What Do They Hear?

Hearing is implicit in so many forms of communication that it is taken for granted. Yet using sound cues can spark up your prose, from simple verb usage all the way to evocative descriptions. I will point out some common ways that you can turn this sense to your advantage.

The easiest method is related to dialogue. While I’m not a big fan of substituting other words for the verb “say,” their occasional use can highlight the aural quality of what is being said. A statement that is “whispered” connotes either a desire for secrecy or an outcome of shyness, among other possibilities. That statement is much different if it is “shouted.” The tenor of the statement changes as well if it is “announced,” “muttered,” or “pointed out.” I am a strong believer in economy of words, and you cannot exercise more precision by selecting the right verb at times when you want emphasis.

Another fruitful area lies in the realm of fear. We all hear sounds that are distant enough that their import remains in doubt. That can, depending on how fragile the situation is, stir fears about what is about to happen. The same holds true for sounds that are strange to us. Hearing an industrial noise in a forest is strangely out of context, for example. The crunch of a boot when a character is hiding can be threatening. One very effective technique is the unexpected sound. The heroine can be running through an interior monologue of what might happen when a bluejay breaks out squawking nearby. For these purposes, what is heard can be more scary than what is seen.

One sphere where sounds can be valuable additions relates to a character’s interior state. What he hears can be a cue that either reflects his mood or contrasts with it. The eruption of a jackhammer or the screeching of subway wheels going around a curve can accentuate his hatred of his urban commute. For that same city dweller, the sounds in a forest—the sibilance of the wind, the burble of a stream—can be inserted during a sequence when they are feeling anything but calm. In these cases, the sounds are inserted accents that can serve as gauges to how the character is feeling at that point in the book. Precisely because they are off the point, in narrative terms, they provide a way to create further depth.

Exercise: Take your pocket notebook or cell phone with you on an expedition to record sounds. Merely by walking around, you’ll be amazed at the variety that you take for granted every day. Record them, with an eye toward where they might fit in your story. In particular, try to imagine how that sound could be used if you took it completely out of its present context.

"An essential element for good writing is a good ear: One must listen to the sound of one's own prose."
—Barbara Tuchman

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

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