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Sounding It Out

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Dr. Scott: But he must have been drawn into something, / Making him warn me in a note which read:
Company: What's it say, what's it say?
Dr. Scott: "I'm out of my head..."
"Eddie's Teddy," The Rocky Horror Show (1972)note 

A character, completely alone, finds a document and proceeds to read it out loud, even though nobody else can hear them. This is meant to be for the benefit of the audience, who can't see the document.

The main way to avert this trope is to have a voiceover of the writer instead (see Voiceover Letter). Can be justified if you have them reading to another character who Never Learned to Read, or is continuing to search the room, or whatever else have you. With electronic messages, it might be averted via Pop-Up Texting.

And of course, a popular subversion is to have somebody standing just out of shot reading the note aloud.

Related to Informing the Fourth Wall in that both exist because of the Rule of Perception. Not to be confused with Talking to Themself. Compare Repeating So the Audience Can Hear for this trope applied to phone conversations. May result in an Accidental Incantation.

This is very common in dubbing, where any form of writing which is merely shown in the original version is spelled out in the dubbed version (see Reading Foreign Signs Out Loud). Sometimes, they use one of the character's dubbed voices.


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    Films — Live-Action 
  • The aversion itself is subverted in Top Secret! They appear to be taking the echoey-writer-voiceover tack, but then he starts saying stuff that can't be in the letter — and the character enters, holding a megaphone (which he claims is because laryngitis has rendered him almost inaudible).
  • Harry Potter:
    • In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, there is a weird halfway version. When Harry writes in Riddle's diary, he sounds out his words as he writes them. (If Harry does that whenever he does writing, it must be very annoying to work on homework with him.) At the same time, Harry doesn't read Riddle's responses aloud. Instead, the camera just zooms in on what Riddle wrote.
    • In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the Marauder's Map insults Snape when he tries to use it (after taking it from Harry). No problem in the book, but in the film, they had Snape tell Harry to read it aloud, like a teacher catching a student passing a note in class.
  • Averted in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. As Gandalf reads about Isildur taking the ring, Gandalf is heard as a voiceover.
  • Parodied in Shriek If You Know What I Did Last Friday the 13th, where one character literally has to sound out the death threat the killer left him simply because he's an illiterate drunk. He gives up when he gets the word "Chanukkah" out of "I know what".
  • In Alien from L.A., Wanda reads her father's notes on Atlantis out loud, providing exposition for the audience.
  • In Kill Bill Pt. 2, both the Bride and her would-be assassin read aloud the instructions on the pregnancy test kit. Probably done more for the incongruity of the latter doing so while both women are training guns on each other than for audience information.
  • In the movie adaptation of An Uncertain Place, Adamsberg reads his text messages out loud.
  • Jumpin' Jack Flash does this to an extreme, due to the amount of online chatting Terri does with Jack — she even says what she's typing, so we don't have to keep the camera on that, either. Becomes half-Voiceover Letter after Terri hears Jack's voice, we then hear his voice when he types (as she imagines it). Justified In-Universe as happening because Terri is socially isolated, and so talks to herself a lot.
  • In Ex Machina, Caleb reads the details of the non-disclosure agreement aloud so the audience can hear.

  • In the Sherlock Holmes canon, whenever Holmes is given a letter, he invariably hands it to Watson, who reads it aloud, ostensibly to himself. Some scholars have theorized that Holmes, who we are told is disinterested in literature and formal schooling, may be functionally illiterate. The stories are supposed to be Watson's popular accounts of his friend's adventures, so it's odd that he doesn't consistently "reproduce the letter for the benefit of the reader" or somesuch.
  • In The Count of Monte Cristo when General Nortier forces Franz Depinay to read aloud the true account of his father's death, previously believed to be a suicide
  • Reconstructed in The Fortress of the Black Cauldron when Father Isabel unofficially requests your aid in a matter in which he is not supposed to take part directly. Afterwards, he acts as if he thought you left and starts reading aloud an ancient document that will help you in your quest, repaying you for your help without officially arcknowledging you had an agreement.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In an episode of Eureka, Jo read something off her computer aloud, although there was no one else in the building.
  • Subverted at the beginning of The League of Gentlemen, episode 1, where the voiceover speaking the text of a letter turns out to be the woman sitting next to Benjamin on the train.
  • Happens in Smallville almost every time Clark or Chloe read something that isn't shown on screen.
  • In an early episode of Lost, Sawyer shows Kate a letter supposedly written to him by a little boy. When she stops reading, he says "Oh don't stop now!" implying the most dramatic part of the letter is yet to come. It partially happens again in a season three episode, when Sawyer hands the letter to Anthony Cooper, the person it's intended for, ordering him to read it. But this time the letter isn't read in its entirety, so presumably, the audience is expected to know what it contains. (Also, in the second setting, the reading-out-loud is a bit more natural.)
  • Veronica Mars: In the second episode, Veronica discovers that the student who hired her double crossed her by making her look for his deceased dad, who he knew was dead. She confronts him with a copy of his school records which she demands he read aloud.

  • Played only slightly less straight in The Phantom of the Opera, when several characters receive written notes from the Phantom and read them out to each other, introduced by dialogue to the effect of "How dare you send me this?" "Send you what?" "[reads out note]" The last note does fade into a voiceover from the Phantom, however.
  • In Tell Me on a Sunday, the girl writes letters home to her mother, and sings them aloud while doing so.
  • Nunsense: During the skit where three nuns try and sell their cookbook, they read it aloud for the audience's benefit as there is no fourth wall, and they know that the audience is there. However, one of the nuns, Sister Amnesia, is a little on the slow side and has to be prodded into reading her recipe out loud.

    Video Games 
  • In Eternal Darkness, at the beginning of the second flashback, that level's character is (somewhat dramatically) reading a book about the defeat of Mantorak aloud. After about thirty seconds, the scene fades into a separate flashback of the event, with the understanding that this is what she's seeing in her head.
  • Professor Layton: Every time Professor Layton gets a letter, he hands it to Luke and asks him to read it to him.
  • Hotel Mario's opening scene. "Dear pesky plumbers..."

    Web Original 
  • Broken Saints features a lot of Inner Monologue, but some it is spoken aloud every now and then, even when said character is alone.
  • Subverted in Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog whenever Dr. Horrible gets a communique from Bad Horse, a trio of cowboys lean into frame to sing the message Horrible is reading (or listening to in the case of the cell phone call). Also, justified when he reads viewer emails to his video blog.

    Western Animation 
  • A lot of kids' cartoons do this to benefit those that can't read yet. In fact, when Woody Woodpecker cartoons started airing on TV they often dubbed in Woody reading signs because of this. Even in cartoons he wasn't in.
  • Used often in Avatar: The Last Airbender as all writing is in classical Chinese. This is justified any time Toph is around; someone would need to read aloud for her since she's blind.
  • Always subverted in Sheep in the Big City: whenever Sheep looks at a sign or something, we hear an old man's voice reading it — cue panning over to the old man who would then say, "I like to read."
  • Also often used in Code Lyoko, when the characters are reading or typing on a computer, since (beside names, numbers, and international terms) displaying any text is avoided. This is for easier localization, the show being produced and aired both in French and English.
  • Justified two different ways in an episode of Gargoyles. The villain opens a safe that he believes contains stolen jewels and instead finds a note describing the real location. He reads the note aloud to his assembled goons before crumpling it up in frustration. A scene or two later, Broadway enters and finds the note. Having only just learned to read, he has to literally sound it out to read the message.
  • When cartoons that was originally pantomime (Tom and Jerry, The Pink Panther) are imported to other countries, it's common for them to actually give these characters VOICES for the sole purpose of having someone read the English signs in another language. Another variant is having a narrator read it. In one particular Tom and Jerry short, a disgruntled mouse-hunter paints over the "MOUSE" part of his sign and replaces it with another word. Tom decides to spell it out for us: "C... A... T. Cat."
  • The necessary defining character moment of any episode of Inspector Gadget. He constantly reads his otherwise secret assignment letter aloud, including the clause where the message will self-destruct, then carelessly tosses it and it accidentally lands near or on the Chief just prior to exploding.
  • In the episode "Read It and Weep" of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, Rainbow Dash reads her book out loud, even though the only other person in the room is unconscious and probably not interested in the story anyway. This might be because she's not read much before, so she's doing it to sound out the words/doing it unconsciously.

    Real Life 
  • Truth in Television in Ancient Rome, where it was considered odd to read silently instead of out loud. Julius Caesar was regarded as something of a freak for being able to read silently.
  • The same was the case in monastic institutes in Medieval Europe. It was considered dangerous, and even sinful to read alone, as it could lead to producing ideas that are out of mainstream. Thus, the reading sessions were always group-affairs, and presumably documents were copied through dictation, rather than at the copiers' own pace. Copying through dictation is easier, as you don't have to constantly move your eyes between the book you're copying from and the book you're writing. Saint Ambrose is reported to have stunned people with his ability to read and understand anything without even having to move his lips.
  • It was also quite difficult to read silently before the invention of spaces, mixed cases and punctuation. Anglo-Saxon was particularly hard. Don't forget that at the time, all spelling was phonetic, and not standardised in any way — anyone who's read anything written in heavy Funetik Aksent knows it's easier if you Sound It Out.