. In some cases the narrators are simply idiots.

Say you are narrating a James Bond novel. One of the originals by Ian Fleming. As you can no doubt guess they aren’t exactly politically correct by modern standards. You Only Live Twice, the one set in Japan, and Live And Let Die –set in 1950s Harlem – are particularly bad for this. So if you have to narrate You Only Live Twice how would you do the voices of the Japanese characters? Martin Jarvis who is once again a famous actor  – in his infinite wisdom! – decided to do racist Japanese accents…in 2012. Trust me that was hard listening. I take it I don’t have to tell my readers why that is simply the single stupidest decision he could have made. I genuinely wonder why did no one tell him to stop and just do a different accent even if it sounded nothing like Japanese!?

Regardless of that it is time I think to end the article with the Do’s you can hopefully figure out from my various warnings.

Do number 1: Do hire a narrator who sounds like they genuinely care about the book and can actually do good narration!

Corollary: If they happen to be famous and can more importantly do convincing narration the being famous is a nice bonus! Being famous is not a reason to hire them.

Do number 2: Do make sure that your narrator whoever they are knows to change tone so that they match the character’s mood based on what’s happening in the audio in question. Is it an action scene? A scene of intense argument or debate between close friends? Or possibly a glance into a character’s mind? What are they thinking about that rival of theirs? Or the perfect opportunity with ‘no catch’?

And finally Do number 3: Make sure that the narrator and producer are on the same page about accents. Will there be no attempts at accents and just focusing on different types of voices? Or will they do accents but fudge accents they can’t manage convincingly and replace it with one they can?

Corollary: PLEASE OH GOD NO RACIST ACCENTS OH DEAR HEAVEN NO! Stereotypical accents you can probably get away with. Just don’t go too far.

Hopefully my readers can understand where I’m coming from with all of these. They all come from a place of love for audio. I could probably keep going for quite a while but these three are the three most important in my mind. The essential lessons.

NephriteI think next time I might continue doing think pieces. Just one more. But on a different topic than my usual oeuvre. I’m going to have to discuss a certain Carol Danvers…



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  1. At school, we had a teacher who, when reading from ‘Wuthering Heights’, put on a truly execrable ‘Yorkshire’ accent, for the characters. This was at a school in Bradford, Yorkshire. She wasn’t Yorkshire, we were. Her accent was cringe-making, and it didn’t help with our appreciation of what is a very strong piece of writing.

    • I can understand that. When we did King Lear at school we got sick to death of it because our teacher made us do King Lear Act 1 Scene 1 for a month. By the end of the month every single student regardless of their aptitude were begging her to let us just study the rest of the play. We could quote the scene with our eyes closed for Pete’s sake. It took listening to an audio adaptation for me to actually appreciate it.

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