Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Blasts from the Past, Day 14

In yesterday's post I touched on the issue of abridgements and how they can differ from the full-length versions, and not just in a textual sense.

Once, when I was recording one of the Star Wars abridgements for Random House, I remarked to director Charlie Potter that abridgements took a lot more energy than full-length titles. He looked surprised and said he thought it would be the other way around. I said that when faced with bleeding chunks of a story it was more difficult to maintain a sense of continuity and momentum. As a narrator, you have a responsibility to make the story feel seamless, and when the text jumps from episode to episode without the usual bridges, you have to create the transitions yourself, using a combination of quick shifts in energy, focus and emotion to trick the listener into thinking they haven't missed anything. Also, the narrative passages that are usually cut from abridged versions contain a wealth of visual and emotional cues that the narrator now has to "invent" in order for things to make sense. And narrative bridges offer places to "coast" for a bit and rebuild your energy for the next important bit of dialogue or action. In that sense abridgements demand non-stop energy as you move from crucial scene to crucial scene, with no rest stops in between.

An interesting question might be, should you read the whole book before embarking on an abridgement? In one sense, it would help to know what was left out so you can "fill in the blanks" in your own head and convey at least of some this to the listener. On the other hand, is it a distraction to know what's missing? Are you better off just playing what's in front of you, for better or worse? Hard to say. Might be interesting to know what other narrators with experience in this area think.

Abridgements have always drawn the scorn of audiobook devotees, but I think the hostility is somewhat misplaced. When retail audiobooks first started appearing in book stores, they were geared toward the casual listener, who might pick up a bestseller for the occasional car trip. They were never intended to be definitive, and most were available in full-length library editions for the "serious" listener. There were, in those days, two distinct markets that had to be served. Nowadays there's still a market for abridged versions of very long novels and non-fiction works, because there are people who really don't want to sit through a 20 or 30 hour book. But the distinction between "retail" and "library" markets has largely disappeared, except in matters of packaging and pricing, though even that is becoming moot as digital downloads take over almost every area of sales and distribution.

I think there will still be a market for abridgements, even in the download world. Maybe even more so, since as the customer base for audiobooks broadens, there will be more people looking for less challenging listening than that offered by a 15 or 20 hour book.

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