Opening to Your Senses: A Series for Writers – Part 2: Sound

Did you love to read ghost stories as a child?  Do you remember how frightenedPainting Title_039 PSE CROP they made you feel?  When you think of those stories, what stands out for you?  Chances are there were a number of sound cues that contributed to the tension and suspense – the rattling of the window panes in the old mansion, the whistling of the wind through cracks in the walls and those heavy footsteps climbing the creaking staircase.  Sound cues may have been a tad over-used, but they helped ensure that  you wanted to sleep with the light on.

If the primary way we experience our world is through sight, sound is probablySINGING BIRD YELLOW a close second. One of the first sounds we heard was that of our mother’s heartbeat, when we were still in the womb. The repeated sound cues from our caregivers helped us develop language, and we learned to read the emotional tone in others’ voices at an early age. Descriptions of sound in writing tend to result in a visceral reaction in the reader.   

As adults, we’re surrounded by sounds every day, but tune out many of them.DSC01480  They exist on a continuum – from soothing and comforting to annoying and disturbing. Some people crave silence, while others are more productive in a noisy environment.  There is even an app called Coffitivity that reproduces the sound of a café so that people can surround themselves with the noise of a coffee shop when they work (or write) at home.

In this post I offer some exercises to help you develop a greater awareness of the sounds that surround you, so you’ll be better able to add descriptions of sound to your writing. I also suggest ways to use sound cues in your writing.

Exercise #1: Becoming Aware of the Sounds Around You

Many of the sounds around you exist just below your level of your consciousness.  The purpose of this exercise is to help you become more aware of them.DSC01611

Choose a two hour period when you won’t experience too many distractions. For the next few hours become aware of all of the sounds around you. Keep a small notepad handy, and jot down both the sounds and a few words to describe them.

Here are some examples: 

  •  the squeak of the bicycle wheel/sounds like the squeal of a puppy
  • the whine of the kettle/sounds a bit like a freight train
  • the washer filling/ sounds like a waterfall
  • the brown paper on a package being opened/rustles like dry leaves

After you complete the exercise, take some time to review your list.  Were you surprised to find that even the sheets made a sound as you made the bed?  Did you discover a new world of sounds you weren’t aware of before?  Try this exercise in a variety of settings – a noisy café, your local park, a shopping mall.   Your growing awareness of sounds will serve you well and you’ll be building a list of sound descriptors.

Exercise #2:  Sounds in Nature       

Take some time to look at the photograph to the right. Imagine that two hikers137 have just walked a wooded trail to reach this location – the calm pool where water collects before it rushes over Ragged Falls near Algonquin Park. You can hear the nearby falls from this vantage point. 

Jot down words to describe the sounds the pair may have heard on their walk in and as they rest, taking in the view; words such as crunch, snap, thud (hiking boots), and rustle come to mind.  When you have a list of words, do a ten minute freewrite about their experience using  as many sound descriptors as you can. Really overdo the sound description in this piece.  Of course, you would be much more subtle in your regular writing, but have fun exaggerating your description of sound just for practice.  You’ll end up with another list of sound descriptors, this one applicable to the natural world.  

Exercise #3: Adding Sound Descriptors to an Existing Piece of Writing

Select a scene from your own writing that would benefit from a stronger sense ofDSCN7873   setting.  Read the piece through once, then close your eyes and imagine yourself in the scene.  Focus on what you HEAR.  Are the sounds loud, shrill, subtle?  Jot down notes about what you hear, then add a few sound cues to the piece. Reread the scene and notice if these additions make the setting more vivid.

TIPS For Incorporating  Sound Cues Into Your Work

  • you can break up a long stretch of dialogue by bringing the reader’s attention to the setting with a sound cue.  Into a heated discussion between divorcing partners in a law office, you might insert the sound of final divorce papers rustling in the lawyer’s hands  
  • sounds can trigger past memories for a character.  The sound of a song onDSCN8603 the radio might trigger a young man’s memory of his departed mother, as he remembers how she used to sing that song around the house
  • sound cues can occur in a character’s inner thoughts. A young woman may notice that the scratchy voice of her internal critic resembles that of her fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Hornsby
  • a character’s dreams can contain elements of sound
  • sound cues can be used to convey a sense of silence.  Rarely is an environment completely silent.  Take, for example, a scene in which two characters are angry with one another, and have entered into a stony silence.  You might introduce the sound of the fridge humming – a sound that would generally go unnoticed, but looms large in this setting
  • sounds can tell us a great deal about what is going on in a character’s body.  An individual may hear their own heart pounding, or the sound of their lungs wheezing after climbing three flights of stairs

I encourage you to immerse yourself in your sense of sound, and add more sound descriptions to your writing. I’d love to hear about your experiences.

Until next time,



This is Part 2 of a six part series of posts intended to help you open up to the world of your senses, and add more sensuous details to your writing. To read Opening to Your Senses: A Series for Writers – Part 1: Visual  CLICK HERE.

Our next writing retreat will take place on Sunday, April 27, 2014.  We hope you can join us.

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All photographs and drawings in this post are by Janis McCallen 







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