Using all of your senses #2 – Sound

Sound is an odd thing to convey in fiction. After all, writing is about words and images and to effectively portray noises, we can really only use wordsThere is a tiny village in West Somerset, just before you reach Porlock (the gateway to Exmoor), called Bossington. This village has a long pebble beach that stretches from a heath headland at its eastern end to Porlock Weir at the west end.

There is something about the way the waves retract over the pebbles (perhaps because the pebble beach slopes upward and the water is pulled back faster) that makes an interesting sound. It is almost like a rattle. I’d never encountered it before and I don’t think I’ve heard it anywhere else since.

Using Sound to Invoke Emotion

Despite that written fiction is a visual medium that, when written well, puts a visual image inside the mind of the reader, we must never underestimate the importance of the description of sound. It can invoke many different emotions and adds atmosphere to the text.

For example, what sort of reactions can a reader expect to feel if they read the line “From beyond the door he could hear the sound of a baby crying”. What ideas or images does that invoke? The simple act of a baby crying could mean one of many things:

  • “He” is the father and his wife has just given birth. The reader will expect to feel happiness, or relief if there had been difficulties during labour.
  • “He” has just been in the room and had locked it himself. He knew it was empty. If the story is a ghostly tale, the feelings of the reader will be a shiver down the spine.
  • “He” is a Nazi soldier who believes that a family of Jews is hiding in the house. Now he has confirmation. The reader might feel apprehension at the possibility of the family being discovered
  • “He” might be a Detective on the trail of an abducted baby. The reader might feel excitement at the prospect of the discovery

There are more, but see how many different scenarios can be constructed through the description of a sound.

Using Words to Convey Sound

There are quite a few fairly typical words to use to convey sound – bang, tinkle, crash, bang and so on. Yet what really sticks in the mind is when we draw comparisons in the form of similes and metaphors. Yet they are so easy to get wrong; use the wrong simile and you’ll leave your reader scratching their heads in confusion. I used the example of Bossington Beach above where the water drawing back over the large pebbles sounded like a rattle. There’s no other comparison and if I were using the description in a piece of fiction, my intention would be to make the reader stop and think rather than stop and scratch their head in confusion. By all means use unusual comparisons for every day things (rather than saying thunder rumbles or booms try an comparison with explosions or something similar), but avoid the risk of sounding pretentious.

Oh and don’t forget your onomatopoeia.

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