What Makes a Great Narrator Memorable and Mediocre Narrators Terrible?

Image of narrator as connector between text and listenerGreat narrator? Terrible narrator? Ask yourself: Are you plugged in?

When a listener revels, “That narrator was outstanding,” can you guess the one fundamental reason why? If you answer, “Outstanding narrators consistently bring the author’s story and characters to life,” you’ve got it. Conversely, when a frustrated listener laments, “Well, at least my insomnia was cured,” what went fundamentally wrong? If you answer, “The story and its characters felt dead on arrival,” you’re right again. In my definition, an audiobook narrator must be a storyteller who, like an electrical wire with dual connectors, plugs into a book’s story, brings that story, whether fiction or nonfiction, and including its characters, events, and ideas, to life, and connects that life to the listener.

To be sure, storytelling is a complex process that requires highly skilled and intuitive performers. That said, an advanced degree is not required to identify and explain, at its core, what makes great narrators compelling, and terrible narrators not. Here’s how the best get it done–and why the worst leave listeners frustrated or bored.


The best fiction narrators are skilled actors whose performance craft enables them to convince the audience they are listening to a real story, populated by believable characters, that is occurring right now! The fiction narrator’s singular responsibility to you, the audience, can be summarized as: Magic Carpet Ride!

Compelling fiction storytellers whisk us inside the author’s fantasy world, and whoooosh, we’re off! Even though we intellectually know we’re in bumper-to-bumper traffic, or knitting, we are willingly convinced by the storyteller that, no, we’re actually on a speed boat in a foreign port, distancing ourselves from some very bad, bad guys.

And exactly how does the compelling narrator imbue the story with life? By believably replicating the feelings and emotions embedded in the fiction’s events and characters. When we willingly believe we’re in the midst of a torrid romance, we’re in the presence of a compelling storyteller. The more the narrator involves us in the life of the story, the better the narrator. A memorable fiction narrator compels the listener to gush, “I was just so involved with the characters, and the plot, as if it was all happening this moment.”

Great fiction narrator: We’re plugged in, and whoosh! The magic carpet is flyin’ high.

Terrible fiction narrator: We hear the words, yet we’re uninvolved. The narrator isn’t truly into the story’s life, and neither are we. Lights out!


The best nonfiction narrators are skilled actors whose performance craft enables them to believably excite the listener about the author’s real story. (Later I’ll explain why the skilled storyteller always narrates nonfiction better than the author.)

The nonfiction narrator’s singular responsibility is to instill enthusiasm for the author’s story, whether it’s self-help, memoir, or “how-to.” Generally, nonfiction tells us about something important to the audience, while fiction presents us with actable scenarios and characters. The nonfiction narrator tells us about George Washington. The fiction narrator performs our first president.

The nonfiction narrator is the author’s surrogate, consistently encouraging our enthusiasm for the topic, whether it’s the history of the Constitutional Convention, or how to live a happy life. The more compellingly the narrator solicits our enthusiasm, the better the narrator. A memorable nonfiction narrator can compel a listener to gush, “Wow! I just heard the most incredible description of how to polish my fingernails! Amazing!”

Great nonfiction narrator: Consistently ignites our enthusiasm for the author’s story or ideas: Wow!!!!

Terrible nonfiction narrator: Makes us feel we’re watching paint dry: Ugh! I couldn’t care less!

And this brings me, briefly, to the concept of authors narrating their own books. That may seem to make intuitive sense, but knowing has nothing to do with acting or storytelling skill. Yet, publishers often prefer that an author narrate his/her book. If the expectation is that the author will perform better than a talented narrator (even one who can’t possibly know the story like the author), someone’s likely to be disappointed!

Authors generally do not make for compelling narrators because authors are trained to write while actors are trained to emotionally involve a listener. Trained storytellers plug into the authors’ enthusiasm for their topics and connect those feelings to us listeners. Authors without storytelling training read the words. And just reading is, well, dull!

The most common misconception that audiences have about what makes a great narrator is the voice! Contrary to what many believe, the voice has no impact on great storytelling. Zilch! The voice is a sound-delivery system that cannot connect you to emotions because the voice cannot act. The voice has no heart, no soul, no passion, and it’s those sentient narrator-qualities, not how groovy the words sound, that bring an author’s story to life!

Paul Alan Ruben has amassed countless industry awards during his two-decade career as an audiobook producer/director, including two Best Spoken Word Grammy Awards. He teaches and coaches emerging and professional narrators in New York and around the country. His blog (Paul-Alan-Ruben.com) focuses on craft and related issues that concern audiobook narrators. He is also a writer of literary fiction whose latest published short story will be recorded by George Guidall.

This AudiOpinion has been edited from its original longer form in the print issue of AudioFile Magazine, February/March 2016.

© AudioFile 2016, Portland, Maine

Our Website Leads the Way to Great Listening

Since 1992, AudioFile Magazine audiobook reviewers have applied critical listening skills to evaluate so many hours of audiobooks that it would take 65 years of endless audiobook listening (yup, 24/7) for one person to hear them all! Needless to say, that means our database of reviews has more than just one something for everyone. And we add reviews of about 200 new audiobooks every month.

For the past year, AudioFile‘s publisher and staff have been working to increase the ease with which you, our website users, audiobook fans, and anyone else wanting stellar critical review coverage of audiobook publishing can browse and dig deep into our stores of resources. Along the way, we’ve changed a name or two of our featured access points, and also boosted our online and social media publishing presence. To help you discover parts of this treasure trove you may not have realized are at your fingertips, here’s a quick overview from our home page.

Newest reviews iconOur Newest Reviews can be reached right from this icon. They can be searched according to any of 17 thematic areas, from Audio Theater to Young Adult titles. New reviews are added so frequently that you may find something new here on each visit.

Looking for audiobook reviews for children’s and teen titles? Searching Audiobooks for Kids & Tweens can help you to find reviews written with the listening needs and interests of kids  and families in mind.  Seven age groups can be searched separately.

AudioFile Magazine Earphones Award iconOne reason our Earphones Award for “exceptional titles that excel in narrative voice and style, characterizations, suitability to audio, and enhancement of the text” sets the standard for narrators and audiobook publishers is because we’ve been evaluating audiobooks critically for so long–38,000 and counting, to date. Dip into this search for guaranteed excellent listening.

Golden Voices icon GIFIn addition to audiobook reviews, we also give you quick access to information about dozens of award-winning Narrators. Check out our Golden Voices for those who have achieved narrator hall of fame status.

Wherever your audiobook listening happens, we can be there to help you find exactly what to hear next. Pack your earphones and join us!


Can’t wait until you get around to visiting the website or want a regular reminder? You can subscribe our free e-newsletter at the E-news icon! 


Would It Happen in Audio?

IT HAPPENED IN BOSTON? audiobook cover
A narrator’s foray into audiobook publishing

by Robert Fass

Certain books have the spellbinding quality of placing such trust in you as a reader that you feel they were written for you alone. They are intimate and confessional, creating an entire world which pulls you in, and weave an enchantment which continues to fascinate you long after you reach the end.

Russell H. Greenan’s debut novel from 1968, the brilliant, audacious cult classic IT HAPPENED IN BOSTON?, is one of those books for me. When I first discovered this swirling tale encompassing art, genius, love, madness, betrayal, God, and murder, I was still in my teens. It took up residence somewhere in the recesses of my mind and has dwelt there, quietly palpitating, ever since.

“Lately I have come to feel that the pigeons are spying on me.”

From that opening line Greenan’s book hooked me with its dense interiority and clever wordplay, its strangeness, and what emerges as the perfection of its construction. I identified with the nameless narrator, and that I did so despite some of the shocking acts he ultimately commits is a testament to Greenan’s ability as an author. And I loved that the vocabulary was so far above my head that it permanently expanded my awareness.

The novel received glowing reviews when it came out, yet it seemed to have quickly disappeared, consigned to the shelves of libraries and used bookstores, waiting to be discovered anew. Over the decades I have returned to it several times and have been a quiet advocate for it. I was thrilled when celebrated writers such as Anne Tyler and Jonathan Lethem publicly sang its praises. I had a role in its being republished as a Modern Library edition in 2003. I wanted to share it with as many people as possible.

Robert Fass narrator photoWhen my acting career led me to begin narrating audiobooks, I wondered whether I might someday be fortunate enough to be chosen to give voice to Greenan’s novel, which had never been recorded in audio. As time went on and I gained experience, one day it struck me: Why not do it myself, rather than wait for it to happen? I had never published an audiobook before, but with all the changes in the marketplace, publishing a one-off wasn’t unheard of. Why not take the risk?

I found a way to reach the author and acquaint him with my desire to narrate his work. An enthusiastic note soon arrived from Mr. Greenan, who was grateful for my efforts on his behalf, saying that the audio rights would revert to him the following fall on his 88th birthday. He hoped we could work something out then.

Calling on narrator and producer colleagues who had undertaken similar labors of love brought valuable insight on the wide variety of expertise and considerations to bring such a project to a successful completion. Big thanks to Stefan Rudnicki, Scott Brick, Jeffrey Kafer, Grover Gardner, and Tavia Gilbert.

When Mr. Greenan’s 88th finally arrived in 2013, his daughter and I negotiated an agreement for the exclusive rights to create an audiobook of his work, to be released simultaneously with the new ebook and Blurb editions she was publishing independently. Blackstone Audio enthusiastically signed on to be my partner in manufacturing, marketing, and distribution, and were a joy to work with while I wore my producer’s hat. Once the ink had dried on all the contracts, and the extensive pronunciation research was complete, I entered my recording booth with the manuscript and–at last!–began narrating.

The audiobook of IT HAPPENED IN BOSTON? officially released in 2015. My first, and perhaps only (although I’ll appropriate Greenan’s question mark here), foray into audiobook publishing had wonderful support from the online book community and the press in spreading the word. I am tremendously grateful to the good Mr. Greenan for entrusting his creation to me, and to Blackstone for helping me realize my dream of performing IT HAPPENED IN BOSTON? in audio. This audiobook and the new ebook and print editions, arriving nearly fifty years after it was first published, makes this amazing novel readily available to a new (and I hope, wide) audience of listeners and readers.

Audiography icon guide to related audiobooksRobert Fass is an actor who has recorded over 100 audiobooks across a wide variety of genres including History, Sci-Fi, Journalism, Young Adult, Mystery, and Literary Fiction. Along the way he has received two Audie awards and multiple Earphones awards and was listed among AudioFile’s Best Audiobooks of the Year in 2011, 2012, and 2013. He is also a writer and photographer. He lives in the Bronx.

This AudiOpinion has been edited from its original longer form in the print issue of AudioFile Magazine, April/May 2015.

© AudioFile 2015, Portland, Maine



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