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Friday, May 9

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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