Modulation: The Art of Reading to an Audience
The first reading I ever went to was by a well known writer of whose work I was a huge fan. There were three readers (I think it was in a bookstore). I found the first reader un-compelling–he read in a subdued, almost monotone voice, and I couldn’t focus on the words–let alone the story. The next participant was not much more inspiring, but I was there for reader no. 3, so I waited patiently. And then it was the third reader’s turn. And she read in the same dry, subdued way–as if she didn’t enjoy the words she’d written. It was just a little heartbreaking.
As I got more experience at these things I came to realize that this is a style. The lack of engagement and performance is deliberate. Later in the evening I heard one of the authors chatting about a reading he had been to, complaining that the writer he’d seen was “acting” the reading. I wanted to tell this guy that his reading could have benefitted from a little acting too, but tact won out.
Too much performance at a reading can be clownish, or make the audience feel talked down to–you don’t want to come off like a deranged reader at the Thursday afternoon Story Time for Tots at the local library. But too little… gives your listeners nothing to hang on to. As with all things, there’s a sweet spot in the middle.
You’re telling a story. When you’re among friends telling the anecdote about that time in Marrakesh with the nun, the waffles, and the chicken, do you tell it in a monotone? Not so much. Reading in a monotone does not give your material dignity–it flattens it. So read as if you’re talking to your friends. On the other hand, unless you’re a really gifted actor, you don’t have to act it out. No, really.
And dialogue? Speak it as you hear it in your head, as if your characters were saying it. Use the emphases you hear them using. Pause when they do. (Maybe I’m overselling this, but when I write I hear the dialogue, so that’s how I read it. Your mileage may vary.)
There are many ways of “doing voices.” I tend to go for different tones for different speakers, just so it signals a new speaker. Sometimes a character needs a higher voice or a different tone. If you’re able to find voices for your characters that work for you–and that you can replicate as needed–do it. But two cautions: 1) don’t overdo it (that’s the sweet spot principle again), and 2) don’t do so many voices that you get confused, mid-reading, as to which one you’re using.*
Regarding accents, if you use them (I often do, as I’m often writing in historical settings where accent signals a host of things, from regional origin to class), my feeling is that unless you’re really, really good at them, it’s easier and better to hint at them. You don’t need to sound like Alfred P. Doolittle in order to suggest that the chap whose dialogue you’re reading comes from the lower reaches of British society, or like Pepe le Pew to suggest a person of French extraction.
When it comes right down to it, the way you read your material offers your listeners a way into it. You want that way in to be enticing and welcoming.
Oh, and if you’re reading something funny? Try your best not to laugh at it–that’s the listeners’ job.
*when my kids were young I generally used voices when I read to them–but I confess that somewhere in the middle of The Phantom Tollbooth I started getting confused as to which voice was for the Humbug, which was for King Azaz, and which was for The Mathemagician, and by the time we reached the Senses-Taker I was hopelessly lost.