Sound is all around us but a lot of it we ignore because it’s unnecessary or irrelevant to what we’re doing. Sound in fiction can be the same and if we use too much we can make a scene confusing. This doesn’t mean we can’t describe a lot of sound, we might have a character straining to hear, perhaps listening for someone who’s following them, and they pick up numerous tiny sounds which can create tension and fear. Or we might put our characters into a very loud space and describing all the sounds can create that loud dizzying atmosphere. However, it doesn’t mean that every scene needs detailed description of sounds, particularly if it’s a sound that a character hears on a regular basis and would tune out. For instance, people who live near heavy traffic will hear the traffic but it won’t bother them because they’re used to it, but someone who isn’t used to it would find it incredibly loud and uncomfortable.

At the heart of it using sound in a scene is the same as any other form of description, it’s a matter of where, when and how much. Earlier in my writing career I know I had a tendency to over use the senses which made my work confusing for a reader because I was giving them too much information so I had to learn to scale it back. In doing this I did discover that sometimes those sounds we might usually tune out can have a place in description particularly in uncomfortable scenes where there might be an uncomfortable silence or a character is waiting anxiously for something. A clock ticking might be something a character would ignore but when they’re sitting there and time slows it can seem louder like when we can’t sleep and a ticking clock in the room suddenly appears louder than it might normally. We don’t have to say that it is louder we can simply mention that the character can hear the clock ticking and drawing attention to this detail can enhance an awkward pause.

At the other end of the spectrum we may have a character who can’t hear very well so we describe much less sound. They may have lost so much of their hearing they can’t hear the traffic until someone hits their horn. Or they be in a place that from the description of where they are we know the room next to them should be very noisy but they can’t hear the noise beyond the room they’re in so the absence of sound gives the reader information. Alternatively, we may have other characters reacting to a sound and our hearing impaired character reacts to the other characters reacting, not the sound itself. By doing this we can show their hearing loss without the old clichés of fiddling with hearing aids (which whine at a high pitch so people don’t tend to do that while the aids are in their ears) or having them yell ‘What? What? I can’t hear you.’ Not that it’s a pet peeve of mine, obviously.

So sound can be used not only by its presence but by its absence too. Once again though I can’t tell you precisely how much sound you should describe because there isn’t a fixed amount. But sometimes we need to over describe in a first draft so we can see where the sound works or where it doesn’t. Alternatively we may read something back and realise that we can add sound somewhere to create a pause or heighten tension. As with a lot of writing it’s simply a matter of experimentation.


For more writing advice see my Advice Page. For more on description see Finding Your Voice.

NOTE: Each article series comes in five parts published between Monday and Friday. Check back tomorrow for the next part.

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2 thoughts on “Selecting Sound

  1. Great stuff. One of the best uses of an absence of familiar sound is the opening of John Wyndham’s ‘The Day of the Triffids’:

    When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.

    (For an added sensory bonus the protagonist is blind at this point).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Absence of sound, as you write, can be an important element as well. Birds suddenly fall silent, the background noise of machinery or an idling car you don’t notice until it stops. The use of sound in writing can be used to engage the reader.

    Liked by 2 people

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