Sounds and Silence in Fiction

Sound Brings Fiction to Life

When I read a quote by Aaron Watson from the text “First Light: Origins of Newgrange,” my attention was piqued. Watson stated, “Sound brings the world to life. It can appear to fill spaces, create atmospheres, and have an intense emotive power.” While he was referring to the way one experiences sound inside the chamber of Newgrange in Ireland, spaces, atmosphere, and emotive power are just as riveting in fiction. A novel is silent—except when the pages are rustling—how can the author use sound to make the text speak more directly to the reader?

As I pondered how I was using sound in my writing, questions arose in my mind. Where is sound important? When is sound important? Which ones should I integrate? Who or what will make noises? How much or how little sound should I introduce into a scene? Is prose like music? To be effective, should a scene vary from crescendo to pianissimo to respites of silence? If so, how do I accomplish writing such a scene?

Imbuing Fictional Space with Sounds

Our lives are immersed in sound no matter where we live. For many years, my home was in a high mountain meadow bordered with evergreens. The nearest neighbors were acres away. I became very aware of the sounds of nature when I was outdoors walking, working in my garden, or riding my horse. Crows cawed in the pine trees. Owls hooted from the cliff at the back of our property. Insects buzzed around my ankles. On a windy day, the force of the air roaring down the meadow pounded the house like a living being. In one windstorm, I watched from the kitchen window as a massive spruce tree at the bottom of the meadow crashed to the ground, shaking the earth. In a downpour, the raindrops beat on the roof, while the lightening cracked, echoing up the meadow. When I was at the barn, I heard the tinkle of water falling into the watering tanks. The horses munched hay in their stalls. The clucking chicken chorus accented the backbeat quacking of two large Rouen ducks. The world around me reverberated with the sounds of life.

When I drove back into town to go to work, the clamor of honking cars, gunned motors, and car radios pummeled my brain. I couldn’t wait to return home in the evening to my mountain symphony.

Sound Creates Atmosphere

Setting is important when crafting fiction, but atmosphere rules. Setting refers more to the concrete descriptive aspects of the scene. Atmosphere is created through emotive descriptors that often have to do with sound. A scene with a riot would be meaningless without the author depicting the drone of an angry crowd, the pop of the police’s pellet guns, the roar of the arrival of a tank.

An entertaining scene with a live band in a music hall would require the sounds of instruments—the strum of a guitar, the beat of a drum, the distinctive voices joining in on the chorus. But the descriptors would change depending on whether the scene depicted folk, cowboy, or symphonic pieces.

In an intimate scene, even the sound of clothes might create an atmosphere. If the writer is depicting a mother hanging clothes on a line in the back yard, the terms snapping, tucking, swishing, and blowing in the wind come to mind. In a bedroom scene, the sounds may be more subtle: the rustling of the sheets, the soft swoosh of a nightgown dropping to the floor.

Generating Emotive Power in Prose

Selecting appropriate vocabulary to represent sounds that reflect an emotional valence is as essential in prose as it is in poetry. Happy family scenes might contain the sound of gentle voices, bubbling laughter, children playing hopscotch, the chirp of robins in the flower garden. An alarming city scene might be portrayed with the sound of explosions, gun shots, tires screaming, whistles, fire alarms, or the wail of an arriving police siren. A terrifying scene in nature might require the sound of a roaring flood, the crash of trees in its path, the rumble of boulders rolling down the riverbank.

On the other hand, point of view impacts the emotional impact of the sounds. If the protagonist is a thief who hears a police siren behind him, his reaction will be very different from that of the police officer. If a quiet family scene is disrupted by an explosion, the author will have to depict individual characters’ reactions.

Is Silence Just the Absence of Sound?

Sound is remarkable only in its relationship to silence thus a discussion of sound requires a conversation about silence. The properties of silence carry vastly different meanings depending on the situation in which they operate. Silence is the absence of sound, but silence may also signify absence, as in the sudden stillness within the eye of a hurricane or the absence of a loved one who has passed on. Because humans are accustomed to the sounds surrounding us, an unexpected silence is rarely comforting. We wonder what is happening: is the silence threatening? Do we need to respond?

Silence may mean simply an absence of most mechanical sounds, for example, the stillness that settles over a town when a gentle snowstorm is piling up two feet of snow. The subtle buzz of traffic disappears. No one is outdoors. If we are safe and warm inside, the world around us seems peaceful.

On the emotional level, silence may imply a lack of communication—someone pouting or someone not wanting to discuss an issue. Or on the darker side, it may indicate nefarious control, if someone is shushed, or muzzled, or forbidden to speak.

In a description of a character, silence can be used to differentiate but also to hide what the character is feeling. A quiet character might simply be still when others are speaking. She may be a deaf-mute or she may be angry. Silence may even create tension in the plot if a usually voluble character is suddenly reticent or speechless.

Another use of silence would be to depict a meditative state. When I meditate, the sound of the gong seems to echo in my mind as I seek to center myself in silence. Meditation has taught me that my internal voice is very noisy. One way to seek internal silence is to simply be present to the external sounds that are almost always audible. A loud noise in the middle of a meditation retreat would definitely disrupt the scene, while mellifluous flute music in the background would be calming.

One of the most beautiful examples of sound interspersed with silence to create an emotional state is Il Silenzio, a song usually played as a trumpet solo. Il Silenzio was written as a commemoration of the liberation of the Netherlands during World War II. The notes and pauses of the melody intertwine with the listeners’ awareness of the finality of the silence of all the individuals who died in World War II. My tears flow freely whenever I hear it. Because it is played on a trumpet, listeners are also keenly aware of the interplay between the player’s living breath and the trumpet’s mechanical vibrations. My goal as a writer is to recreate through the alteration of sounds and silences a similarly deep experience for my readers.

Writing Goals for 2020

This year my writing goals are to:

1. Continue to refine my first two novels, working on two chapters of each per month with the goal of submitting them for review:

In December, I continued to revise my first novel. I still need to strengthen the main points of storytelling: point of view, structure, language, the characters’ motivations, and to make sure my story is appropriate for contemporary audiences.

I also wrote another chapter for my second novel.

2. Complete a draft of my third novel by December 30, 2020 by participating in the RMFW NovelRama:

In 1992, I began a novel. When I reread the draft of this love story recently, I decided to pick it up again. I am planning to use my participation in NovelRama 2020 to work on it. In NovelRama writers attempt to write 25,000 words in four days. I am hoping RNFW offers three NovelRamas again this year. If I could write 75,000 words over three NovelRama events, I would be off to a good start on reinventing this old project.

3. Document my writing progress through my blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2020:

Today is January 7, 2020, I am posting my first blog of 2020. I plan to write one blog per month this year, posting each one on the seventh.

In December 2019, I laid out a plan for my first six blogs of 2020. I look forward to exploring new topics as challenges arise in my fiction writing.

4. Continue to develop a network of kindred spirits in the world of writing and publishing:

In December I attended the Denver Woman’s Press Club holiday party. Over dinner, members were encouraged to read aloud flash fiction stories (up to 250 words) about our Christmas memories. For the first time in my life, I read aloud my own creative work to a group of writers.

On December 29, Gary McBride presented a recap of the past reading selections in our Boulder Writers Alliance writers’ group. Because of Gary’s diligent work on contemporary writers, I have learned much more about arch-plot structure.

Beginning in January 2020, I will begin serving as Vice President for the Boulder Writers Alliance which gives me the opportunity to contribute to the organization instead of just benefit from it. In December, the president, outgoing vice president, and I met to discuss the transition.

 

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