By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)
If you’re limiting yourself to just naming a sound, you’re missing out on the richness that the sense of sound could bring to your fiction. You’re speaking to your reader in a monotone.
Next to sight, sound is the most commonly used sense in fiction, but three techniques can help you change the sounds you use from plain background noise into something that adds new depth to your stories.
Use Onomatopoeia for an Echo
Onomatopoeia is when a word sounds like its definition—hiss, buzz, creak, swish, clatter.
The blade scraped across his stubble.
If you’ve ever listened to a man shave using a razor rather than an electric trimmer, scrape imitates the sound you’ll hear with each swipe.
Another poetry technique worth judiciously stealing is the repetition of sounds within words to mimic the sound you’re describing. One of the best known examples is from the final lines of Tennyson’s “Come Down, O Maid.”
The moan of doves in immemorial elms
And murmur of innumerable bees.
A morning dove’s call at a quiet summer’s twilight carries the same long o sound as moan, and the sequence of m’s and n’s followed by the zee sound in bees creates a buzz like a swarm.
Because most of us vocalize in our minds when we read, onomatopoeic words and phrases help us hear the sound you’re describing. (Speed readers are trained to stop this internal vocalization because it slows reading speed, but it’s also one of the things that helps make reading so pleasurable.)
Don’t overuse this technique. Not everyone likes it. Personally, used frugally at moments when you really need to emphasize a sound, I love it. (And so does Janice Hardy, former instructor for Writer’s Digest, so I’m in good company.)
Play With the Emotional Effects of Sound Deprivation or Sounds We Can’t Control
Using the sense of sound effectively in fiction isn’t all about the type of sound. Sometimes it’s about the lack of sound, the volume, the duration, or whether we have any control over the sound.
When the power goes out in your house at night, do you sleep through it or does the sudden loss of the white noise of the appliances wake you up? Do you find the loss peaceful or, after a while, does the silence become almost oppressive and ominous?
Scientists have studied the effects of sensory deprivation on the human body, and discovered a short period of sensory deprivation, like being underwater, can be relaxing. Over extended periods of time, though, it can lead to hallucinations, decreased memory function, and loss of identity, which is why it’s used as “white torture.” If you place your character in a situation where they can’t hear, they’re likely to be disoriented at first, feeling almost like their ears are clogged. If you place them alone for a long period of time somewhere like the wilds of Utah in winter, the silence will begin to play tricks with their mind.
If we have the ability to make a sound stop, we’re more able to tolerate it than if we have to endure it with no knowledge of when it might end. While our body eventually learns to ignore soft noises like the ticking of a clock in the background, louder noises or noises intended to motivate us to action can’t be tuned out in the same way. In my last truck, the parking break broke, but I didn’t realize it until I’d set it for a ferry ride, and the warning ding kept going after I released it. I had to drive over an hour with no way to make it stop. The sound never bothered me before, but by the end of that drive, I was tense and irritable and fighting a headache.
Let Sound Set the Mood
They don’t call it mood music for nothing. Your choice of sounds can alter the whole feel of a scene, so choose carefully to create the mood you want your reader to feel. If you want to lighten a scene, add a funny or embarrassing sound to a somber or romantic moment.
One of my favorite lines from my co-writer in our historical fantasy is when our female lead’s closest friend says to her, “The wind carries the voices of the dead tonight.” It highlighted not only the grief they shared but couldn’t speak of, but also their dread and uncertainty over what they’d face the next day.
What sound annoys you most? And which do you find most soothing?
Enter your email below to receive updates next time I post here because you don’t want to miss the final sense! If you missed the previous posts, you can find the three techniques for smell, taste, and touch here.
Photo Credit: Peter Mazurek (Obtained via www.sxc.hu)