How to host a story reading

(written 5/89; webbed 10/12/95; heavily revised 12/22/96; lightly revised 5/9/2006)

For over ten years now, various friends and I have been getting together on occasion to read stories aloud to each other. This activity—graced with the unlovely but utilitarian name “story reading”—can be a great deal of fun, but can also be rife with pitfalls of various sorts. This guide is an attempt to help others to run story readings. Note that reading stories is different from—and, generally, much easier than—telling stories; while people do occasionally tell stories at these gatherings (and it usually goes over well), that’s not the primary emphasis.

Historical note: the origins of our approach to story readings are lost in the mists of antiquity. The idea may have sprung fully-fledged from a conversation I had with DH about a Delany essay called “On Pure Storytelling”; or it may’ve been derived from MK’s reading The Princess Bride aloud, which in turn may’ve been inspired by folks at Yale who were doing much the same thing. Whatever the history, it’s clear that other groups—notably one in Boston—have been having similar sorts of readings for at least as long as we have.

No two story readings are quite the same, and my opinions about how they should be run are sometimes very different from others’ ideas. This guide is therefore intended primarily for those who haven’t done story readings but would like to. So don’t take the following as gospel; they’re just my opinions, to be used as a rough set of guidelines if you like ’em. I’ve used examples from actual readings, but every example without a name attached has occurred on multiple occasions. I wrote original (rather different) version of this guide in 1989, for an APA I’m in; to avoid boring or confusing those of you who don’t know the people that version referred to, I’ve replaced their names with initials.

How to have a story reading, simple method

One person picks any story and reads it out loud. Repeat until all listeners leave.

How to have a story reading, complex method

  1. Plan the reading.
    1. Schedule it and invite friends.
    2. Prepare an environment conducive to reading.
  2. Prepare to read (before the reading).
    1. Choose stories and practice them.
    2. Keep in mind ways to read well aloud.
  3. Be aware of the structure of a story reading, including various social factors.
  4. Be sure to have a good time.

Planning a Reading

A little advance planning is necessary if you want more than a couple of people to show up to your reading.

Scheduling and Invitations

The first step is to decide where the reading will be held. I’ll assume you’re having it at your place of residence; if you don’t have enough room, or if you live far away from everyone you’re inviting, you can hold it elsewhere, but you’ll probably have less control over setup and invitation list if you try to run a reading at someone else’s place.

Next, pick a time and date for the reading. You may have a hard time scheduling a time when everyone can make it; try to give at least a week’s advance notice. Weekday evenings are all right, but people who work full-time are usually tired and usually have to leave relatively early on such nights. Weekend daytimes people often want to be out and about. Also, people often tend to hit an energy slump mid-afternoon, which can mean all the attendees falling asleep. Sunday evenings face the prospect of work in the morning; Friday evenings come at the end of a long work-week. Thus, I find the time that works the best for my readings is Saturday evening, which also gives the host all day Saturday to clean and prepare. Readings can be a nice quiet alternative to an evening out on the town. (On the other hand, plenty of people would rather be out at parties on a Saturday night, so of course you should schedule to match the needs of your attendees.)

Once you’ve chosen a date and time, contact a dozen or so friends and invite them over for an evening of stories. I find the ideal size for a reading to be between 12 and 20 people, at least half of whom are willing to read aloud. (And be prepared for some of the people you invite to not make it, whether or not they say they will. I prefer to require RSVPs ahead of time, but I’m a control freak.) Don’t forget to tell the attendees to bring stories and/or friends; also make it clear that anyone who’s uncomfortable reading aloud (or just doesn’t want to, for whatever reason) can come to listen and eat. Audiences are as necessary as readers (it takes at least two people to have a story reading, one to listen and one to read). Be sure to tell everyone who’s going to read to choose and practice stories ahead of time; see later in this guide for suggestions on preparing stories.

Environmental Preparations

Once you know when people are coming, and how many will be there, you need to set up the place where the reading will be held.

Refreshments are always a good idea (you might get everyone to bring some, or rotate the location so that nobody has to pay for all the food all the time). Some kinds of party food are good for story reading, others less so. Something to drink is essential, preferably juice rather than soda; this is to soothe throats after talking for a long time. (I’m told that alcoholic beverages also work for this purpose, but I don’t recommend getting drunk at story reading.) If you’re going to provide something to eat, try to find non-crunchy foods; it’s a little distracting to listen to someone munching on a hard pretzel while you’re trying to read a story out loud. (This is assuming people will be eating while things are being read. If people are going to eat only during pauses between stories, just about any kind of food is good (though high-sugar stuff might wreck the relaxed atmosphere).) I tend to get cheese and crackers a lot. Hot chocolate is good for cold, rainy nights when the wind howls through the empty streets outside; a fire is also nice, if you can get one, though perhaps a bit distracting.

Which brings me to lighting. If this is going to be a horror or ghost-story reading, you might want to consider dim lights, or having one lighted chair where the current reader can sit, leaving the rest in darkness. (MH retold “The Monkey’s Paw” at a cast party once, with no lights except for a flashlight with which he projected his hand, curled into a claw, on the ceiling. It was terrifying.) If there’ll mostly be happy and funny stories, or if you don’t know what the mood will be, leave the lights on; it’ll help keep people awake through any slow parts. You can always turn off lights to change the mood for individual stories.

Seating is important as well; there should be soft, comfortable seats of a sort that people don’t mind sitting on for long periods of time. Unless you have one position that’s always the reader’s chair, sitting in a circle is best. Sitting on the floor works well if there are pillows and/or rugs.

One more environmental factor: sound. Since story reading involves listening to someone read, it’s probably not a good idea to put hard rock on the stereo, or to read in the room next to where a wild party is going on. (I recommend not allowing people to play recordings of performers reading or telling stories; such recordings tend to have a deleterious effect on readings, in my experience.) If you must have background music, something without words is probably best; if you don’t mind it, New Age music tends to (for me, anyway) automatically slip into the background whether or not anything else is happening. But I really recommend not using music at all unless a reader requests it for an individual story.

Preparing to Read Aloud

This section is for both the host and the attendees; it provides some suggestions on choosing and reading well.

Choosing a Story

Choosing a good read-aloud story can be difficult; a marvelous story on the printed page can fall completely flat when spoken. Here’s what works best for me:

First of all, stories should be short. A good rule of thumb is that a normal page of a book (whether hardback or paperback) takes about two minutes to read out loud (though there’s a little variation with tone and style of story and from reader to reader). Unfortunately, many of the best printed short stories are 40-50 pages long, which makes them too long to read all at once. Remember that a 20-page story may take 45 minutes. That’s a long time to expect most people to sit still and listen. People may be used to reading to themselves for that long at a stretch, but most people rarely have to actively and carefully listen to anything for that long without a break; anything over 20 pages in one sitting is likely to foster restlessness, sleep, or outright revolt.

If there’s a long story, or an entire book, that you just have to read, consider breaking it into chunks and reading them at consecutive readings. JM and I, alternating chapters, once read The Phantom Tollbooth that way; that worked partly because the chapters can be read fairly independently, so people can miss a week or three, or come in on the middle, and not be confused. I (following MK’s example) read The Princess Bride one semester in college, ten to twenty pages a week; that worked because almost everyone who attended had either seen the movie or read the book, and I never read a chapter when the one person who’d done neither was absent. I recommend not reading strongly-plotted novels as serials because you’ll too rarely have an identical audience from reading to reading. If you do end up reading such a book as a serial, give a summary of the story so far before starting each installment. It also may help (I did this with Princess Bride ) to re-read the last paragraph or so of the previous installment to get people back into the story before going on to a new section.

So much for length. As for content:

Children’s stories tend to work well, possibly because many were written to be read aloud to children (and there are an awful lot of “children’s” books which are at least as enjoyable for adults). Since the amount of text on a page of, say, Dr. Seuss is much less than that on a page of, say, Kafka, you can modify the length guidelines accordingly. JW read all of Bunnicula one night (but he did break halfway through and let a few others read stories before he went on to finish, and he did ask us then if we wanted to hear the rest of it). Some groups may not be interested in hearing children’s stories; their loss, but don’t force them to listen to something they don’t want to.

Fantasy tends to work well, too, maybe because it draws from a linguistic history eventually reaching back to oral traditions and folktales (though of course not all fantasy reads well out loud). Science fiction in general works less well, particularly nuts-’n’-bolts “hard” SF, which often requires frequent reference back to earlier parts of the book for comprehension, something you can’t do when listening to someone read aloud. (This isn’t true only of hard SF, of course. While reading The Silmarillion to myself, for instance, I had to constantly refer to the index of characters to keep track of who was who). The sound of what’s being read can be at least as important as the sense when reading aloud, and SF written by physicists may be more concerned with plausibility of technical speculation than with sounding good out loud. Stories with lots of sensory imagery tend to be good. Note that different people read different sorts of stories well, though some things seem to work regardless of who reads them.

Humor almost always works well. Enough laughs in a story will excuse almost anything, including length. (But remember that not everyone shares your sense of humor. You may want to think twice before reading something really gross or semi-offensive; others may not find it as funny as you do.)

Suspense stories can be good, though you should remember that you’ll probably take twice as long reading them out loud as you would reading them silently, so the suspense may either build up to unbearable levels or fizzle (if you give someone time to spot the twist ending, it may not pack as much of a twist).

And then there are other stories that don’t fit any of the categories I’ve mentioned but that just plain work for no obvious reason. I usually have a good idea of what will work and what won’t, but I’m occasionally wrong; stories that I think are incredibly good or funny will go over in dead silence, while a story that I think might marginally be readable will hold everyone in rapt attention all the way through (the latter happened with Beagle’s “Come, Lady Death”; the former with a brief excerpt from Delany’s “Time Considered as a Helix of Semiprecious Stones”). Part of whether a story works or not has to do with the reader; but the writing itself is usually the main thing that makes or breaks the story.

Items that are best avoided include anything you got from the Net (unless you’re pretty certain nobody else in the room has seen it), song lyrics, your own poetry (unless you’ve been told it’s good by someone you can trust, and you know how to read it well aloud), anything in a language not spoken by your audience (unless the sound is the whole point; Beowulf in Old English can sound marvelous even if you don’t understand a word of it), and anything you haven’t practiced (see below ).

Stories which involve a lot of dialogue without any indication of who said what can be confusing even when you you’re reading them silently and you can go back and figure out who the speaker is on each line; they often become impossible to follow when read out loud by someone who doesn’t do a different voice for each character. Since I don’t usually do voices, I tend to avoid this sort of story. An alternative to completely avoiding such a story is to change it; add in a few “he said”s and “she said”s as you go (you may want to pencil these in ahead of time so you don’t forget as you’re reading). While you’re at it, you could change around awkward wordings, or sentences you find hard or unnatural to say. While this sort of minor editing can do great things for a story’s read-aloud potential, you should be careful not to take it too far. Many people dislike the idea of changing the story at all, since then it’s not the same story as what’s on the page; I tend to make only extremely minor changes, and those only when absolutely necessary (or when I make a mistake in reading, in which case I have to make a snap decision about whether it’s a mistake worth correcting. Most of the time if I say a slightly different word that means more or less the same thing as what’s written, I don’t even acknowledge the error—going back and correcting yourself constantly can really interrupt the flow of a story).

Reading Aloud

So that’s all there is to it, right? Well, not really. There’s more to reading a story out loud than just picking up a book and reading from it.

I recommend thinking of reading aloud as a performance. It’s not a difficult performance; almost anyone can do it reasonably well with a little practice. But if you think of it as just sharing a story you liked with some friends, your friends aren’t likely to enjoy it as much as you did. (If that’s your only goal, you may be better off loaning them the printed story instead of trying to read it aloud.) A bad performance (which usually just means the reader hasn’t practiced the story) can ruin the audience’s enjoyment, just as a particularly good performance can greatly enhance it.

So here are some specific suggestions on how to read well out loud.

First, suggestions on preparing to read aloud (things you should do well in advance of the reading):

I strongly recommend not trying to read a story aloud (to an audience) if you haven’t at least read the story to yourself at least once. Some people aren’t bad at cold reading, but I’ve rarely heard anyone do it especially well (and I’ve tried, and failed, a couple of times).

In fact, I highly recommend reading the story to yourself at least once out loud before going to story reading. This will help alleviate such embarrassing problems as suddenly discovering that you have no idea how to pronounce a word that you’ve known all your life. If you’re too embarrassed to actually read out loud to yourself, at least sub-vocalize it.

Rehearsing the story has a couple of extra advantages: first, you can find out how long the story will take to read (the two-minutes-per-page rule is only approximate); and second, you can work out how to say things. Long, convoluted sentences with odd structures are often hard to say with proper emphasis; think about how you’ll stress words. Learn where in the story a line of dialogue is given followed by how it’s said (if part of the story reads “‘I don’t want to do that,’ I screamed.” then you should probably know that that line of dialogue is being screamed before you get to the place where you’re told it was a scream).

Many people choose voices for the characters; this doesn’t always work, but when it does, it often works much better than straight reading. I tend to do only slight voice variations: a higher voice for Princess Saralinda, a lower one for the giant who was defeated by the intrepid tailor, and usually at least one character in my normal speaking voice, with a trace of an accent here and there. But I’m not very good at doing voices (particularly at keeping them consistent) or at doing accents. The people I know who’ve carried this off are usually actors, and they usually do it very well. However, doing voices for the characters is not necessary, and can even detract from the audience’s enjoyment, especially (as EB once pointed out) with stories many people are familiar with, like Winnie the Pooh stories; if you do voices, they’re bound to be different from the voices other people expect the characters to have (for how many of you does Kanga, or Piglet, or Pooh Bear himself, have your mother’s voice because she first read the Winnie the Pooh stories to you? Or do you hear the voices from the Disney film?).

If the book has illustrations (and if you decide to show them—some illustrations are really awful), it’s best to decide beforehand at what point you’ll show each illustration, especially when an illustration isn’t on the same page as the corresponding text.

If the book that the story is from is heavy or otherwise unwieldy, you may want to photocopy the relevant pages and read from the photocopy rather than from the book itself. If you do that, bring the book with you anyway, in case you find a page missing or poorly copied.

Mark the beginning and end of the piece you want to read, so that you don’t have to fumble for your place before you start reading. This is particularly important if you’re reading multiple excerpts from a longer work; mark all of the places where you’re planning to stop and start, so you don’t have to make the audience wait while you look for the next starting point. If you don’t want to write in the book, you can use sticky notes or book darts.

While reading, be sure to do all those things you may or may not have been told about on debate team or for speech contests:

  • Speak loudly enough to be heard and slowly enough to be understood.
  • Open your mouth and move your lips. Many people who aren’t used to public speaking tend to clench their teeth and keep their lips as still as possible while reading aloud; that results in your voice being too quiet and too mumbly, which makes it hard for the audience to hear you.
  • To the extent possible, face outward, toward the audience, so that your voice will be aimed outward (rather than looking down, hunched over your book, so that your voice is directed into the pages of the book, where your audience can’t hear you). It generally helps to hold the book up in front of you (and below your line of sight to the audience) rather than laying it flat on your lap or on a table.
  • Pay attention to your audience as you read; pause when they laugh, and glance around the room now and then to make sure you’ve got their attention. (To avoid losing your place on the page as you glance around, you may want to place a thumb or finger next to the line you’re on before you look away.)
  • Use natural intonation. (Especially when reading poetry, but this goes for prose too.) In particular, don’t slip into the monotonous “poetry voice” that’s so effective at lulling listeners to sleep.
  • Pay attention to the stress patterns of sentences and paragraphs. If you’re looking only at one word as you read, you’re likely to end up stressing that word as it would sound in isolation, ignoring the way that the words around it affect the stress; so try to keep your eyes a little ahead of your voice, so you’ll know what the rest of the sentence is before you get to it.
  • Don’t rush through stories, but don’t pause for very long between sentences or paragraphs unless called for by the story.
  • Try to keep from collapsing in fits of helpless laughter.

Side note about stress patterns: not all of the stressed syllables in a sentence receive the same level of stress.

Think about the phrase “Gary, Indiana”: the first and fifth syllables receive heavy stress, while the third syllable receives lighter stress, and the other syllables are more or less unstressed. In the song by that name, the second “Gary, Indiana” puts primary stress on the third syllable and secondary stresses on the first and fifth, which is why it sounds weird but not totally weird. When you’re working out how to say a sentence in a story, be sure you put the primary and secondary (and even tertiary) stresses where they naturally belong.

A lot of people aren’t very good at hearing stresses. If you’re not sure about a sentence, you might try humming the sentence, to get the intonation without the words. If it all comes out on one note or two notes, then you’re probably not reading it very naturally. “Poetry voice” basically consists of just two notes: heavy stress and extended duration on all stressed syllables, and no stress and shortened duration on all unstressed syllables.

The Structure of a Reading

Okay, so you’ve prepared a place, and everyone has prepared stories. Most of the guests have arrived, snugly settled in chairs or on the floor with something to drink. You’ve spent twenty minutes catching up on friends’ lives and generally socializing, and now you’ve decided it’s time to get the reading going. What next?

Start by getting everyone’s attention. Drag people away from conversations, open up books to signal your interest in reading, even make a loud announcement to the effect that you’d like to hear some stories read.

Someone has to go first; it’s a good idea for the host to have something short, funny, and/or fast-paced to start with in case everyone else is too shy to begin. Fairy tales also work well to get people into the mood to listen; starting with something long and dry is probably a bad idea. (If one of your guests appears ready to open with something by Marx or Wittgenstein, you might gently suggest that something shorter and funnier be read to start things off.)

Once the reading gets moving, you don’t need to keep close rein on the order of stories; whoever wants to read next can do so. Sometimes someone will have something that follows the last story particularly well; sometimes contrast is needed (such as something light and silly to follow something particularly gloomy and depressing). After a particularly emotionally compelling story, everyone may need a break; spend some time moving around, talking, eating, and taking bathroom breaks, then gather everyone back together again for more reading. As host, you shouldn’t be shy about explicitly telling people that the break is over and it’s time to read again; if you don’t do it, probably nobody else will for quite some time.

Some shy people may bring stories but not be quite willing to jump in and start reading. Until people get used to the idea of reading, you may need to take the role of prompter; if you see someone with a book who isn’t saying anything, ask if they want to read. Eventually, over the course of multiple readings, others will start prompting too.

Social Aspects

Story reading is a social activity, and as such often runs more smoothly if people are aware of certain social factors.

For instance, it seems to me essential that there be no stigma attached to arriving or leaving at any point during the reading. If you don’t like a story, or if this is the eighth time it’s been read at story reading in the last year, there’s no reason that you should have to suffer through it (though it is nice to make allowances for new readers so as not to scare them away). Enough silently suffering and smoldering through stories you don’t want to hear may eventually ruin the whole idea of story reading for you.

If nobody wants to hear the story, it’s a different matter, particularly if the person reading it isn’t aware of the problem; that situation is awkward. If you’re sure that nobody else wants to hear the story, gently suggest that the reader try it some other time, or mention that the story was just read to the same audience at the previous reading, or remind the reader (if needed) about the two-minutes-per-age rule of thumb and the concomitant 20-page(ish) length limit.

But if I don’t want to listen to something and others apparently do, I’ll just get up and leave the room for the duration. This is not meant to be offensive to the person reading, and it’s not meant to get people to only read the stories I want to hear; it’s just to protect my mood and sanity. If you do leave, you always have the option of coming back later. Usually when I walk out it’s because everyone else is obviously enjoying what’s going on, which means it’s my problem that I don’t like the story. Leaving should always be an option, even in the middle of a story—but do it quietly! Don’t disrupt the story.

Another social aspect of story reading is the fact that you’ve got a group of people, usually friends, in a room together, usually with refreshments. It’s only a small step from there to a party, and story readings frequently do end with people sitting around and talking after everything has been read that’s going to be read.

But in general, if I’m gathered with a group of people for a particular purpose, I want that purpose to be fulfilled; if I’ve gone to a story reading, I want to read and listen to stories. Obviously, not everyone shares this attitude, and friction can result when half the room wants to sit and talk and the other half wants to read stories. One way around the problem is to have a separate room, or rooms, separated by a door from where stories are being read, where people can go when they don’t feel like listening. This is not an optimal solution, though, as people talking loudly in the next room tend to detract from stories being read. Another possible solution is to have breaks between stories, though different people sometimes want different-length breaks; some people are ready to get back to reading while others are still busy talking. Fortunately, story readings in general are pretty mellow, so most people are willing to be flexible about the length of a break.


Which brings me to my final point: the goal of story reading is for people to enjoy it. If any or all of what I’ve said above conflicts with your enjoyment, ignore my suggestions. For me, the primary rule is to keep things as relaxed as possible, which is why I refuse to work out ahead of time who’s reading what when, or even stop people who aren’t reading well. I don’t think that story readings should be highly organized events; usually the less formal they are, the more I enjoy them. But I enjoy them even more when the guidelines above are followed.