Auditory Sensory Details

Anne Vallayer-Coster,  Portrait of a Violinist

Anne Vallayer-Coster, Portrait of a Violinist



Sound is critically important in writing. A world that is rich in visual detail but has no sound in it will still feel flat to a reader, like a place made of beautiful paper cut-outs.

Even our culture's strongly visual media, like movies and television, recognize the impact sound can make. The tone of the actors' voices, the ambient sounds of the settings, and the sound track laid in alongside the visuals contribute greatly to the context and depth of the action and dialogue. Try watching a film clip with the sound turned off, and then watching it again with the sound on. How much difference did the sound make in your emotional response? That's how much difference sound can make in your writing. 

Sound happens when vibrations are transmitted through a physical medium, are captured by our ears, and are interpreted by our nervous systems into meaningful messages. Usually the medium of transmission is air, but water can also carry sound vibrations, as can solid objects--consider the cliche of the old western scout putting his ear to the ground or the railroad tracks to listen for approaching horses or trains. Try knocking on a table, then lay your ear against the table's surface and knock again. What is different about the sound? 

Remember, too, that our own bodies can conduct sounds, including the internal sounds our bodies themselves make, such as the beating of our hearts.

Sound can be described in terms of its qualities, such as: 

  • pitch - how high or low a sound is
  • intensity - how loud or soft
  • duration - is it a quick, sharp sound, or a long, smooth one?
  • timbre - the richness and complexity of the sound
  • rhythm - are there repeating patterns in the sound?
  • harmonics - is it a pleasant, melodious sound, or chaotic noise?
  • distance - how far away the origin of a sound seems to be
  • direction - where the sound seems to be coming from 
  • reverberation - is there an echo?

Another way to effectively describe sound is through the use of figurative language. Similes that draw comparisons to sounds most readers will have experienced can be effective: it roared like thunder. So can onomatopoeic words (words that make the sound they represent) like sizzle and splat.

 A lot can be revealed about characters by how they experience and react to sound in the story. Remember that the quality of an individual person's hearing is not always constant. In times of stress, hearing might be sharpened--though the extreme stress response of fight / flight / freeze / or fawn, can cause hearing to be deadened (a phenomenon called auditory exclusion).

Hearing is also frequently sharper when vision is obscured or limited, such as when a person is wearing a blindfold, or when there is no light. People with visual impairments often have a more highly developed sense of hearing than average. Some people are just highly sensitive to certain frequencies of sound and can find everyday noises uncomfortable, or even painful.

Have you considered making one of your characters hearing impaired? How will that affect the character's interactions with other characters and with the world in general?

One of the most obvious places where the auditory sense comes into play in writing is in the dialogue. Whole books have been written about dialogue and how to make itsound right.  Dialogue must sound natural (which is not the same thing as being identical to real speech), and flow smoothly, and carry a characteristic voice that is authentic to the personality of each character. When it doesn't, readers notice, and will complain that itsounds wrong. 

And really, if you think about it, the act of writing is, itself, the act of encoding spoken language--auditory sounds--so that another person can decode it later and "hear" what the writer has to say. Reading flows more smoothly when the writing follows natural speech patterns. And the cadence of the written word can help create a desired mood. This phenomenon is put to good use in poetry, but can also be used to enrich prose. 

Here's an example that incorporates several techniques I've touched on here. The music is partly described directly in terms of pitch, tempo, and rhythm, but the description also includes some metaphorical language such as the "pulse" of the drum beats and the "wailing" melody of the flute. When the dancing starts, the text itself carries a subtle rhythm created by the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in the words themselves that makes the text feel like dancing.

“As the night deepened, and the feasting wound to a close, a low, throbbing pulse of drum beats worked its way through the hum of conversation. Another drum joined in, higher in pitch, and faster in tempo. A third drum began to beat a counterpoint, and the villagers started clapping in rhythm with the building cadence. A flute laid a thin, wailing melody atop the thrumming beat, another added a twining harmony, and slowly, dancers began to weave their way into the circle of light that pooled around the bonfire. 

It began with the men, heavy boots keeping time with the drums, stomping and turning, shuffling and sliding, forward and back, as they circled the fire. The women joined in, bending and swaying to the music of the flutes, gliding and stopping, pivoting and stepping, in a circle that revolved in the opposite direction to that of the men. ”

— Amy Beatty, Dragon Ascending

Careful crafting of the auditory aspect of your story, both in the descriptions of the story world and in the auditory experience the words themselves create for the reader, can give your writing an added level of richness and depth.