Friday, May 09, 2014

Did You Hear That? Showing Sound

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I love crafting scenes where my narrator can't see. I'm not sure when this developed, but quite often in The Healing Wars, Nya is either in the dark, locked away inside something, or otherwise deprived of her sight. I find it creepier to put her in situations like that, and it lets both her and the reader imagine the worst and helps raise the tension of a scene.

Sometimes it's perfectly fine to use "heard" or "sound," just like it's fine to use saw or look if that's what makes the scene work best (I've even had my copy editor put it back into the text when I've written it without it). But other times it reads as redundant, detached, or even told. There are only so many times you can write "the sound of..." before it sounds repetitive.

There are lots of options for describing sounds however, from a basic overall description, to a specific detail description, to a judgement description. What you use is up to you, and you can vary it as much as you'd like.
Option One: Bob heard the rifle shot seconds after the scream.
Option Two: Someone screamed, then a rifle shot echoed across the valley.
Option Three: Someone screamed. Bang! Bob tensed. Was that a rifle?
When to use one over the other is going to depend on what else is in the nearby text or how often you use them. If you only use one type, then the first option can sound more detached and start to feel told, the second can start to sound list-like and choppy after a while, and the third can get confusing about what's going on without more details. The trick is to mix and match and use what serves the scene best. You might decide to use "heard" to smooth the flow and take a narrative step back to provide some distance in one paragraph, then zoom close for an internal thought on another.

(Here's more on using onomatopoeia) 

When you write a sightless scene, imagine what sounds your character might hear. Just like you describe what they see, describe what they hear.
Footsteps tapped away, getting softer.

A chair squeaked, cloth rustled, and a soft thud, like a door closing.

Their voices faded.
One important thing to remember, is that your narrator is judging what they "see" even if they don't see it. They make assumptions and imagine what's going on out there. That gives you a lot of freedom to have them guess, which in turns conveys information to the reader.
Metal scraped across stone. Chains?

Footsteps tapped away, getting softer. A thud, like a door closing, then nothing. He sighed. They were gone.
Now, tastes will vary, but I love using qualifiers in these instances. Words like probably, like, as if, etc. Words that clearly state this is what the narrator is assuming about what they're hearing. (Juliette Wade has an awesome blog post about these kinds if words,).
Wood creaked and a wave of cinnamon washed over me, probably from the kitchens.
This works best if you've already established the things your narrator is assuming. If you've never mentioned kitchens, it'll probably make your reader think "Huh?" But if you've already seen or mentioned the kitchen in the story, it makes sense to refer to it. When the narrator has details to base the judgements on, it's reads like they're trying to put the pieces together based on the information they have.

You can also let your narrator internalize what they think.
Something large thumped in the other room. Bob tensed. A zombie? Sounded too loud to be a book.
This is a good example of where "sound" fits in very well. It's not the narrator telling you there's a sound, it's him making an assumption about the sound. The "sound" usage types you want to watch out for are the ones where you're describing that you're hearing a sound, a' la, "the sound of crying came from the other room" vs. "crying came from the other room." Crying is a sound so it can feel redundant.

(Here's more on POV and judgement)

You can also choose verbs that imply sound. Two of my favorites from my own work:
Waves sighed against the canal walls and hissed through the reeds growing along the boat launching ramp.
"Sighed" and "hissed" sound like water and conjure up the sounds. "Swished" is another good one for water. It implies that water sound.
It (chair) crashed against the wall and clattered to the floor.
I just love "clattered." There's something about that words that screams "hard, repetitive bangs" to me.

(Here's more on words that sound like what they mean)

Like any descriptive detail, strong, specific words add so much to what you're describing. Put yourself in your narrator's shoes and describe what the hear, not that they heard it.

What are some of your favorite sound words? 

Find out more about show, don't tell in my book, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

With in-depth analysis, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) teaches you how to spot told prose in your writing, and discover why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work. It also explores aspects of writing that aren’t technically telling, but are connected to told prose and can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory.

This book will help you:
  • Understand when to tell and when to show
  • Spot common red flag words often found in told prose
  • Learn why one single rule doesn't apply to all books
  • Determine how much telling is acceptable in your writing
  • Fix stale or flat prose holding your writing back
Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Brilliant post as usual!

  2. I've gotten stuck on this before too -- thanks for another bookmark-able post!

  3. I spent the last day or so reading through your old blog posts, bookmarking as I went. This post is another great demonstration of 'show don't tell' and sinking into the character's POV (and therefore not writing 'saw', 'watched' and 'heard' every page). I just thought I would share my appreciation.

    I may as well add that I love the accumulation of the Bob and the Zombies snippets; the story must be half-written by now!
    - Sophia.

  4. Thanks for the great examples. I tend to overuse "heard." You've given me some ways to avoid using it.

  5. Oh, good examples. Great post, I'll have to come back again sometime. :) Thanks for sharing!

  6. You've got a whole fiction writing course happening on this blog! This is another great tip.

  7. Nice post. But there was one thing here: "Footsteps tapped away, growing softer" looks weird to me, kind of contradictory. Becoming softer feels more like the opposite of growing. Or did I miss something here ... that happens from time to time >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  8. *squeals* Thank you for the help! ^_^

    I finally got The Shifter at the library and enjoyed it. I'm rereading it now and catching all sorts of fun details that didn't mean as much when I didn't know as much about the world, in the first read-through. I've preordered the paperback so I can pass it out to friends.

    I like a lot of things in The Shifter, but something that strikes me is how Daniello (sp?) is actually a wholesome character and is good for Nya. So many books have the girl attracted to somebody who they'd be better off fleeing. Daniello sounds like a guy I would've wanted to hang around, myself, when I was Nya's age.

  9. Most welcome! Thanks Carradee. Glad you liked it :) I like Danello, too. I've never been a romance reader, and I'm not one for the angsty teenager romance thing (nothing wrong with either, just not my cups of tea), so I tried to do a more subtle, "good couple" romance. I've never been a fan of in-fighting between character groups, and it always bums me when characters I love start attacking each other. Either that or I don't have a thing for bad boys? Hmmm...I am married to a classic boy scout type.

    Cold As Heaven, you're absolutely right about the growing away. That is an odd pairing. I blame writing this post at 7am.

    Sophia, one of these days I'm going to wrote Bob's story. I've done too much not to!

  10. On the other hand, Janice, using that kind of odd pairings can be a cool effect, if used with purpose and style, if you wanna express a feeling that pulls in conflicting directions ... I'm not sure, just wondering >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  11. I have no idea how you consistently deliver such strong posts. Thanks for sparking ideas in my head, it is greatly appreciated.

  12. Wonderful examples of using heard and sounds. Thanks for the great tips. Now to get busy and flex my writing muscles. :)

  13. Janice, I looked through and I think this is the post you were referring to, which contains my discussion of qualifiers. The article is called "Point of View: more personal than pronouns". It's at

  14. Thanks Juliette! Link is up. (And recommended for everyone to go read, too)

    Cold As Heaven, that's true. I did that with The Healing Wars. I loved the pairing there of two things that just seemed so wrong together, but they worked.

    Melisa, I have days where I'm at a loss as to what to write, but I usually look at what book I'm working on and something jumps out. And I have a lot of draft posts I make motes on every time I get an idea. And when I'm really stuck, I ask you guys what you're curious about. I love reader questions :)

  15. I like those ideas. I keep trying to work in sounds and such to give variety from the visual cues. Those suggestions for how to do so in a less clunky manner will help.

  16. Another insightful, brilliant post. Thanks.

  17. Hi ( i'm a huge fan of your book)
    i'm 13 and currently thinking about writing a book , i just want to know if you think writing a non-fiction book about how you can use your imagination to get rid of fear, relieve stress and make someone laugh is a good idea.I would really be grateful if you could answer me .

  18. Thanks Anonymous! I don't write non-fiction, so I don't know a lot about how to write or market it, but I will tell you what I've read and know. You might also try going over to the Absolute Write forums (the link is on the side under "important writing sites" at the top.) They have sections devoted to non-fiction with lots of folks who write and have published non-fiction who can be a lot more helpful than I can on this topic.

    Traditionally, something called platform is very important to non-fiction. A platform is the background, expertise, credentials, etc, of the person writing the book. People usually want "experts" on the topic if it's a how to type book as you describe. You'd have to ask yourself a hard question: Would an adult trust what a 13 year old has to say about relieving stress and fear over someone with a medial degree and years of experience?

    However, you might have a unique angle on a book that can help other people your age deal with their own stress and fear. Another 13 year old might be able to relate to you much easier than an adult telling them what to do.

    I honestly can't say here because I don't know this market.

    But if this is the book you really want to write, write it. You lose nothing by trying it. It will be a great learning experience and help you develop your voice and writing skill.

    Write what you feel passionate about, whatever that may be.

    1. Cool response. And to Anonymous, write on! The younger the better. Great topic--this from a former teacher.

  19. I'm not sure if you'll respond to this comment, but I'll try anyway and hope you at least read this:

    I agree that "clatter" is a great word. It's sharp and smooth at the same time. It reminds me of two dice clicking together, or a plate rolling on the wooden floor. I love touch and sound stimuli.

    However, had you read Pastword? Even though its protagonist was quite reactive (he left three-fourths of the way through the climax), the author's description and word craft, was good. But one peeve that popped up was the fact that the author used "clattered" one too many times, mostly in the first part. Minor, but a noticeable stylistic flaw.

    Moral: Compose a small list of sound verbs while revising, which I hope I'll get the time to type. :p

  20. CO, I read all the comments, and respond to most of them (some don't need a response of course). I always respond to someone who asks me something specifically :)

    I haven't read Pastword, but I've read books where there author used the same distinctive sound over and over. I'm sure I've probably done it myself too, though I try to catch those :) That's why I like to read the whole thing straight through over one or two days. You catch stuff like that a lot easier since it's all fresh in your head.

  21. Hello! Wicked cool post. And I love " clattered" too.

  22. Thank you for a lot of great examples! I try to avoid the "she heard" or "the sound of" myself, because they're often my go-to ways of describing sounds (same with "she could hear/see/smell/feel/etc. bla-bla)". I've been wondering about what words to use for sounds lately, especially for water, because much as I love "swishing", I need other words, too. I've especially been dithering over whether or not I'm "allowed" to make up words for sounds. I'm off to read the post on onomatopoeia next:)

    I agree "clattering" is a great word!

  23. Everyone else has already said everything, but I didn't want to leave without commenting when your post is so very timely. My current MC is a creature whose hearing is more sensitive than a human's- which means a lot of the time he's hearing things that are out of visual range, so I really appreciate the advice on using sound when a character can't see what's going on!