Something I’ve heard a few times is that a sound shouldn’t be put into a story unless it has a plot significance. Otherwise, it’s only filler and should be cut. I politely disagree because our sense of hearing is one of the most important ones. Some days it might even be more essential than sight. After all, you react to noises more often than sights. For example, you see something heavy falling off a shelf and you cringe when it smacks the floor. Maybe you jump if you didn’t see it. The point is that the sound is what you’re responding to instinctively instead of the sight. Honestly, I sometimes wonder if our reaction to sound is quicker than our reaction to visual stimuli.
One of the most specific ways that sound/hearing is used is when you have a character trying to be stealthy. Thieves, assassins, spies, and teenagers trying to get out of the house after curfew use similar evocations. Creaking floorboards, heartbeat, heavy breathing, and other non-sound descriptions that relate that one has to be quiet. Even from the side where the person is hunting for the hidden threat, you can use the same things. This creates tension and you’ll see that hearing is the central sense toward that. Sight comes in a close second, but you still tend to get an auditory response like a scream, gasp, or blood-choked gurgle.
Connecting to the reader’s hearing includes voices. Reading that a character says something without specific punctuation, context, or key words might not relate their emotions. “I am angry,” Timmy says. Kind of bland and you have to take his word for it. “I’m angry!” Timmy shouts while furiously hitting the walls. You get a little more with that because you feel the volume and intensity of his voice. So be aware that the actions of characters can help denote how strong the sounds are.
Some tips from what I do:
- When describing a new area, include the sounds. Gulls on the docks, clink of shovels in the mines, and other simple descriptions will add a new dimension to the world. It also makes it easier to show that such things exist. Visual is good, but hearing the distant sound of ship means you don’t have to show the docks early on. This also helps in stretching out your city descriptions.
- Give your characters sounds beyond their voice. Sneezes, coughs, cracking knuckles, yawns, and other simple actions can be slipped in to give them more life. Now the reader isn’t only seeing the characters, but hearing them too.
- Use ‘power’ words when you can, but don’t overdo it. This is very big for action scenes where weapons clash or foot thunder on the ground. There are tons of auditory words that you can use in such scenes, so try to throw a few in to help with the description and give your vocabulary some variety.
- If you’re using a character who is deaf then that doesn’t mean you have to avoid describing sounds unless it is through their sole perspective. I’ve read several short stories where there is a deaf character, so the author puts nothing in to describe the sounds even though other characters can hear things. This is important for no other reason than the reader might want to know what the character cannot hear.
- Darkness can be a great catalyst for hearing-focused scenes. We tend to make our characters wait for their eyes to adjust and then they operate as if they turned a flood lamp on. In reality, night vision isn’t perfect and you’ll still be working more of hearing than sight. So, switch the focus if working with a pitch black scene.