Public Readings from A to Z – Part 6 – Intonation

Welcome to part six of my continuing series on how to do public readings of your work! You can find the video accompaniment to this post on Youtube.


Intonation is probably the hardest part of reading out loud to get good at, if it doesn’t come naturally to you.

By “intonation,” I basically mean “the opposite of a monotone.” If you’ve been to author readings, you’ve probably seen one or more instances of the latter: a writer who just drones out their text all on one note, maybe with the occasional lift or fall randomly thrown in, as if they know they’re supposed to liven it up but have no real idea how to do so.

Or — as with pacing — they err in the other direction, and WIND up SOUNDing like they’re READing to a CHILD, overly and unnaturally expressive.

The good news is, pacing and intonation go hand in hand, so working on one will (I suspect) help improve the other. Remember how I said those micro-pauses help group your words into coherent units of meaning? The same is true of your intonation, as an arc of rising and falling pitch signals “these words go together.”

So let’s go back to punctuation for a moment. See the period at the end of that sentence? Now read it out loud and note how — at least in English — the natural and expected tendency is for your pitch to fall a little bit on “moment.” That intonation helps to mark the end of your sentence for the listener . . . and if I were to name the single most common flaw I hear at author readings, it’s probably incorrect use of that cue. The readers drop their intonation at random points in the middle of a sentence, breaking my comprehension of the phrase, or they fail to use period intonation where there is a period, and I don’t realize until several words later that we’re on to a new sentence. They also tend to insert random pauses or rush over one that should be there; as I said, this and pacing go together.

We tend to drop our pitch lowest at the end of a sentence (and have longer pauses there), but there can also be smaller dips and pauses in the middle. I tend to put these where I have commas — but as I’ve said, I also use commas more abundantly than current practice calls for. If you have a longer stretch of wordage with no commas in it, then you can look for subdivisions within it. Remember, this is all about chunking the material for the listener’s benefit! If you drop your voice all the way back to its baseline and take a breath, they’ll subconsciously assume that particular unit of meaning is done, and expect whatever comes next to be something new. If you drop to a more middle point and only pause briefly, then they’ll know to keep daisy-chaining your ideas together.

Also consider the question mark. In English, one of the ways we signal a question in speech is by lifting our pitch at the end of an interrogative sentence. Can you hear what I mean? This also shows up in non-interrogative sentences in a phenomenon linguists sometimes call “uptalk” — a pattern of rising intonation at various points within a sentence, especially when chaining together multiple clauses. It’s stereotypically associated with women, though men do it as well (albeit less frequently). Its purpose and effect are debatable, but some possibilities include that it signals you aren’t done with your thought and therefore attempts to forestall interruption, that it solicits agreement from the listener by characterizing statements as questions, or that it gives an impression of uncertainty. Regardless of the interpretation, I recommend avoiding it in your readings — unless, of course, you’re reading the dialogue or interior monologue of a character who talks that way. Otherwise, save your rising intonation for actual questions. (But even then, sometimes you want to give a question “period” intonation, to indicate a particular mood: “What did you do.”)

Furthermore, you want to consider where the stress should fall — which in English can mean a higher pitch, a longer enunciation, a louder utterance, or some mix of all three. Compare the following examples: he didn’t tell me anything, he didn’t tell me anything, he didn’t tell me anything. Depending on which word you emphasize, different nuances come through. Is the point that he didn’t tell me anything, but somebody else did? That he didn’t tell me anything, but maybe he did something else? Or that he didn’t tell me anything, and I’m frustrated by the lack? When you practice your reading, think about which parts you want to draw your listener’s attention to — and also where you want to back off a little bit, to give yourself more room for that emphasis, so you don’t wind up straining your voice into a forced range in pursuit of really extra emphasized emphasis.

I’m going to address the overall pitch of your voice in a later installment, but I do want to take a moment here to address the phenomenon of “vocal fry,” sometimes called “creaky voice.” This is what happens when you drop into your lowest register, such that your voice begins to make a popping or rattling sound; it’s also partly a consequence of using relatively little air to speak. Like uptalk, it’s become very common among young women, and it tends to have negative associations; people feel it makes the speaker sound less confident and less appealing (though they tend to react much more negatively to vocal fry from a female speaker than a male one.) You’re liable to have this happen at various points during your reading, especially at the ends of sentences, where lower pitch and less air are common. But as with uptalk, I do recommend trying to avoid having it be a pervasive feature of your performance, unless you’re deliberately doing it as a matter of character. Your voice is your instrument, but when you’re in the vocal fry register, you’ve abandoned its resonance.

The point here isn’t to mechanize your intonation such that every comma falls to exactly the same pitch, halfway between your baseline and the top of your range, or to map out every stressed syllable in your work. But really effective public speakers of all stripes use pacing and intonation the way musicians use tempo (variation in speed) and dynamics (variation in loudness) to create flow and emotional effect. Listen to a well-done monologue or an audiobook, and put the text in front of yourself while you do; think about the decisions they’ve made and what effect those have. Even small improvements on this front can go a long way toward making yourself a more compelling reader.


Tune in next time for character voices!