The Importance of Sound in Fiction

Hearing is a very singular sense. It isn’t based on chemical responses like every other sense. It’s purely mechanical. In some ways, this makes it a lot less subjective than any other sense. But that’s never stopped people from arguing over what something sounds like. That’s the nature of humanity, though. Isn’t it? We could legitimately argue with each other about anything.

Hearing can trigger a lot of responses. The genre that does the best with this sense surely must be horror. Something can get very creepy very quickly if a character is home alone and hears breathing. Or footsteps. Or a voice, God forbid. Sounds are very obvious in films, of course, but they have to be done with a light hand when you’re writing. You have to set the scene without being too in your face. This should be reserved for shocking noises. Gunshots and screams. Loud cracks of thunder. Things that are meant to be jarring. These kinds of noises are good for getting your characters and readers’ adrenaline going. And that has its place. But if it’s overused, it feels cheap. So use it sparingly. Do it for me. Do it for the readers.

But don’t underestimate the power of the soft noises. They’re as good at setting the scene, if not better. Less shock, more awe(some). The subtlety can work in a variety of ways. The sound of rain on a tin roof makes you feel comfortable. The sound of your lover’s breath can excite or soothe, depending on the context. Wind through the trees can make your hair stand on end. The sound of branches breaking or footsteps can be eerie, to say the least. The sound of music in your novel can illicit any response you want it to. It can be exciting or relaxing or sad or sexy. Whatever your little heart desires.

You can also use sound to set a scene for yourself. I tend to do this a lot. A lot of people don’t like to use music with lyrics because it’s kind of distracting. Which I totally get. I recommend finding a style of classical that works for you, including movie or game scores. They’re designed to illicit emotional responses without being too distracting. Philip Glass scores are a personal favorite. As is Danny Elfman’s Serenada Schizophrana. But if you find that still too distracting, they can get a little complex after all, perhaps use a white noise app? Or even better, use I can’t even begin to tell you how much I love Ambient-mixer. You can tailor it to whatever scene or genre you’re writing. I have a favorite mix of rain on a tin roof, the sound of typing, low rolling thunder,  a crackling fireplace, the sound of waves, and a cat purring. It’s quite lovely, really. Here’s the link if you want to give it a listen.

While hearing seems obvious, it doesn’t have to be. If you keep sounds quiet and low-energy for the most part, it makes them a lot more sustainable. Use loud noises for impact, but don’t overuse them or you run the risk of making your work more shock than awe, which isn’t what you want. And remember to pay attention to sounds in your life. For a writer, no experience is ever wasted. Don’t ever forget that.


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