To be an effective writer, one must be a student of their craft. And sometimes lessons come unexpectedly. Recently I enjoyed a paint night in our hometown. These are entertaining events hosted by an artist that leads attendees through creating a basic painting. I had already started one of a lonely, round hay bale laying in a mown field at sunset. I brought my reference photo, so I knew exactly what I wanted to put on canvas.
However, no matter how carefully I blended colors and applied them, the outcome resembled a preschool finger painting. Turns out there are methods to the art. Layering pigments like sedimentary rock. Applying a base, then lowlights, highlights, and timing of the application. How to properly mix colors, dip the brush, and stroke them upon the surface.
Writing is no different. You may have your scene’s movie reel spinning in your head, or be familiar with the emotions your character is experiencing, but if you don’t apply them correctly to the page, the result will be muddy and boring. Or as in the case of my hay bale, even juvenile.
Sound is an under-utilized aspect of our writing craft. I think of it as a special kind of brush stroke. Vision tends to be our most powerful sense and therefore is provided the most space upon the page. But highlights and lowlights render dimension and bring depth to our scenes.
In order to write about sound, you need to study it. Simply put, practice listening. So often, we skate across life like a frozen winter pond. Instead, we need to cannonball into it like a cool summer lake. To do so, one must stop and observe. One must listen. On the train on the way to work. During your morning routine. A veteran author once told me that writers perceive the world differently. I say not differently, but truly. Concentrate on what comes to your ears.
This morning before I wrote this article, I sat on our porch and closed my eyes. I heard the electric buzz of insects hitting the screen, the rush of air through leaves, the scrape of our dog’s claws as she settled next to my chair, the chirp, warble, and wail of countless mocking birds, cardinals, and sparrows, the splash of water over rocks, the rolling grind of a distant airliner, the droning whirr of a humming bird just outside our screen, and an occasional hum of distant tires on pavement. And there are always those sounds our brains take for granted. It takes practice to notice them, but these are the nuggets that can anchor a reader in your story. This morning, it was the liquid burble as I blew across the surface of my coffee. Why hadn’t I ever noticed that before?
Now, if I did my job right, you have in mind a generic image of my porch and back yard, but the majority of my description was sound. Think how vivid an image it could be if other sensory layers had already been applied.
And like any other art, application I key. Just because you hear something doesn’t mean you throw it haphazardly onto your page and Presto! Instant depth. Author David Poyer has repeatedly told me, “The first word that comes to mind is never the right word.” Good writing only looks easy to the reader. But we know it is difficult. Even laborious. Don’t waste your reader’s attention. Anything you place on the page should have meaning. It should flesh out characters, propel the plot, and enrichen the experience.
Put another way, don’t waste words.
“The hum of tires on pavement.” Really? Did you let me get away with that? Yawn. How cliché. Is your character feeling oppressed? Then try, “The grind of tires…” Maybe your protagonist is on the run through a forest from a wet team. She pauses in a ditch next to a lonely country road and hears the approaching growl of tires. Just by inserting a descriptive sound, we’ve reinforced the image of a predator and hinted that she sees herself as prey. Even if your reader doesn’t make the connection consciously, subconsciously it will carry meaning. Remember, good writing is hard work.
Much of this is applicable to other senses as well. Sight, touch, smell, taste, and even emotions. So practice. Jump into that lake, smell the musk of decaying leaves, squint at the moon’s glare upon the surface, feel the pinch of minnows nibbling your toes, and experience life as only a writer may. Then, put it on paper.