Sensory writing – sounds, music

This article on sensory writing and sounds explains the relationship between writing and musical effects such as onomatopoeia. How can you write with sounds, and not just about them? Use acoustic effects such as rhythm and everyday onomatopoeia to help evoke sounds in your fiction world, create patterns, and heighten emotion. Here are some ways to develop your use of sounds in creative writing.

1. Writing IS music

Firstly, understand that writing is a kind of music.

So if you’re interested in writing, you’re already interested in the sensory world of sounds.

This is obvious with writing that’s meant to be read aloud, such as performance poetry or drama scripts.

To get a better sense of this, listen to a poet, actor or politician reading in another language. You’ll notice musical and acoustic patterns, even when you can’t understand what they’re saying.

However, music and effects such as onomatopoeia are just as important in other forms of writing, including fiction, marketing copy, and newspaper headlines.

They give the meaning a shape. And they usually make it clearer, and more striking and memorable.

This is a crucial skill for every writer.

Sensory writing practice:

Start training your ear.

First, take the UK ad slogan, “Go to work on an egg” (attributed to Fay Weldon).

Say it aloud a few times. Notice the sensory effect of the sounds that chime together in the writing:

The guttural on an egg
The repeated o sounds: go work on
The three stressed syllables: go work egg
The opening and ending stresses: go egg

There’s a lot going on poetically!

Then substitute words, one by one, eg:

Drive to work on an egg.
Go to town on an egg.
Go to work on bacon.

Meaning aside, what do you notice about the musical feel of these sentences?

Now, try saying the sentences with the syllable ‘la’.

Do any feel more satisfying than others? If so, why?

Write some new sentences of your own, using those rhythms.

2. Fiction writers and sentence music

Many fiction writers hear the music of their sentences when they’re writing. Often, music and rhythm even drives the flow of their writing.

Here’s Philip Pullman:

When I’m writing, I’m more conscious of the sound, actually, than the meaning. I know what the rhythm of the sentence is going to be before I know what the words are going to be in it.

I was excited to discover this, as it chimes with how I write, too.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s fiction, ad copy or a short blurb on a webpage. I always have a sense of where it’s heading, and know when the sentence is finished, as it sounds right.

It feels satisfying to your ear, and there’s a good match between meaning and sound effects.

That’s sensory writing with sounds in a vital role.

Sensory writing practice:

Train your ear to listen to the sentence music of writing.

If you don’t already read your work aloud, start doing this.

Notice your sentence length. Are your sentences, long, short, or a mix? Do you have lots of relative clauses chained together, or short, sharp sentences? What’s the effect on pace?

Look at sentence beginnings and endings, too.

Which sentences start with a stress on the first syllable? Eg

High on the hill stood an old grey house.

Which start with a soft or unstressed beginning? Eg

It was a dark and stormy night.

What about sentence endings? Are they stressed (masculine) or unstressed (feminine)?

This sentence ends with a bang.

This sentence ends with a whimper.

Now, write some examples of each kind of sentence. Use this practice to look at your paragraph and sentence endings and ensure that they land well.

3. Onomatopoeia – sound effects in writing

Onomatopoeic words are words that sound like their meaning. Favourite examples include: woof, quack, bang, crash, purr, thud, biff, whack, buzz.

Use words with built-in sound effects to evoke the sounds of your world.

You probably do this instinctively, to a degree. It would be hard to write a battle scene without onomatopoeia such as blast, crack, scream.

They’re powerful words, because they do a double job of evoking picture and sound at the same time.  

It’s equally hard to write about a snake without slither, hiss, slide, twist.

The words on their own don’t always signify “snake”, but collectively, all those s’s and aspirants evoke a powerfully snakey sound-picture.

Typical onomatopoeia like this is straightforward.

But if you want to go deeper, you can harness subtler onomatopoeia to create sound effects that ripple through your prose.

Take the verb “to walk”, for example.

What words might not only give a more specific description, but also evoke sound?

Trudge – slow voiced sibilance and an effortful short vowel. Sounds like hard work!

Skip – short unvoiced plosives – k and p – and a high thin vowel. Light, energetic and child-like!

Sensory writing practice:

Train your ear for everyday onomatopoeia. Onomatopoeia is hidden in so much of our vocabulary that we scarcely notice it any more!

Brainstorm or look up synonyms for walk. Read them out and listen for their subtle sound effects. What kind of speed, intensity and weight do they evoke? What kind of character? Write them into some sentences.

Then, take a passage from your work in progress, and highlight the verbs. Are their sounds congruent with the sound-world of the scene? Do they suggest languor or dreaminess, or excitement and dramatic action? Noise or quiet?

Make some substitutions and see what changes.

4. Do you write with music?

Some writers write with music playing in the background.

This can be great for evoking mood, emotion and a sense of place or history.

You could create a soundtrack of upbeat, driving music for a high-energy thriller, say. Or baroque harpsichord for a historical romance.

Or you might use music or sounds to put you into the right mood for writing. A relaxed ambient vibe, or natural forest sounds.

However, many writers can’t write at all with background music.

Here’s Philip Pullman again.

Knowing what the rhythm of the sentence is going to be … is a very important factor in the way I write. That’s why I can’t write with music playing.

Music has its own shapes and massive emotional power. So use it wisely and mindfully.

Sensory writing practice:

There’s no right and wrong here, so experiment. Try different music backdrops, natural sounds, and silence.

You may find music with lyrics and vocals interferes with your words, and instrumental tracks work better for you.

Like Pullman, you may find that background music makes it hard to hear the rhythms of your writing.

So, be assertive about the acoustic conditions that work for you. Just because some writers can work with heavy metal in their earbuds, it doesn’t mean you’re less of a writer because you can’t.

I’m a musician and also sensitive to sound. I often use ear muffs even when I’m on my own. It helps me go into the inward state of concentration I need for writing. And then I can hear myself think!

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