Words That Sing

Note: This post has been written in response to this WordPress challenge.


Writing isn’t all that exciting. If it were a movie it’d be a lengthy shot of me sitting there, looking into the distance, then a burst of typing, then a pause, then another burst of typing. The only noise would be the sound of the keyboard; perhaps you’d hear the hum of traffic or the occasional bird singing softly in the background. Imagine a Shyamalan style, slow zoom on a portly fellow with five day stubble, sitting at a kitchen table, hands forward, staring at the screen. Sure, it’d be slightly more exciting than Lady in the Water, but don’t expect it to break any box office records.

What I hear when I’m writing depends on my location. If I’m home, I’m listening to music, most often instrumental, or, as described above, I’m sitting in near silence. Music helps me create mood in my writing. When I write fiction, I’ll often ask myself, “What kind of of music would this character listen to?” I’ll scroll through my iTunes choose something to get inside the mind of the person I’m attempting to create. If I’m writing a scene involving anger or cynicism, perhaps I’ll choose Nine Inch Nails. If I want to portray a delicate, beautiful scene, maybe I’ll go with some Sigur Rós.

After typing this article, I’ve examined the way I use sound within a story and have found that it’s not something I employ regularly. Most often, I develop my settings with images–the way things feels, or the emotions they evoke. What does a bar look like? What is the teacher wearing? How does a painter perceive his or her own art? I’ve a memory from my college days when I woke up late one Saturday morning. I was a freshman and my girlfriend was a senior in high school back home. In my dream-like daze, I could smell her perfume. It was so real and made it feel as if she were next to me. As I opened my eyes, the smell faded, so I shut them again in the hope that it would come back; but as I awoke, the smell drifted out of existence. Scent, appearance, and touch have always been central to my descriptive modus operandi, so what about sound?

Lately, for the Nose, I’ve been working on some flash fiction. And the theme for this round is a loss of communication. For the majority of us, language is a spoken and therefore auditory sense. For my piece (next week), I took spoken language out of the equation and asked myself, what would we resort to if suddenly we found ourselves unable to hear? It would be disorienting in the same way that those who have regained their hearing often feel overwhelmed. Perhaps we would be overwhelmed by silence.

Some writers like to take a more indirect approach to describing the sound of language. They’ll add dialogue modifiers like “anxiously, nervously, shyly” in an attempt to give the reader a feel for how a character is speaking. Or perhaps instead of “said” they’ll write she hissed or he sneered or she laughed. But I am one of those people that believes these tags and descriptors should be avoided. The sound of a conversation, if a scene and dialogue has been developed well, should easily be inferred by the reader. The way a reader hears a story is less dependent on describing what is heard, and much more reliant on how an author uses description to evoke a sense of understanding in the reader.

Sound is perhaps the one sense that most consistently goes unnoticed. It surrounds us all day in everything we do, whether we’re sitting in traffic, reading at a coffee shop, strolling though a park, or browsing the shelves at the library. It’s everywhere. Mix its permeation with its intrinsic intangibility and it becomes something quite difficult to describe. Perhaps conversation buzzes softly while at a café, but isn’t “soft” a description of a physical attribute? We’ve abstracted it and can apply it to sound, but we’re basing that description on what we understand about the physical. We don’t understand sound in the same way as a bat, yet sound is how a bat sees the world around it.

The music I listen to most often when I write is either ambient or instrumental, evoking the feelings I need. The right tune can help me paint a picture with words. And this is exactly why I stray away from songs with lyrics. They’re too much of a distraction. I’ll get taken in by my favorite verse or chorus, and suddenly I’m jamming to music. So if I listen to Nine Inch Nails or Childish Gambino to set the tone for a certain character or scene, it’s usually during a break or part of my pre-game ritual. Then I turn it off and get to the rocking the page with word rhythms and beats. And “rocking the page” is an exciting description of an activity that is wholly not exciting to watch. But what keeps me on the proverbial edge of my seat, is developing a story that not only paints a picture, but also sings a song.


Steven E. Athay is an aspiring story designer and connoisseur of all things awesome. Follow him on Twitter at @steveneathay, or read his blog Afflatus.

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