Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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December 22, 2021

How To Use Sound To Make Your Writing Memorable

by Ellen Buikema

Capturing the senses lures us into the story, allowing us to experience what the characters hear, see, smell, taste, and touch.

The power of sound.

Sounds conjure strong memories. Deep vibrations from a bass guitar floating through the air from a neighbor’s garage band practice might bring a smile of great memories or bring out your inner cranky person. How the sound makes you feel is dependent upon the emotions behind past experiences.

  • Sounds are remembered better if paired with another sense, like vision or touch. Few people remember everything that they’ve ever heard.
  • Sounds form associations. If loud sounds are associated with something frightening they may be perceived as dangerous.
  • Sounds of music can boost memories and mood.
    • New concepts learned while listening to music are remembered longer than without music.
    • Replay the music in your mind or hum the tune while working, relaxing, stuck in traffic, or to enhance a boring activity.

Sometimes writers hear the rhythm, music of their work, as they write.

“When I’m writing, I’m more conscious of the sound, actually, than the meaning. I know what the rhythm of the sentence is going to be before I know what the words are going to be in it.”  Phillip Pullman

When reading a piece of fiction that feels effortless, it has good flow, or cadence. This comes down to sentence length, number of of syllables in each chosen word, and the placement of punctuation. All of this will lead you to read at the desired rhythm of the writer. Rhythm can be regular, like a lullaby, or varied to keep a reader turning the pages.

Rhythm is especially important when setting a scene and describing everyday life.

The following scene from Conqueror by Conn Iggulden is a good example of this type of scene and great has great descriptions of sound.

The Khan’s palace was lit with lamps that spat and crackled on the outer walls and gates. Inside, the sound of rain was a low roar that rose and fell in intensity, pouring as solid sheets over the cloisters. Servants gazed out into the yards and gardens, lost in the mute fascination that rain can hold. They stood in groups, reeking of wet wool and silk, their duties abandoned for a time while the storm passed.”

Ways to develop a sense of hearing in writing.

Sensory Writing Practice for Sound:

  • Listen for everyday onomatopoeia,like imitative harmony where the word sounds like the action, often used with animal sounds.
    • Use these built-in sound effects to summon noises in the environment.
  • Brainstorm synonyms for action verbs of your choice.
    • Read them aloud and listen for their subtle sound effects.
    • What kind of speed and intensity do they suggest?
    • What kind of character?
    • Example: Trudge sounds hard, slow, while skip is energetic. These verbs may be used to eliminate tag lines.
  • Write a paragraph using these sonorous verbs.
  • Choose a page from your work in progress, and highlight the verbs.
  • Are their sounds harmonious with the scene? Sleepy or excited? Loud or quiet?
  • Substitute verbs and note the changes.

Many authors use sensory writing well.

The following quotes are from writers who use the sense of hearing effectively.

From Jim Butcher, Furies of Calderon:

“She staggered forward, screaming and sobbing, bearing the torch aloft and certain that death was there for her, breathing softly, black wings rustling like those of the crows that waited, waited somewhere in the predawn darkness to sweep down on the eyes of the dead.”

From Anne Rice, Interview With The Vampire:

" And the harpsichord; that was lovely. My sister used to play it. On summer evenings, she would sit at the keys with her back to the open French windows. And I can still remember that thin, rapid music and the vision of the swamp rising beyond her, the moss-hung cypresses floating against the sky. And there were the sounds of the swamp, a
chorus of creatures, the cry of the birds. I think we loved it. It made the rosewood furniture all the more precious, the music more delicate and desirable. Even when the wisteria tore the shutters oft the attic windows and worked its tendrils right into the whitewashed brick in less than a year . . . . Yes, we loved it. All except my brother.”

From Stieg Larsson, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo:

“Her voice was as rough as sandpaper. As long as Blomkvist lived, he would never forget her face as she went on the attack.”

From J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire:

“The idea of being taught consideration by a man who had just blasted away half his living-room wall seemed to be causing him intense suffering.”

Whether it’s the tone of your mother’s voice, a bee buzzing nearby, or nails on a chalkboard, sounds evoke memories wonderful and terrible. Use them to engage your readers.

Interesting Facts about Hearing

Resource: 106 Ways to Describe Sounds in Your Writing.

What writers do well with sensory writing, particularly for sounds? Do you have any examples of writing using the sense of hearing you’d like to share?

* * * * * *

About Ellen

Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents and a series of chapter books for children with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Works In Progress are, The Hobo Code, YA historical fiction and Crystal Memories, YA fantasy.

Find her at http://ellenbuikema.com or on Amazon.

Image by David Bruyland from Pixabay

12 comments on “How To Use Sound To Make Your Writing Memorable”

  1. What a fantastic post! I've been teaching my (adult) writing students the importance of including the senses in their stories. Smell and sight seem easy, but sound not so much. Thanks for the wonderful examples.

  2. I am so glad that the post is useful!

    During the editing process, I search for sensory words. If there aren't enough, I add more to make a better scene.

    It must be wonderful to watch your students grow in their writing!

  3. Sound can be powerful in writing..I love the spat and crackled in your example from Conqueror by Conn Iggulden. Sounds like that immerse me in the place and time.Thanks for the reminder, Ellen.

  4. One paragraph I’d like to share is as follows:

    Biking at dawn in my narrow alley - I see men dressed in long dhotis running a neem tree twig in and around their mouths, spitting and making loud noises while clearing their throats. I hear roosters cocka doodling, pigeons guttar goo- guttar gooing, street cleaners sweeping aside used paper plates, dog poop and other junk. I also hear the ringing of temple bells and the singing of Bollywood music all working harmoniously somehow, to tune me into their environment. But, in the midst of all these sounds, Ma’s shrill voice is the most overpowering.

  5. Hi Ellen!
    Great article. Your examples were lovely. Many thanks!
    I struggled intensely with this concept while writing a first person character whose perception of the world was through sound in Harbor for the Nightingale. It was tough!!! But One of my friends blindfolded me and had me walk around for an afternoon observing the world through sound. That helped, but disciplining myself to write sound taught me even more.

    P.S.: I love that brilliant snippet of smell included in the first example.

    1. Ah, yes. The reek of wet wool. Ew. Powerful smell.

      Kathleen, what an incredible afternoon you must have had. Method acting for writing.

      What did you do to help discipline yourself to write sound?

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