Using The Five Senses: Sound

Hey, SE Readers. Joan with you today with the fourth in a series of posts about using the five senses in writing. Today’s post is about the sense of sound. If you missed the first three, you can read them by clicking the following links:

It’s been said, “Silence is golden.” In reality, sounds are everywhere. Even if you’re in a quiet house without the noise of a television or radio, there are still noises. The humming of a refrigerator. The whir from an air conditioner. We’ve become so accustomed to these sounds, we barely notice. But if your electricity fails, you’ll discover how quiet your house is.

Like with the other senses using sound, or in some cases the absence of, can help convey a character’s emotions.

In the song, “I Think I’d Rather Be a Cowboy,” singer/songwriter John Denver wrote a line that I’m envious of. I don’t have permission to use the lyrics, so I’ll not quote them, but if you’re interested, I’ve provided a link (opens in a new tab). Read the second line of the last stanza.

In eleven words, he conveyed the narrator’s feelings. Songwriting is tighter than short stories or novels, but the impact on the reader (or listener) is much greater than pages of dialogue or narrative.

What’s the best way to describe a sound? There are pros and cons of using onomatopoeias. Done correctly, they work. If overdone, they can turn the reader away. The consensus is to limit the use of them in YA and adult fiction. Writers of children’s books can use them more frequently.

In a writer’s group I once attended, one member felt as if he needed to use onomatopoeias to convey sound every single time.  He often wrote things like tap, tap, tap, if someone was knocking at a door. For gunshots, we got bang, bang, bang or, or pow, pow, pow.

I understand he wanted to show and not tell, but there are times when it is better to tell. (Can’t believe I’m saying that!) Examples like those above seem amateurish when overdone. Why not say something like, “A knock on the door interrupted Cassie’s thoughts,” or “The sound of gunfire reverberated in the streets.”

In the examples I gave earlier, rustle, chirp, and crackle are all onomatopoeic words. We’ve become so accustomed to them that we don’t even notice. They convey the sound without being monotonous.

Sounds bring unique images to a reader’s mind and can put them in the middle of the story. Think about the different emotions your character as well as your readers might experience with these sounds:

  • A creaking floorboard
  • A dripping faucet
  • Wind rustling through leaves
  • The melodic song of a cardinal
  • The crackle of a fireplace
  • The roar of a tornado
  • The sound of gunfire

I’ve often heard that if someone loses one sense, another is heightened. In an episode of the television series, MASH, Hawkeye temporarily loses his vision. But during that time, his sense of hearing was enhanced. He talked of one world closing but an entire new one opening up.

Sounds can also be pure imagination. If your protagonist is walking alone at night in a dark forest, she might imagine hearing footsteps. Someone grieving for a lost loved one could “hear” that person’s voice.

Your turn. As a reader, what are some examples of sounds that invoke emotion? As a writer, what things have you used?

45 thoughts on “Using The Five Senses: Sound

  1. Pingback: Throwing SHADE at Your Sentences | Story Empire

  2. There are kinds of words to use for gunfire than pow and bang. Westerns have good usage as examples. Reactions from the character to sound is always helpful to underscore the sound too. Physical movement to the kick of a gun or something producing sound helps too.

    The line from the song is powerful.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. One of my favorite sounds is that of a train whistle in the distance, especially at night. It evokes so many emotions. In the spring and summer, I can hear that faraway sound from my home, and love it. Wind, surf, and rain are others that speak volumes for me. And the coo of a mourning dove. Actually, if I get thinking about it, I could probably go on at length, LOL.

    Excellent post, Joan.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mae, I love trains and hearing a train whistle. We can hear them from our house (tracks are about eight miles away). They’re more easily heard in the winter when the north wind blows. Mourning doves are wonderful to hear. And in the spring, Whippoorwills and the croaking of frogs… Yes, I could go on too.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. As a teacher, I call the boom pow wham words exaggerated onomatopoeia. I then help my students identify the more subtle form of the figurative language. I explain to them that the subtle words help to trigger memories they have of those sounds, thus reconnecting the reader with the moment. I love when a writer uses sounds in their stories, but only when it’s done in a subtle way. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  5. That line in John Denver’s song says SO much! I think in writing that sometimes sounds can be the most powerful tool we have to use. The examples you gave are great power words – crackle, creak, roar, rustle, etc. There is nothing that describes aloneness more than the sound of silence. It can be a good or bad thing, depending on the rest of the story. There are times, after keeping my grandchildren for hours, that I walk into my apartment and just sit soaking up the silence. 🙂
    Thanks for presenting this topic in such a great way, Joan!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Doesn’t that line speak to you? I’ve liked that song since I was a teenager but after I began writing, i realized how powerful it is. There are times when I want silence, especially after a stressful day at work. There’s a lot of “noise” in the world and sometimes we just need the quiet. So glad you liked the post.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Reblogged this on The Write Stuff and commented:

    Once again, it’s time for the next installment of Joan Hall’s wonderful “Using the Five Senses” series on the Story Empire blog. Today, she’s focusing on Sound, and I hope you’ll stop by and check it out. You’ll be glad you did! Then, if you would, pass it along so others can enjoy as well, thanks. And thanks to Joan, as well, for this reminder of how important the use of sound is in our writing. 🙂 ❤

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Another great post in a great series, Joan. Sound is very important in setting a scene or a mood. Picture a couple on a balcony watching the moon comes up when they hear the call of an owl and the bark of a fox. That places them in a very different setting than if they heard the honking of automobile horns or the blare of a siren, for instance. A woman alone in a cabin at night who hears the howl of a wolf sets the mood for something possibly dangerous or spooky about to happen. And I love Victoria’s comment, too. Losing one sense just means you focus more on the others, not that they actually improve in function. That happenstance in itself could make a good story, I think. (Don’t you just love the word “happenstance?” 😀 ) Thanks for this interesting and helpful series, Joan. Sharing! 🙂 ❤

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Great post, Joan. And I love that line about the absence of laughter. The sussuration (I love that word!) of the surf on sand is always an evocative sound for me. Yesterday, while sitting on our little patio, I listened to the wind soughing through the nearby bushes, and it sounded just like the sea breathing in and out. 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

    • Isn’t that a great line? It speaks volumes. Yes, waves splashing onto a beach is a lovely sound. Knowing your situation right now (and for many people), I hope we can take this time to slow down and pay more attention to things that we often take for granted. Sounds, sights, smells. Make something good come from this disaster.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I’d like to clear something up here: the myth about other senses becoming heightened if you lose one sense isn’t true. Speaking as someone with personal experience in that area, I can tell you that what actually happens is you learn to pay proper attention to the other senses, and not – for example – take the noises people with sight would usually ignore for granted. My hearing is no better than it was before I lost my sight, nor is it better than that of most people in general. I’m just better at paying attention to it, because I need to use it – along with my other senses – a little more, to compensate for the one I’m missing.

    Liked by 6 people

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