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How To Describe Sounds In Your Writing

How To Describe Sounds In Your Writing

Creating an atmosphere and effective world building are both paramount when engaging your readers. And being able to describe the effect of sounds is important when writing a book. 

From bands such as Pink Floyd and Thin Lizzy, to artists and writers like William Wordsworth, Eminem and James Joyce, the use of sound writing to trigger emotion has been used ever since creatives began putting pen to paper. 

In this article, I will demonstrate how we can channel the effect of sounds in writing, and how it can be used to chime (sorry for the pun!) with the reader’s imagination. 

Sounds In Writing

Writing is about showing, not telling, so being able to use all five senses in a piece of writing is a surefire way to draw your readers into the story. And that includes sound.   

There are an infinite amount of words at our disposal to describe sounds in our work, whether it’s the sound something makes or the way someone says something. Everything from ‘mumbled’, ‘spat’ and ‘whispered’ to demonstrate how a person is speaking, to ‘shattered’, ‘splintered’ and ‘cracked’ to add a visual to a sound, helps to add emotion, character and/or tension to dialogue and prose

Good writers strive to create a picture in their reader’s mind so that the reader is able to see, hear, feel and imagine the same sounds the character is hearing – including tone, volume and intent. Through the use of effective sound writing techniques, readers should feel like they themselves have dropped that China cup onto a wooden floor, or that they’re in the same quiet room when the branch of a tree crashes through the window and sends glass flying in all directions. 

So how can a writer describe sounds in an effective way? 

Different Types Of Sounds 

The different types of sounds that can be incorporated into writing range from pleasing and melodic sounds, to mellow, brassy, banging or a jarringly insistent cacophony of noise. 

Writers can use these types of words and descriptions to create different moods (calm, suspense, tension, fear, overwhelm), pulling the reader into the story and heightening the atmosphere. 

Five of the most effective methods of using words and language to improve and enhance your sounds in writing are Onomatopoeia, Alliteration, Metaphors/Similes, Hyperbole and Assonance. 

So what do these five methods mean and how can they be used effectively to describe sounds in writing? 

Onomatopoeia

Onomatopoeia is the use of a word to imitate natural sounds. These words sound like the sound they are describing. Using onomatopoeia in your writing is a very effective way to add drama and punch to your sentence, and is used especially frequently when writing for children. 

For example: 

“I trod on the leaves and they crunched and crackled under my feet.” 

By using “crunched” and “crackled”, we are pulling our reader into the sensation of the dry and brittle leaves making such noises under the character’s feet. We are giving the reader the opportunity to recall how it feels to walk on dry leaves. 

“The wind howled and rattled at the window pane.” 

Again, the use of the words “howled” and “rattled”, personifies the wind, adding a more menacing touch to the sound of the wind outside. There is also an animalistic element to the word “howled” which, used in this context, helps the reader hear the loud, imposing noise of the wind as though it were a wild animal in pain. Again, this heightens tension and atmosphere and makes the reader feel as though they are standing in the shoes of the character.  

“The bird let out a screech, before flapping away.” 

The words “screech” and “flapping” in this sentence, capture the ear-piercing sound of the bird before it flaps its wings and takes flight. Again, like in the previous sentence, the use of the word “screech” carries frightening, almost monstrous overtones, as we imagine the shrill sound of the bird before flying away. The word “flapping” (instead of simply “flying”) conjures up the sound of the bird’s wings beating together. 

Alliteration

Alliteration is, put simply, when words start with the same letter and/or sound. An example of this would be “leaping lizards”, “fabulous flamingo” and  “wonderful whale watching.” 

Alliteration is about the repitition of sound. It creates a rythym and gives your writing an almost musical element. Poets very often use alliteration in their work, to enhance the sing-song sound as the work is read aloud.  

It is also a fun way of writing for children, especially with picture books that are often read out loud. 
 
The book Primrose, by Alex T Smith, uses alliteration really well. In this picture book we meet Primrose, a “princess who lives in a pretty pink palace and has a pretty pink tiara, two prancing pink ponies and a plump little pug named Percy.” 

Metaphors, Similes And Hyperbole

When describing sounds, sometimes it helps to compare them to something else using a simile or metaphor. Or, you may want to make an exaggerated comparison, using hyperbole to really drive home the tone of the scene. 
 
For instance, instead of simply saying, “She dropped the book on the floor with a bang”, you could say, “She dropped the book on the floor with a thundering bang loud enough to wake her dead mother next door.” 
 
It’s dramatic, but if this is the first sentence of your novel your readers would instantly want to know what was happening. That loud sound would make them sit up!

Assonance

Assonance is the repetition of the same or similar rhyming vowel sounds within a group of words. 

Here are three examples of assonance: 

“He was too cool for the new school as a rule.” 

It is the “oo” sound incorporated into this sentence,which matters, not the concoction of different letters. It makes the description soft and rhythmical. 

“He creeps and sleeps, like an old man in a deep trance.” 

In this example, it is the “ee” sound being used, that gives the sentence a certain resonance and elongates its delivery. It carries an almost easy, sleepy quality when said aloud, which fits in with the description of the old man being slow and sleepy. 

“His spitting lips and jutting hips”. 

It is the repeated use of the “i” in this description, which gives the idea of the man an almost whispering and soft sound. It is as if the spitting can be heard and the idea of “jutting” hips, is carried along by the extending sound of the “ju.”   

Assonance can give a piece of writing musicality, and emphasises particular words or vowel sounds that resonate with the ideas and themes in a piece of work or book. 

It is a sound writing technique which is constantly used by song writers, to enscapulate beauty, mood and atmosphere in their music. It also tends to feature heavily in poetry, where rhythm and sound are key. 

An Example Of Different Sounds In Writing

And how about a paragraph mixing them all up? You don’t want to do this too often, no one likes purple prose, but it can add drama and tension if used sparingly: 
 
So instead of saying, “His feet thud along the pavement as he ran past her” you could say, “He ran past her – a man with a plan. With each step he took the pavement shook as if it were a herd of buffalo running past, so loud the birds in the trees cried out in protest, the frantic flurry of their feathered wings beating a rhythm in time with his.” 
 
OK, this isn’t a great piece of writing, but you get the idea!

sounds-in-writing

Why Is Sound Important In Writing? 

The most important thing to ask yourself when considering sound in your writing is – what are you trying to achive? What mood or atmosphere are you hoping to create? What do you want your readers to hear and feel?  

Selecting the right sound word for writing, can make the difference between making a scene jar or joyful to read.  

For example, describing the sound of a wolf as having a “haunting howl,” is using alliteration to create an effective image and conjure up a sound which is both atmospheric and memorable. 

Describing a wolf’s cry as a “loud cackle” doesn’t make sense and fails to capture the real essence of what a wolf’s howl actually sounds like. This description, unlike the previous one, is neither chilling nor recognisable to anyone who has happened to hear an actual wolf howl. Using such a description in this way, would make the reader pause and possibly lose interest in the scene – unless your intention is to make the reader stop, re-read the sentence, and wonder whether the wolf is perhaps an evil witch in disguise! This is because a “loud cackle” is an effective piece of sound writing to describe the sound a witch would make. The word “cackle” has a raspy, edgy element to it. It’s similar to “crackle” and “shackle” – all words that are sharp, menacing and quite negative (don’t underestimate the power of the subconcious when using words that sound like others). 

Used effectively, sound writing and descriptions can paint pictures, trigger empathy and help the reader to get inside the mind of the book’s characters. By using effective sound writing in books, short stories or poetry, the writer is creating an immersive world for their readers. 

How Can Writers Add To Their Sound List? 

As writers it’s very easy to find ourselves using the same words to describe the same sounds. So how can we add texture to our work, and describe sounds in our stories in new and exciting ways? 

1. Take a stroll through different areas of your neighbourhood and note the cacophony of sounds that can be heard.  

Other than birds in the park, what else can you hear? Perhaps you can hear the distant sound of children playing, the scurry of small creatures in the undergrowth, the chattering of people, the squeaky wheel of a pushchair, the leaves rustling in the trees. 

What are you reminded of? How would you decribe each sound effectively or originally? Are the cries of the children in the playground shrill and piercing? Or are they distant and happy?  

What if you’re in a more urban area? What do you hear?  

The sound of car horns blaring, people shouting, the hiss of a teenager spraying a wall with graffitti, the clip clop of heels as a business woman marches by shouting into her phone. But these are all negative city sounds. If you want your reader to associate the same setting with something positive, perhaps you would describe the city having its own beat that the character is walking to, neighbours hanging over their balconies calling out greetings to one another, people laughing into their phones as they waltz by, the soft hum of traffic and the mix of music from different stores. 

2. Pay attention to the way authors implement their own sound writing.  
 
How are they able to capture the ringing tone of a bell so succinctly? What writing sound methods do they use? Perhaps they use similes and metaphors to compare the sound to other things (‘the bell chimed one singular time like Big Ben on the first hour of the day’). Or onomatepeia (‘the bell ding-donged once’). Or even alliteration (‘the brass bell binged and bonged’).  

How does their description impact on what a character might have heard? Why might an author have opted for that particular method of sound writing? Who is their audience and what genre are they writing? 

3. Let your imagination run wild. 

Listen out for how you can improve your sound writing. Play around with different techniques, mix them up, break the rules, surprise your readers – but never ever forget to immerse them fully into the story. 

Get Writing!

Have fun with writing sounds in your work. And remember, by absorbing and paying attention to everyday sounds around you, you will not only benefit your writing but also your readers’ enjoyment, bringing an extra, sharper dimsension to the work. And that’s something every writer wants to hear! 


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