How audiobooks are different to text books

Once squarely aimed at the visually impaired, audiobooks continue to rise in popularity with a whole range of readers who want to enjoy books without holding a physical object or using their eyes to constantly scan screen or page. Audiobooks can be used while doing a whole range of other activities‌—‌driving/commuting, cleaning and gardening, exercising and walking, sitting in a chair relaxing, and so on. This enables those with busy lifestyles to devour more books, and are used by people from all walks of life. For many, it is not the primary (or, indeed, only) method for consuming books.

In some ways, this is storytelling coming full circle. Storytelling has always been an important social activity, and before the written word, before ‘reading’ was a thing, stories were told and devoured orally. Story-telling was used by religious leaders as a way of explaining their ideas. Ancient philosophy was told via story. Even now, when reading and writing are so commonplace, verbally telling stories is important. Parents and teachers read to children. People share stories when they meet up, sharing tales from their lives or sharing those they’ve heard from others. And there’s a long tradition of reciting ghost stories around a campfire.

Stories are meant to be shared, and this can occur through reading or speaking/listening (and through other means, but I won’t go into that here). But there are differences in how stories are shared, differences between the page and the voice.

podcast-3939905_1280It’s often said that a good writer has a distinctive voice, but so do narrators. With audiobooks, a poor narrator can kill a story, and a great narrator can make a good book even better. Sometimes, the success of a book is due, in part, to the success of the narrator, such as The Martian. It gained a following as Andy Weir shared it over his website, and sold well when he first published it, but it’s popularity really soared with the narration by R C Bray, leading to more sales of the book, and then a film deal (which is a whole other way of telling a story).

One way narrators can impact a story so much is in the nuances of voice they bring to a project. Some use different accents to distinguish characters’ dialogue, but there is so much more to ‘telling a good story’. The words on the page are only a starting point.

Think of the classic ‘punctuation is important’ sentences, ‘Let’s eat Grandma’, and it’s less cannibalistic alternative with an added comma, ‘Let’s eat, Grandma.’ Say those two examples out loud, and listen to the way your voice changes. In the second version, you’ll probably find that you pause at the comma. But listen closer, and you’ll notice how your pitch varies too. It’s likely that, in the first version, your voice rises on the first syllable of ‘Grandma’, but you’ll speak the second with different patterns of pitch.

You can also use voice to give differing emotions to the same sentence. Try it for yourself‌—‌imagine the second version said by a child eager to tuck into a family meal, and then by a bored teenager who wants their elderly relative to stop their reminiscences so that they can enjoy their food. Stress the first word, and the sentence becomes a plea to finally have food. Stress the word ‘eat’, and eating becomes the chosen activity from an undisclosed list. Stress ‘Grandma’, and we have another alternative, one where the speaker is maybe questioning the reality of the relationship.

To bring out all these meanings, the writer would need to use further sentences, or structure surrounding material in a way that made the nuanced meanings clear in context. But the narrator can paint these emotional pictures with three simple words.

writer-1421099_1280So narration can give meaning in ways that text cannot (at least, not as succinctly). But there are things in text that a narrator cannot easily convey. Think of spacing in poetry, especially in shape poems such as Lewis Carroll’s ‘A Mouse’s Tail’ from Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland.

Then there’s the textual syntax of things like text-message conversations, or the way Iain M Banks’ ships communicate in his Culture books. In my Shadows series, I use italics and <> symbols to denote tech-aided mind-to-mind communication (as opposed to the usual speech marks enclosing vocal communication), and I have no idea how a narrator would make an audible distinction between these.

There are other ways the appearance of text can aid meaning. Newspaper reports can be displayed in ways that look like old paper. Some books use maps, and others use diagrams or symbols‌—‌in Terry Pratchett’s Nation, a couple of characters communicate through drawing, and the different interpretations of these drawings are important to the story. A narrator would have to describe these drawings, which would very probably become cumbersome, and these parts of the book would struggle to work.

So text-based storytelling and vocal storytelling have their own pros and cons. But at the moment, audiobooks are almost always a straight reading of the text. The emotional nuances a narrator adds are often also ‘written’ into the text, and so the audiobook listener gets the same information twice.

In some ways, this makes me think of the early days of film and television, when productions were basically filmed plays. But as cameras became easier to manipulate, and editing techniques developed, film-makers understood how they could use this technology to tell stories in different ways to static, dialogue-heavy stage performances.

african-3408112_1280Maybe audiobooks should develop into their own form of storytelling. Maybe writers should produce two version of their stories, one for reading from the page, and another for narration. But writing and narration are different skills, just as producing a stage play and a film are very different processes, so maybe audiobooks will become close collaborations between writer and narrator, either stripping down the original text or working up from a ‘bare bones’ version of the story. Then, the audiobook will become not a repetition of the text, but a complement to it, a way of telling the story the writer created but utilised to capitalise on the audio environment. If a narrator can impart meaning through their performance that would take a couple of sentences of text to impart, then the audiobook can become leaner and more focused, allowing the story to take advantages of all the medium can offer.

After all, if so many people are increasingly opting to devour stories through their ears, doesn’t it make sense to provide them with the best experiences possible?

 

New short story ‘Worth Fighting For’

Something a little more positive this time. Much as I enjoy reading and writing short stories with dark twists at the end, it’s good to have a balance.

So if you want a five-minute read that isn’t depressing, and might even contain a bit of hope, try Worth Fighting For.

And if you’d prefer something darker, try one of my other short stories‌—‌the complete list of links can be found here.

The villain is the hero of their own story

It’s often been said that what people look for in entertainment is a response to the reality of their lives. When times are good, there’s a greater thirst for stories that provoke thought and challenge. When times are rough, people look to entertainment as an escape.

There seems to be a lot of confusion in the world at the moment. There’s political divides (Trump’s presidency, Brexit), religious conflict, and social unrest. As the world grows smaller with technology, it seems to splinter into an increasing number of factions as people search for belonging.

Maybe this is why superhero films are so popular at the moment. Maybe this is one of those moments when many people want to watch films and read books in order to forget the problems in their daily lives.

But we still desire well-told stories. As much as we want to see things in black-and-white, and dive into stories of good-vs-evil (where we know, from the outset, that good will triumph), we still require some kind of realism‌—‌and this is especially true of our villains. The moustache-twirling baddie, the pure-evil adversary, the antagonist who simply wants to take over or blow up the world‌—‌these seem passe, or one-dimensional. They might be watchable for a while, but they have no real substance. In a shallow comedy a villain like this could work, but not in anything more serious.

Think of some of the great villains in stories, and there will be something that draws us to them, something that holds our interest, something we can relate to. They’re not cardboard-cutouts, but real, rounded characters. Yes, they want to harm others, or take what isn’t theirs, or stand in the way of progress‌—‌but they have their reasons. They are driven by understandable motivations, even though we can see that their reasoning is flawed.

There’s a phrase that springs to mind here‌—‌everyone is the hero of their own story.

MichaelDouglas_FallingDownI can recall watching the Michael Douglas film Falling Down when it first came out on video (yes, I’m old enough to remember video tapes). There’s a brilliant moment at the end, when Douglas’ character, D-Fens, is facing the police officer, a gun trained on him. His brow furrows, and he says, disbelievingly, “I’m the bad guy?”

It’s a fantastic moment, because we’ve been following D-Fens throughout the film. We’ve seen and understood his frustrations, and even as his actions have become worse his justifications still make some kind of sense. We’ve travelled with him, and even though he’s not an easy character to warm to, we’re still on his side. We believe that things will turn out for the best, that he’ll somehow redeem himself‌—‌until this confrontation. This is when it all comes home. D-Fens is the villain, even though he couldn’t see it for himself.

The best villains are driven by deep, relatable motivations, even when their actions are unacceptable. Think of Hans Gruber in Die Hard. When John McLane’s wife calls him ‘nothing but a common thief’, his controlled expression slips for a moment. He rounds on her, stating that he is ‘an exceptional thief’.

In this, his actions become more understandable. He’s not driven simply to steal, but to steal in style. Criminality (or robbery) might be his career of choice, but he wants to be the best at it. He’s like Rocky, pushing to become the best he can be. He’s like so many artists, fighting to produce their best possible work. He’s like doctors who strive to learn more, or lawyers who want to be well-respected for their work. His drive could be something to admire, had his sphere of work not been so anti-social.

Seeing what drives a character, be they ‘good’ or ‘bad’, instantly makes that character more interesting‌—‌and also helps propel the story on. At the moment, I’m slowly working my way through the Dune books, and I’m finding it fascinating how Herbert lets the reader in on so much of what his characters are thinking. We know the plots everyone is forming, and we know many of their secrets‌—‌and there is justification for all of them. At times, Herbert is able to blur the line between ‘goodie’ and ‘baddie’‌—‌the characters are all simply trying to make their way through tricky situations, with an aim to survive at the end.

George RR Martin’s Song Of Ice And Fire books do this, too. His narrative follows so many characters, and there is a constantly shifting tableau of conflicts and alignments. An ally can become an enemy, and an enemy can become an ally. Some characters might be ‘purer of heart’ than others, but all are real, dealing with internal conflicts, and simply doing whatever they feel they must do.

So we have stories with clear villains whose motivations we can understand, and stories where a cast of characters have shifting alliances. But there are also stories where the ‘villain’ is the protagonist. Think of Tony Soprano, or Michael Corleone. We find many of their actions despicable, but because we get to know their inner turmoils, and because we get to understand why they do what they do, we become invested in their struggles. These are both men doing what they feel is necessary to protect and provide for their families, and that in itself is an honourable thing, even if we recoil at their methods. And there is a depth to both characters that makes us believe they could change. Tony Soprano has his doubts, and there’s that glimmer of hope that he might somehow redeem himself. Michael Corleone’s arc is a downward slope, but because we saw his good side at the start of the story, we have to believe that it is possible for him to rise up again.

There is a flip-side of this, too‌—‌heroes don’t always do good things. In Die Hard, Sgt Powell tells John McClane that he shot a child some years ago. In The Lord Of The Rings, Boromir can’t resist the urge to own the ring‌—‌and at the end Frodo is unable to relinquish the ring. But this is good storytelling, because perfect heroes are boring to watch. We’re drawn to a character like House not only because of his brilliant mind, but also because he’s such a flawed character.

I could give more examples, but this should be enough. Heroes don’t always do the right thing, and villains have strong motivations behind their actions. Hero and villain are labels we apply to characters to help us understand the story‌—‌but the roles can change, depending on our own perception of the actions. Ultimately, everyone is the hero of their own story.

And that’s as true in real life as it is in fiction.