Tour of the Five Senses: Sound

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Today's the last stop on our Tour of the Senses: SOUND. I'm also guest-posting over at Fantasy Faction about trends for debuts and genre books. Check it out!

So...sounds. They can be beautiful and uplifting beyond words—a symphony, a baby’s laughter—and they can be creepy as heck—a creak on the stairs when you’re home alone, lonesome wind howling through a dark forest. Today, we’re tackling how to weave all these “did you hear that?!” details into our writing.

Sounds Don’t Happen in a Vacuum
When a tree falls in a woods, you bet it makes a noise…and the birds around it fly away, making noises of their own, while a startled squirrel begins chattering and the branches continue to settle against the forest floor. One sound can trigger another. It also can trigger action and influence feeling beyond the obvious ways. Think about the percussions during a loud concert or a fireworks show. The sensory experience goes beyond simple sounds to a feeling of thudding in your chest or a dulling of your hearing. When you add sounds to a story, don’t let them stand alone. Think about what comes before and after.

Drive Narrative Description through the Sound, its Volume or Both
Describing sounds is a great way to convey setting and mood. A honking horn tells us we’re near a busy city street. The whistle of an arrow not only says, “uh oh, run!,” it also tells us a little about the world around. We’re in a place where arrows are used instead of other weapons, and we’re apparently surrounded by people who know how to use them.

BUT, don’t forget that ordinary sounds also can speak volumes through their…well, volume. What if the honking horn comes out as nothing more than a squeak? Or, the whistle of the arrow grows louder and louder until it ends in a deafening explosion? That’d change things a bit, right? We’d know more about those individual worlds. A loud whisper can convey panic or carelessness. And in romance, sound sure ain’t the only sense working overtime whenever there are “soft explosions” going on! Have some fun with it. Surprise us!

Switch it Up: The Absence of Sound
Imagine your characters are deaf (permanently or temporarily). How does the scene change for them? What other details rise to the top? How do their other senses compensate? This is a way to slow down and focus the action, to build toward a moment of panic, or to kickstart some character growth by depriving them of one method for understanding their world. It can be terrifying and vulnerable, and also make for some very powerful writing!

Okay, time to add a little soundtrack to our examples:

Lovers at the Beach
I couldn’t see the stars, not directly, but I didn’t know how seeing them could possibly top their reflection in his eyes. His skin was slick, smooth and hard, though tender enough to give where my fingers caressed. His lips still held the salt of our swim. Its pucker on my tongue sent memories cascading through me like the waves and the heat that had driven us under again and again. He smelled of sunscreen, salt and sweat, but there, beneath all that deliciousness, a deeper more hurtful flavor took shape. The taste of goodbye.

To this day, whenever I hear the ocean, I think of his voice.

Were-Bats Attack!!
Something fluttered in the night. Wings. Not quite feathers. My throat tightened. I drew a soft, swift breath through my nose. The scent of decay and clove. “They’re here.” It came out shaky. By the time I finished, there was no longer a need to whisper. Dozens of leathery wings rustled all around us, punctuated by high-pitched keens no human or animal could ever make.

I saw them. Dozens of them. Winging at me with their little claws out—furred, like a bear’s, not feathered. And then all went black. Omigosh, had one of them landed on my FACE? I tasted iron. Blood, at the corner of my mouth. That would attract them. I spat before it could fill my mouth and curdle my already panicked stomach.

My hand grappled in the night, found something that felt like lace spun in a consistency of dead things. It sunk in when I pressed hard, and I stifled a cry of horror.

Looking for SIGHT, TOUCH, TASTE and SMELL? Find them here.


  1. So glad to see those were-bats back again :D

    Sound is a great way to add atmosphere to any scene. And yes, if you hear an arrow whistle, start running!

    Great post ^_^

  2. Yeah, I like to use the absence of sound a lot to help build tension. Why no bird song? Why is no one talking? That sort of thing.

  3. There's always a reaction to sounds, or a ripple of more, like an echo.

  4. Great post! I think sounds probably come in second to sight of the senses used the most in writing.

  5. A very well-done series! Kudos to you!

  6. Nice series. Sound is by far my favorite to describe.

  7. Fantastic post. I'm very sensitive to sound. Keen ears. It bothers me that I have so many friends that have their sense of hearing dulled by years of ear bud/phone use!

  8. As you've demonstrated, sound can really create atmosphere in writing.

  9. I love the recommendation to use ordinary sounds in a different way! Such a great idea! Also reminded me of a neat trick I read in Donald Maass' latest writing book, where you pretend your character is mute and can only communicate by body language (okay, so that's not sound, but its the opposite, but still a good exercise)

  10. Miss Cole - Were-bats are classic. :)

    L.G. - Yes! It builds strained tension so perfectly.

    Alex - I like an "echo" as a way to describe the aftereffects of sound on everything around it.

    Cherie - Yup, it's pretty key.

    Jeff - Thanks so much! Glad you enjoyed it.

    Miranda - Thanks! Sound is definitely fun. There are so many possibilities.

    Christine - Yikes! That's cool you have such great hearing...not so cool for your friends with the earbuds. :)

    Lynda - Thanks!

    Margo - I love Maass' exercises! You name a fantastic one. Really great for getting action into a scene as well.