sign up for our
NEWSLETTER

Home Shop Subscribe Advertise Articles Directories Classifieds Calendar FAQs Contact Us Login
VOICE ACTING
Just The Facts: A Storyteller's Guide
To Narrating Nonfiction Audiobooks


By Paul Ruben
Producer, Director, Casting Professional and Teacher

Before continuing: If youʼve just emerged from hibernating in a cave the past century, or recently touched down on Earth from outer space, youʼre likely unaware of the iconic television series, Dragnet. In order to address this serious pop culture deprivation, please visit YouTube and listen a moment to Jack Webb, and perhaps one of twentieth century televisionʼs most enduring musical signatures.

And now...

Just The Facts:
A Storytellerʼs Guide to Narrating Nonfiction 

MUSIC: Dragnet Theme

FADE IN: A NONFICTION BOOK COVER - a memoir, how to, biography, autobiography. You name it.

Featuring:

The Announcer: Announcer 
The Director: Joe 
The Asst. Director: Bill 
The Nonfiction Narrator: McGuffin 
The Engineer: Tony

ANNOUNCER 
Ladies and gentleman, the story youʼre about to read is true! It is, after all, nonfiction. The names have been changed to protect the modulators.

INT. RECORDING STUDIO CONTROL ROOM. TONY is sitting at the console in front of the Iso booth.

DIRECTOR JOEʼS VOICE-OVER
This is the studio. New York, New York. I work here. Iʼm an audiobook director. Narrators record books here. Sometimes I hold auditions. Like this one, for my upcoming job. Itʼs nonfiction. Here comes the next narrator.

A NARRATOR strolls into the control room, smiling, iPad in hand. He enters the booth. He sits.

DIRECTOR JOEʼS VOICE-OVER
Name’s McGuffin. He’s like a lot of hot-shot, nonfiction narrators Bill and I run in to. They come in: eager, prepped. They think, I got this gig. Itʼs in the bag.

Tony nods and we can read McGuffin's lips: Chapter One. We silently observe him auditioning.

DIRECTOR JOEʼS VOICE-OVER
And why not! They figure, whatʼs there to narrating nonfiction. Read the book in advance. Look up a few pronunciations. The rest? A snap. Piece of cake! McGuffin here is one of those narrators! Or was...

CLOSE ON MCGUFFINʼS FACE. He abruptly stops reading. He looks up from the mike. Heʼs scared. Plenty scared. Sweat rains from his face as if each pore was a hydrant.

INT. CONTROL ROOM. McGuffin is seated in a black, swivel chair. JOE, and his partner, BILL, are both standing in front of McGuffin, so really, he never has to swivel. Tony is calm and collected; heʼs seen it all before.

(Oh, and no more stage directions. You get where this is headed). 

JOE
Read McGuffin his rights, Bill.

BILL 
Youʼre a narrator, so you donʼt have the right to remain silent. Anything you inorganically say can and will be used against you. You donʼt have the right to an attorney. It wonʼt help. But you do have the right to an acting teacher. 
And based on your audition, maybe you better get one.

MCGUFFIN
Hey, whatʼs this all about? 

JOE
Weʼll ask the questions. 

BILL
Careful, Joe. I think heʼs carrying.

MCGUFFIN
Hey, I ainʼt armed.

JOE 
Doesnʼt mean youʼre not dangerous.

BILL 
Did you carry that melodious voice of yours in the booth with you?

MCGUFFIN 
Yeah, but the voice is my secret weapon.

BILL
Told yaʼ he was carryin.ʼ

JOE 
The way you modulated your voice, son.

MCGUFFIN
Yeah?

JOE
Shoulda kept it a secret.

MCGUFFIN
Whatʼs that supposed to—

BILL
Before you walk in that booth, deposit the voice outside the door.

JOE
Thatʼs the law at this studio.

MCGUFFIN
But Iʼm a voice actor!

JOE
Easy. You can keep your voice.

BILL 
We just donʼt want you to hurt listeners with it.

JOE 
So, McGuffin, youʼre a narrator.

MCGUFFIN
Voiced thirty books.

BILL
Voiced?

JOE
You mean acted, performed, right?

MCGUFFIN 
Performed! Acted! Whatever!

BILL
Heʼs incorrigible, Joe.

JOE 
Tell me what that means, later. McGuffin, we assume youʼve narrated nonfiction books before.

MCGUFFIN 
My specialty.


BILL
How so?

MCGUFFIN
My voice has the perfect combo fellas—bass and charm. Bellissimo, eh!


JOE 
Watch the salty language, son!

BILL
Letʼs get started. Did you just read the nonfiction bookʼs first two sentences?

MCGUFFIN 
Iʼd have read three, but you guys interrupted me!

BILL
Heʼs recalcitrant, Joe.

JOE 
No salty language, Bill. Remember, weʼre role models.

MCGUFFIN 
Whyʼd you stop me?

JOE
Iʼm a director. I stop narrators.

MCGUFFIN
Maybe you shouldnʼt.

JOE
Youʼre not the first actor to tell me that. Now, back to your specialty.

BILL 
Son, what do you mean, specialty?

MCGUFFIN 
Like I was tryinʼ to say, Iʼm authoritative, resonant, pleasing, smooooth!

JOE 
Techniques your Aunt Mary taught you, huh.

MCGUFFIN 
You know my Aunt Mary. Hey, sheʼs innocent—

BILL
If he only knew, Joe.

JOE 
Ever occur to you that nonfiction narration is about acting?

MCGUFFIN 
Yeah.

BILL
And?

MCGUFFIN
I let it go. Itʼs nonfiction. Whatʼs to act?

JOE
You donʼt mean that.

BILL 
I think he does, Joe. Maybe you do need a lawyer, son.

JOE 
Okay, McGuffin, we got another narrator cominʼ to audition in ten minutes.

MCGUFFIN
So let me finish.

JOE
Not until you get straight about the facts.

MCGUFFIN
Huh?

BILL
Nonfiction. The facts. How to narrate ʻem.

JOE
Relax.

BILL
Weʼre on your side.

JOE
Now, pretend youʼre a listener.

BILL 
You wanna hear ten hours of vocal sing-song?

MCGUFFIN 
Never thought of it that way.

BILL 
Or you wanna hear a storyteller?

MCGUFFIN 
I thought storytelling was fiction.

BILL
It is. Nonfiction, too.

JOE 
With a few differences. Big ones.

MCGUFFIN 
I donʼt know what youʼre tellinʼ me.

JOE
You will.

MCGUFFIN 
I listen to you guys, do I get to finish my audition?

BILL
Depends.

MCGUFFIN
On?

JOE
You.

MCGUFFIN
Huh?

BILL
Your secret weapon.

JOE
The sing-song.

BILL  
Itʼs a story killer.

JOE
Give it up.

MCGUFFIN 
But itʼs what I do?

JOE
Did.

BILL
Think of the dazed listener, son. The sing-song. Have you no mercy?

MCGUFFIN
Alright, alright!

JOE
Letʼs start at Chapter One.

MCGUFFIN
Howʼs that?

JOE
When you narrate nonfiction, whoʼs saying chapter one?

MCGUFFIN
Me. McGuffin.

BILL
Gonna be a long ten minutes, Joe.

JOE 
No. The author. Thatʼs who is telling the nonfiction story. Thatʼs who listeners think theyʼre hearing. So, thatʼs who you are.

MCGUFFIN 
But Iʼm a voice...Iʼm an actor.

BILL
Then act like the author.

MCGUFFIN 
So, I gotta act like a real person. Hey, somethinʼs fishy here.

JOE  
Weʼre givinʼ it to ya straight.

BILL 
You gotta sound like an author, who is no actor.

MCGUFFIN
Just how do I pull that off?

JOE 
Authors aren't in possession of your snazzy cadence.

BILL
Or the smooth tone.

JOE 
They donʼt turn words into wavy music. You dig?

BILL 
Listeners wanna hear a real person. No characters, either. No character voices.

MCGUFFIN 
But I gotta make the book sound interesting.

BILL 
Not your job.

JOE
You gotta make the listeners interested in you!

MCGUFFIN
Me?

BILL 
And this amazing story you are dying to tell them.

MCGUFFIN 
So, I canʼt make the words interesting.

JOE
Unless youʼre a magician.

BILL 
The bookʼs the book. Canʼt juice the words. Not possible, son.

MCGUFFIN 
Thatʼs it? I canʼt do characters. Canʼt use my voice to make the book sound interesting. Have to act like the author who canʼt act! Thatʼs boring, fellas.

BILL 
Only boring when your amazing voice interferes with your enthusiasm to tell this amazing story.

MCGUFFIN 
So, youʼre sayinʼ my m.o. should be, listen to this amazing story?

BILL
Job one.

MCGUFFIN 
How do I interest listeners in hearing about five-hundred ways to get a job promotion when I canʼt emphasize nothinʼ? Stumped ya, huh?

BILL
Threw us a slow softball.

JOE 
Letʼs get this emphasis idea straight, once and for all.

MCGUFFIN
Itʼs about time!!!

JOE 
Youʼre the author telling this story, right.

MCGUFFIN
Enthusiastically.

JOE 
Exactly how enthusiastic are you?

MCGUFFIN 
Over the moon. This book is my baby.

BILL 
What do you want listeners to understand about your baby?

MCGUFFIN 
Everything.

JOE 
Just the way you do, right.

BILL
Think a listenerʼs understanding requires a lot of emphasis?

JOE 
Think the ideas, concepts, language they gotta understand in order to be as enthusiastic as you, as smart as you, is gonna take a lot of emphasis?

MCGUFFIN 
Yeah, ʻcause Iʼm the expert, but theyʼre just gettinʼ started.

JOE 
Youʼre the expert, McGuffin, the teacher, the majordomo, and all you wanna do is educate, inform, and convince us listeners to be as excited and informed about this topic as you are.

MCGUFFIN 
Then I can emphasize.

JOE
Now youʼre cookinʼ!

BILL
So long as the emphasis helps your listener understand this subject.


MCGUFFIN
And dig it as much as me.

BILL
Emphasize till the cows come home.

JOE
But remember, McGuffin.

MCGUFFIN
Caveat, huh.

JOE
This is a family show, son.

BILL
Look, Joe and I here. Our beat is modulation patrol. Twenty-four-seven.

JOE 
Sing-song that comes from your swanky voice is a crime.

MCGUFFIN
Yeah, on what grounds?

  BILL
Vocal jive.

JOE 
Emphasis that comes from a passion for listeners to be as enthusiastic about this story as the author is keeps the narrator on the straight and narrow, son.

MCGUFFIN
Youʼre repeatinʼ yourself.

JOE 
Iʼm a director. Occupational hazard.

MCGUFFIN 
Yeah, yeah. Do I get to finish my audition?

JOE
We're all yours.

MCGUFFIN 
First, I gotta confess somethinʼ.

BILL
Figured you would.

MCGUFFIN 
When Iʼm narrating nonfiction, I never really picture my listeners, who Iʼm speakinʼ to. Iʼm just sorta yakkinʼ at the page. So, how do I imagine my listeners, like you guys right now, huh?

JOE 
Wide-eyed. Weʼre your students. Eager to learn from you.

BILL
To absorb your brilliance.

JOE
To be wowed.

BILL
And remember, weʼre taking notes.

JOE 
So, donʼt rush it.

MCGUFFIN
Meaning?

JOE 
Weʼre here to think about what you have to say, so you say it like you want us to think about it. 

BILL
Not forget about it.

MCGUFFIN
And that will slow me down?

BILL  
Unless you believe we can take notes like Superman.

JOE 
And if youʼre talkinʼ a mile a minute, or makinʼ us woozy with the vocal sing-song... 

BILL
Weʼre sleepinʼ, not thinkinʼ.

JOE
One last thing. You love havinʼ us listen, donʼt ya?

MCGUFFIN 
Sure do.

JOE  
When you speak, remember, we wanna feel that love from you.

BILL 
We listeners canʼt always concentrate. So you gotta love us, tickle us with your enthusiasm.

JOE 
Make us putty in your hands. Now, get in there and audition.

BILL
We forgot the oath, Joe.

MCGUFFIN
Huh?

JOE
Canʼt audition for nonfiction without takinʼ the oath, son.

BILL
Raise your right hand.

MCGUFFIN
Iʼm a southpaw.

BILL 
Heʼs got moxie like his Aunt Mary. Okay, raise the left and put the other one on this how-to book.

JOE 
When you record nonfiction, do you solemnly swear: to tell the story, the whole story and nothinʼ but the story, as if youʼre the author?

MCGUFFIN
I do.

JOE 
To speak as if to a small group, like a classroom?

MCGUFFIN
I do.

JOE 
To remember that every word in this book is gold?

MCGUFFIN
Worth a kingʼs ransom.

JOE 
That your enthusiasm for the facts—and not your swell voice—will cause you to emphasize words?

MCGUFFIN 
What voice? I left it outside the booth.

JOE 
To never forget your nonfiction m.o.?

MCGUFFIN 
Devotion to the listenerʼs enthusiasm for this amazing story.

BILL
I like his moxie, Joe.

 JOE 
Okay, itʼs storytime.

BILL
Give us the facts we wanna hear.

JOE
The way we wanna hear ʻem!

Music: Dragnet Theme

In silence, we peek through the booth and observe McGuffin narrating. We also see JOE and BILL. Theyʼre nodding, impressed. Tony is calm and collected; heʼs seen it all before.

DIRECTOR JOEʼS VOICE-OVER
There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of audiobook narrators—in this city, in LA, and in home studios from Pittsburgh to Peking—who know that recording nonfiction is a tough job that demands concentration, stamina and true grit. Sometimes, these narrators all sound like plain vanilla. But sometimes, when they get nonfiction right, get what the listener wants from ʻem, get how to give listeners what they want, and deserve, these narrators distinguish themselves; theyʼre proud of themselves. Damn proud. Iʼm damn proud, too!

the end
--------------------
ABOUT PAUL
Paul Ruben has produced and directed numerous award-winning audiobooks for every major publisher since 1987. His many Audie Awards include work for It's Not About the Bike, Raymond and Hannah, The World is Flat, and A Slight Trick of the Mind. He also received the 2003 Grammy (Best Spoken Word Album) for Al Franken's Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, and the 2009 Grammy for Always Looking Up by Michael J. Fox. He has directed regional and summer theatre productions, contributed features on audiobook narration to AudioFile magazine, and was elected to the Audio Publishers Association Board of Directors in 2005. Based in New York City and casting and directing many first-time narrators - some of whom have become outstanding and award-winning working narrators - he also teaches audiobook narrator workshops through his company, Tribeca Audio
 
Your Daily Resource For Voice-Over Success
Tell Us What YOU Think!
Please Note: Since we check for spam, there will be a slight delay in the actual posting of your comment.
Your Name:
Your Email Address (will not be published):
Your Comment:
Your Comment:
Security code:     
Comments (3)
Ed Phillips
5/26/2014 at 8:40 PM
This was not only fun to read, but also very, very insightful and helpful. I'm going to keep these points in mind for future audiobook recordings I get to record!
Cyndee Maxwell
2/20/2014 at 2:53 PM
Brilliant Paul! Thank you!
Matthew Eagen
2/20/2014 at 12:18 PM
Fun to read, thanks for that.
Back to Articles
Terry Daniel and gang - lotsa info and laughs!
With Sean Daeley and Paul Stefano - check it out!
Scoop up this money-making advice from John Melley...