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DESCRIBING SOUND

At various points in this book we have discussed the virtue of "engag­ing the senses" in fiction, including the sense of sound. The aural aspects of description can be the most compelling and inviting to readers, and yet many writers overlook sound, probably because it can be so difficult to convey accurately. Sure, we can write of the "splash" of water or the "rustle" of leaves or the "roll" of thunder or the "squish" of mud; these sound-words are familiar to readers, easily heard. It's the subtler sounds—a cat walking over gravel, a basketball banking off the backboard—that challenge our powers of description. Can we duplicate those sounds without writing gibberish?

Well, sure. We can even make up words if we have to. Get up and go to the nearest door. Open it and close it a few times. What does the door moving back and forth over the carpet really sound like? The sound is probably something like a huff or a shuff or a hoof or a thuff. If you're in a cavernous room with no rugs, the sound might be brighter and sharper: clack or crick or crock or quick. Are all these words suitable for describing the sound your character hears when his sister-in-law enters his study? Probably not. It depends on the prose that precedes the sound.

If you've written this story in straightforward, traditional prose, then a made-up word to describe a sound might feel false. For example:


Lyndon leaned over his papers, staring out the window into the dark. He worried about Annabelle. She didn't trust him; he could see it in the narrow blue eyes, the suspicious curl of her lips whenever she condescended to speak to him. He spread his hands over the papers, protecting them. Then he heard her step in the hall, and the shuff of the door as she pushed it open.
In this passage the word "shuff" is at best puzzling and at worst confusing. The prose is too straight-laced (which is not to say bad) to support the sudden entrance of a made-up word. But what if the sound of the door is important to the scene? Perhaps you could find a more conventional word:
. . . She didn't trust him; he could see it in the narrow blue eyes, the suspicious curl of her lips whenever she condescended to speak to him. He spread his hands over the papers, protecting them. Then he heard her step in the hall, and the door whisper­ing open.
In revision the sound of the door opening is a "whispering," which is a conventional, accessible sound-word that describes not only the opening door (probably swinging open over a carpet) but the general unease of the main character, who is deep in thought, and worried. The "whisper" is perfect, the "shuff" distracting.

What if you were to write the same passage in more inventive, imagistic prose? Now the word shuff feels natural:


Lyndon leaned over his papers. Night covered the open windows like a grainy cloth: impenetrable, opaque, vaguely dirty. He worried about Annabelle. She didn't trust him; he could see it in the hooded slits of her eyes, the suspicious slope of her lips whenever she condescended to speak to him. He spread his hands over the papers, protecting them. Then he heard her step in the hall, and the shuff of the door as she pushed it open.
In this version the prose leading up to the word shuff is plumped with simile ("like a grainy cloth") and various other images ("hooded slits," "slope of her lips," "impenetrable, opaque"), allow­ing the made-up word to stand unprotested. Although one style is no better than the other, each has its own intrinsic rules. You don't wear a tweed blazer with a chiffon dress, and you don't use words like shuff in conventional prose.

And what of those other, simpler sound-words—those splashes and rustles and squishes? Good prose includes familiar sounds: the crack of a bat, the flutter of wings, the roar of the wind, the shatter of glass. Horses neigh and nicker, cats yowl and mew, dogs bark and whine, birds twitter and cheep. Fires crackle, bombs explode, cars roar, houses creak. This is the way ordinary people describe the world, and there is nothing wrong with these ordinary sound-words. They belong in good prose, just as the ordinary but necessary verbs to be and to have belong there. You'll find great satisfaction, though, in periodically replacing these conventional sound-words with some­thing a little more inventive, just as you sometimes replace familiar verbs. One entertaining way to transform sound is to literally mix up conventional sound associations. Horses neigh and houses creak— can these sounds work in reverse?


Harriet lay in her great-grandmother's bed, exhausted. How many crates of knick-knacks and dishes and doilies had they packed today? Twenty? Fifty? She had long lost count. She stared up at the ceiling and saw her childhood as clearly as a scene revealed in a flash of lightning: the way she used to follow the cracks in the ceiling, waiting for sleep, soothed by the soft neighing of this ancient house.
And:
The next day they checked out the barns, and were aston­ished to find a horse tethered to a fence post, a heap of bur­nished hay piled up beside him. "Who's this?" Harriet asked, and the horse seemed to respond, unhorselike, with an odd creaking that came from the back of its throat.
Reversing the sounds in these two passages is quite effective. The house takes on a personality of its own, and the horse becomes some­thing more than a horse—a creature with something to say. Is the horse ill? Lonesome? Hostile? That "odd creaking" could mean a lot of things, and the readers are suddenly standing at attention.

One last thing: Don't worry about getting kicked out of the writ­ers' union for using a thesaurus. A thesaurus is a wonderful (striking; marvelous; fabulous; wondrous; etc.) resource for finding new ways to describe sound (or anything else, for that matter). Suppose you want to describe a bird's nest falling out of a tree during a windstorm, and the only word you can think of for the sound of impact is "thump." The word doesn't seem quite right; the nest is too delicate to make a thump. In the thesaurus under "thump" you find the following synonyms: beat; pulse; throb; flutter; hit; slap; poke. Not quite. You look up the synonyms for the synonyms. Under "throb," for example, you find these possibilities: tick; flutter; tremble; tingle; thrill; twitter. Nothing there, either, except that the word "twitter" reminds you that the nest is full of twittering baby birds. Now you want a word to describe two sounds at once: the falling nest and the agitated birds. Look up "twitter": tremble; thrill; quaver; quiver. Nice word, "quiver." You decide that maybe the thump is right after all, as long as you add other nuances of sound to the description of the falling nest:


John braced for the worst gust of the morning. He looked up just as the air began to roil. High in the willow, a burgeoning nest quivered briefly in the wind, then twittered to the ground and landed with a thump at his feet.
"Twitter" as a verb for motion rather than sound ("the nest . . . twittered to the ground . . .") is apt, for it accurately describes the visual teetering motion of the nest while suggesting the sound of the birds. "Twittered" (rather than "plummeted" or "fell") suggests the lightness of the nest in the windy air, leaving the word "thump" as an entirely appropriate sound-word to describe its final drop to the ground.

Sound-words are best used sparingly. Most of the time a simple description of the source of the sound is enough: "She heard the cat outside, walking over the gravel." No sound-word needed—and each reader hears something different.





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