9 creative ways to smoothly write about sound

Reading Time: 12 minutes
write about sound

As an author, you have the magical power to create new worlds, creatures, and people. You can make your story come to life when your speak to the senses. Sight, touch, and taste can provoke strong emotions when stimulated. Yet one sense, in particular, comes with feelings, memories, and hidden messages all in one. Here is how to write about sound.

Writing about sound often triggers memories tied to an auditory experience. Those memories are then filtered through the present-day situation, bringing past and present closer together. Sounds and word cues stimulate the auditory cortex, which tends to evoke memories. Music on the other hand stimulates the temporal lobe, which tends to evoke emotions.

Including sounds or melody is easy when you are making a movie, but it becomes more challenging when it’s in writing. Fortunately, there are ways you can write about sound, and stimulate your reader’s feelings and memories. Read on to find out my 9 favorites.

1. Make clever use of synesthesia

Have you ever heard of people that taste chocolate when they hear Beethoven, or see the color yellow when they whistle a happy song? This is a unique experience, called synesthesia, and can be used perfectly in writing.

Synesthesia comes from the Greek words synth and esthesia, meaning together and perception. By having one sensory experience, another one is automatically triggered as well. It is estimated that 1 in 2.000 people have synesthesia, and 1 in 300 experience a slight variation.

write about sound

Although you might not have experienced this yourself, you see the condition is fairly common. So why not play with it? Let us have a look at this scene from Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story.

The Grassy Ocean behind the Silver Mountains was many days’ journey from the Ivory Tower. It was actually a prairie, as long and wide and flat as an ocean. Its whole expanse was covered with tall, juicy grass, and when the wind blew, great waves passed over it with a sound like troubled water.

Ende uses a visual experience in this scene and combines it with sound. This already creates a powerful scene because you do not only hear the water, you also see the grass wave just like an ocean. To me, this already is a form of synesthesia, but let us see what happens when we actually apply it to this scene.

The Grassy Ocean behind the Silver Mountains was many days’ journey from the Ivory Tower. It was actually a prairie, as long and wide and flat as an ocean. Its whole expanse was covered with tall, juicy grass, and when the wind blew, great waves passed over it with a sound like green troubled water. Hearing that rustle evoked a salty taste on Atreyu’s lips.

You see, small combinations can increase the experience. Although I do not think this piece needs it. 

2. Add personal adjectives 

Are you tired of writing that your character sighed, exclaimed, yelled, or even whispered? Me too. It just gets boring so quickly, and it does not make for a good read. The general rule is to use said, but too much of that annoys me too. 

 I enjoy J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter for example… but the said, said, said pulls me right out of the story sometimes. Just have a look.

 “Mmm,” said Harry, wishing he could say something a bit more interesting.

 “I say, look at that man!” said the boy suddenly, nodding toward the front window. Hagrid was standing there, grinning at Harry and pointing at two large ice creams to show he couldn’t come in.

 “That’s Hagrid,” said Harry, pleased to know something the boy didn’t. “He works at Hogwarts.”

 “Oh,” said the boy, “I’ve heard of him. He’s a sort of servant, isn’t he?”

So how can you make sure you do not torture your reader with that? Simple, use personal adjectives. It will tie the experience of sound to another emotion or feeling. Saying somebody’s voice sounds as gentle as the soft fur of a newborn kitten gives it another layer. It sure beats whispered.  

For J.K.’s scene, it might look something like this:

“Mmm,” said Harry, wishing he could say something a bit more interesting.

“I say, look at that man!” The words slithered out of the boy’s mouth, like an oozing ale out of the riverbed. He nodded toward the front window. Hagrid was standing there, grinning at Harry and pointing at two large ice creams to show he couldn’t come in.

 “That’s Hagrid,” Harry boomed like an exciting kid getting cotton candy at the fair. He was pleased to know something the boy didn’t. “He works at Hogwarts.”

 “Oh,” said the boy, “I’ve heard of him. He’s a sort of servant, isn’t he?”

As you see, I did not go in there to change every said. I would remove some and adapt the sentences to flow better, but that would not work for an example. But when you decide to use this in your writing, I want to point out that the magic is in moderation. Using this too much only makes for a tiring read. We do not want that, do we? 

3. Write about sounds to show the environment

When your character walks through New York, it is a lot easier to describe that with sight than with sound. It is simple to write about the skyscrapers, the bright neon light, and the sea of people flowing through the busy streets. 

It does paint an immediate picture, but you can also show it with sounds. Think about the endless beeping of taxis, the hum of people talking on their phones, and the hissing of air vents.

write about sound

Experiencing one’s surroundings takes up all senses, not just one. So sound becomes extremely powerful when you want to tell something about a place or evoke a feeling. Just look at Ende’s scene. The sound of troubled water makes it both sound tranquil and rough. Raw nature. See how expanding on that sound can tell you even more about that place:

The Grassy Ocean behind the Silver Mountains was many days’ journey from the Ivory Tower. It was actually a prairie, as long and wide and flat as an ocean. Its whole expanse was covered with tall, juicy grass, and when the wind blew, great waves passed over it with a sound like troubled water. Sometimes it was the only sound you heard for days. But now a big, bald bird screamed as it flapped its wings to propel over the field. The high pitch traveled for miles, but still reached Atreyu’s ears at full volume.

If you want to write about a desolate area, I figure this would be a good way. It tells you so much about what is going on in the area. The field is so quiet, for example, that even animals rarely make a peep. That is why the bird’s screech stands out. The sound travels for miles, so there is nothing around. You are utterly alone in that field. Yikes.

4. Describe your character’s inner world

There is more to sound than meets the…well… ear. It can also tell you a lot about the inner world of a character. The sounds we hear do not always come from the outside. Sometimes it’s a buzz, whisper, or scraping sound in the back of our heads, that occupies us most. Often a foreboding of something amiss. 

Let us see what that would look like in our scene.

The Grassy Ocean behind the Silver Mountains was many days’ journey from the Ivory Tower. It was actually a prairie, as long and wide and flat as an ocean. Its whole expanse was covered with tall, juicy grass, and when the wind blew, great waves passed over it with a sound like troubled water. Atreyu could hear the rustling of those green blades, even though he was miles away. He looked out of the window in the Ivory Tower in silence, but he would swear that the prairie dogs were howling just down the hall. The quiet of the tower sounded deafening. He missed home.

And just like that, we find out heaps of information on Atreyu. He is somewhere he doesn’t want to be. He is homesick. But most of all, he experiences different kinds of silence. His idea of peace is not the absence of sound, it is the sound of the grass rustling and the dogs crying. 

Inner sounds are a beautiful way to show what a character experiences or goes through. In one of my short stories, skin hunger, I write about a person with a mental illness. His inner world plays a huge part because it distorts his view on life. Hearing things that are not there is more common than you might think. It certainly makes writing more interesting.  

5. Use sound effects to heighten emotions 

Sound effects are amazing. They have such a big impact, that even the silent movies back in the day had pianists playing along in real-time to set the vibe. Hearing the right things at the right time can heighten the emotion that you are already feeling. Just watch this clip as an example.

As Nerdwriter perfectly demonstrates in his video, movies are experienced more intensely through sounds or even the absence of them. The same goes for writing. Using the right effects at the right moment can increase tension, happiness, or drama. Let me demonstrate:

The Grassy Ocean behind the Silver Mountains was many days’ journey from the Ivory Tower. It was actually a prairie, as long and wide and flat as an ocean. Its whole expanse was covered with tall, juicy grass, and when the wind blew, great waves passed over it with a sound like troubled water. Atreyu stood in the middle of it when he heard the crunching of the grass right behind him. The noise of scraping metal told him all he needed to know. He hissed as he ducked. Not again. 

Now compare that with this:

The Grassy Ocean behind the Silver Mountains was many days’ journey from the Ivory Tower. It was actually a prairie, as long and wide and flat as an ocean. Its whole expanse was covered with tall, juicy grass, and when the wind blew, great waves passed over it with a sound like troubled water. Atreyu smiled and closed his eyes for a second. He heard the ladybirds hum, while the sun shone on his face. He pursed his lips together and started whistling his favorite tune. Today was going to be gorgeous.

When you have trouble imagining how you can incorporate sound, just turn on a movie, close your eyes and listen to how the story is told. What noises would your character hear? In other words, do not write that Marion stands in the shower and suddenly hears eeeek eeeeek eeeek as a murderer with a knife jumps her.

What you might want to do is play with the mind. Not all sounds are real, some are imagined or misinterpreted. Did your character really hear those footsteps? 

6. Single out one sound to create tension

Have you ever been in such an extreme situation, that everything around you seemed to fade away and only one thing popped out? Well, I have. Let me tell you, it is intense! 

For me, it was when I drove down a frozen road, next to a ravine. A car in front of me was doing some crazy antics so I had to hit my breaks. I was still young and had never driven in such conditions before. Of course, my car slipped on some black ice and started spinning. All the sounds ceased to exist. No radio, no heartbeat, no cursing, only absolute silence. That, and a voice in the back of my head, telling me to release the wheel. 

Thinking back on that incident, it is clear to me that my brain chose just one area of focus. It went into some sort of tunnel vision to increase my chances of survival. Luckily it succeeded. 

Having the knowledge that your brain can do that, will help you in your writing. Turning the focus on one sound can help you single out a certain mood or emotion. It helps you build tension. Let us take our scene as an example.

The Grassy Ocean behind the Silver Mountains was many days’ journey from the Ivory Tower. It was actually a prairie, as long and wide and flat as an ocean. Its whole expanse was covered with tall, juicy grass, and when the wind blew, great waves passed over it with a sound like troubled water. But it wasn’t the rhythmic rustle of the grass that Atreyu heard, it was the sound of his heartbeat pounding hard and fast. He caressed her lips with his fingers, and the blood rushed through his ears even louder.

7. Use a little onomatopoeia 

Onomawhatnow? Onomatopoeia. It’s a gorgeous word that can best be explained as the boom, bangs, and pows in comic books. In other words, it’s describing the sound that something would make. This is cool because it can be a verb all on its own. A simple word as pop can tell you a whole lot.

write about sound

Now, I can hear you think, that might work in comic books and cartoons, but how can that possibly work in writing? Let me show you.

The Grassy Ocean behind the Silver Mountains was many days’ journey from the Ivory Tower. It was actually a prairie, as long and wide and flat as an ocean. Its whole expanse was covered with tall, juicy grass, and when the wind blew, great waves passed over it with a sound like troubled water. Clang! Atreyu jumped at the sudden sound behind him. He gasped for air as he turned around.

I must admit, I am not the biggest fan of onomatopoeia. A good description and a good build scene can build enough tension on their own. Using words such as bang or boom can lure you into lazy writing, but it works for some stories and styles.

 So if you want to bring your story to life a bit more, and pack your action scene with a punch, try it out. The beauty of writing is that you can also cut out the words that do not work. We are blessed!

8. Use it as a description

In our daily life, sound gives us a lot of information that we process without even thinking about it. You will be able to determine the direction where the sound comes from, roughly estimate the distance, and determine the source, when you hear well.

When you speak to a person who is slowly becoming deaf in one ear about how that feels, you might hear stories of becoming overwhelmed and panicked. They have problems focusing because all information suddenly enters their brain from one point. They get disorientated, cannot single out a voice in big crowds so they become shut-in, and they feel overwhelmed because suddenly they are far more aware of all the audible sources around them. 

I can recommend talking to a person about their experiences, or even walking around a whole day with one ear plugged. That way you will experience how much you unnoticedly process and what assumptions you make based on that. You can use that in your stories, to have your character guessing, estimating, and assuming away. A lovely trick if you want to play with your reader a bit. Let me show it to you.

The Grassy Ocean behind the Silver Mountains was many days’ journey from the Ivory Tower. It was actually a prairie, as long and wide and flat as an ocean. Its whole expanse was covered with tall, juicy grass, and when the wind blew, great waves passed over it with a sound like troubled water. Atreyu wrestled with the ropes around his arms when he heard the heavy thud. Then another one followed, and another one. He might not have been able to turn around, but he knew what was coming. The weight behind those thuds, the way the earth shook, could only mean one thing. And that wasn’t good. Not at all.

When you use sound to guess, assume, or even hint at something, keep in mind that it only works if you leave the important details out. Do not say that the door swung open with a shriek, but let your character question that. Was it the door she just heard, of something far more sinister? That is also fun to play with when you want to be an unreliable narrator. 

9. Mix it up

As you have seen, there are various ways to incorporate sound in your writing. The fun part is that there is no one right way. Some things work for you, while other things work for me. It does not only depend on the writer but also the story, tone of voice, and narrator. 

One thing I can say for sure, though. If you will only use one technique, mentioned above or not, your story will become dreadfully boring soon enough. Your text will become choppy and might feel unnatural. Which is something you should avoid at all costs. So how can you fix that?

The best way to write about sound is by mixing various techniques such as descriptive writing, synesthesia, and incorporating sound effects. That way the writer can make a conscious decision on what information the reader receives, smooth out the flow of the story and focus the attention elsewhere if needed.

In other words, mix and match. Let me show you what that might look like one more time.

write about sound

The Grassy Ocean behind the Silver Mountains was many days’ journey from the Ivory Tower. It was actually a prairie, as long and wide and flat as an ocean. Its whole expanse was covered with tall, juicy grass, and when the wind blew, great waves passed over it with a sound like troubled water. But the woosh that Atreyu heard now, didn’t come from the wind. He tilted his head and pursed his lips. Woosh. There it was again, faint and far away still, but heading towards him.

It almost sounded like a little kid who placed his lips on the rim of a cup of soup that was way too hot, trying to blow away the steam. He gasped. ‘The dragon.’ The words that tumbled from his lips were so soft and faint, that one could have mistaken them for a loud exhale, but Atreyu was alone. Alone in an open field with a dragon heading in his direction. 

In conclusion

Even though reading is a visual experience (audiobooks not included), it is more than possible to stimulate all the senses. This will not only help the reader relate to your story, but it can also create suspense and call upon emotions.

Luckily there are various ways to write about sound and sound effects. Find the one that matches your style, genre, and story. Follow your gut. You got this! 

Other sources: Sound SouvenirsNature, The Great Big Story 

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