Senses in Writing: Hear the Invisible Sounds

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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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35 Responses to Senses in Writing: Hear the Invisible Sounds

  1. Seán Cooke says:

    I’ve always thought that hearing is the most powerful sense in writing. Most effective for creating tension and equally sending readers down a false track. Smell is very strong for this, too, although it comes across more forced and isn’t usable as often.

    I wrote a short story (and intend to convert it to a novella or novel) in which the main character was blind. I made it so she never referred to colours or similar sight-dependent things, but emphasised sounds. Her descriptions were always heavily detailed in sound. Quite a fun thing to write, actually, will need to get back to that in the near future…

    Although, the speed of light is vastly quicker than the speed of sound, so our reaction to visual stimuli is significantly faster than audio. Both are so quick that we just can’t really tell the difference.

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    • Hearing is definitely one of the most powerful, but I think it can be abused much easier than the others. If anything, you’d notice it more. For tension, you really need that balance between silence and noise to get the right atmosphere.

      Blind characters are interesting and I can’t wait to write one as a main character. I played with it in the 3rd book of my series and I can say that it’s really tough. You slip into having them mention colors or reacting to visual cues. Takes some focus on there.

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  2. Harliqueen says:

    Some more great tips 🙂 I find that sound can be one of the hardest senses to evoke.

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    • One of my main characters is a tracker and I use thieves a lot, so I don’t have much of a problem pulling sound into events. It’s smell and taste that I forget. I guess every author has a weak sense due to the stories and genres they work with.

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  3. L. Marie says:

    Great tips, Charles! I agree that sensory detail is important to a story. It helps us inhabit the world. I sometimes forget sounds and other senses (like taste, which I find is the most difficult to include). But sounds are great descriptors.

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  4. To me sound is tough. I need to practice more on sounds. Thanks for the inspiration.

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  5. C. Miller says:

    I agree with everything you said here. I do think sound is very important to include in descriptions. Even just a bit of it goes a pretty long way in giving readers a fuller picture of the world. 🙂

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    • Thanks. That full picture should really be a goal, especially if you’re working with worlds that are beyond reality. How else would we know that a dragon roars? Could think it clucks like a chicken without the right words. 🙂

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      • C. Miller says:

        Haha! That is a VERY good point!

        Can you imagine a dragon that sounded like that? I’d probably read that story.

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      • I’d like to think there’s one out there like that. Though I only ever come across roaring beasts or dragons that sound like wise sages. We need more female dragons in fantasy. 🙂

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      • C. Miller says:

        Hm. If you find it before me, let me know. (I’ll do the same!)

        That trilogy I wrote last year has both male and female dragons in it. You would think there would be more, because that just makes sense. Unless they’re asexual beings in whichever books.

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      • Always wondered about that in some stories. Many fantasy tales paint dragons as solitary beasts even when they’re guarding an egg. So it isn’t hard to imagine them as asexual.

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      • C. Miller says:

        No, I suppose it’s not.
        Do you always think of them as male regardless, or if they have some sort of ‘voice,’ imagine it as a male ‘speaking’?
        (If it’s not clarified.)

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      • I tend to default to male unless I’ve stated otherwise. I know in my world, I’ve yet to use a female dragon. They evil ones are genderless and the few good ones that appear are male. Actually, I think I have a female in the 6th book. I really need to read that one again.

        I have noticed that most dragons get called ‘it’, so gender is left out of it.

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      • C. Miller says:

        Don’t you love having so much going on that you have to go back through them? (Nice excuse to do as much . . .)

        I’ve never really thought about it before, but yeah, I’d say unless it’s stated otherwise, the mental voice would default to male for them.
        That could get into a WAY bigger thing about gender roles in fantasy novels.
        Would probably make a good post.

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      • I’m used to reading my books after I finish them too. But now I’m working with an editor, so I don’t touch them after the first draft. I read through my 5th book recently and forgot several things that I put in there. I’m a terrible author in that I can never remember the details of my story. 😦

        I blame Smaug for the dragons.

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      • C. Miller says:

        I LOVE rereading them. I feel like that first run-through after writing is the first time I get to really enjoy the story. The second run-through is the first time I get to REALLY enjoy it (less things to fix/add).
        I couldn’t imagine only going through them the one time! How are you handling that?

        LoL, I don’t think that makes you a bad author. I know with me, I have so much stuff going on in my head that it pushes pretty much everything else out of it. (Did I just call myself a moron? I think so . . .)
        I think it just happens.

        You’re probably right with Smaug, but . . . I guess it makes perfect sense.

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      • It really is fun to reread and Book 5 is the only one I haven’t done that with. The thing that trips me up now is that I’m trying to publish 3 of them a year, so I write like a madman. I’m taking a break now to read 6-8 before moving on to writing Book 9. Shame though since I have some good ideas for 9.

        I have learned that I should look through only because I get lost when my editor asks about a certain area.

        I think you called yourself a busy author.

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      • C. Miller says:

        Isn’t it so frustrating when you have to do one thing but you really want to do something else?
        I have that problem with this a lot.
        You’re not going to forget those good ideas, right?

        How does your editor respond with you getting lost? XD

        I like what you said a LOT better. haha

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      • I have notes to help, but who knows what will happen. These are more interesting lines that I hope to fit into things. One benefit of the delay is I’m still trying to figure out the hero’s true power.

        My editor has fun teasing. 🙂

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  6. Bastet says:

    Liked your well thought out post here Charles. Can’t imagine why sound should be excluded in a story. The imagery necessary to create a world or whatever, if you not writing a 33 word flash fiction should try to get the reader into that world with all the senses … where possible obviously … now why don’t you write one about the sense of smell 😉

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  7. Sue Archer says:

    Hi Charles, thinking about sound in darkness reminded me of a time when I was roleplaying a rogue in D&D, and I was blinded through a spell. I had to try to fight while only referencing sounds. It was a really fun exercise, but very tough. Then I was paralyzed through another spell and could do nothing but listen to what everyone else was doing. I feel like I could channel that feeling of frustration and fear into a novel character someday. Enjoying your post series, thanks! 🙂

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    • I tried playing a blind swordsman in a D&D game once. It meant that I had to use Listen instead of Spot and was a mess as far as mechanics. Roleplaying it was fun because I had to be sure that my actions didn’t rely on sight.

      As far as rogues go, those are always fun to play when it comes to using various senses. Wish I used them more.

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  8. This is a great series, Charles, and wonderful tips. Description is not my strong suit, but of all the senses, I think I use sound the most.

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  9. M T McGuire says:

    Hearing and smell are the two most evocative senses for me, too. Great stuff.

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