How to Use Sounds to Affect the Character and Intrigue the Reader

by | Writing

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Jane K. Cleland’s article, “Whisper Sweet Somethings” (Writer’s Digest February 2018) sparked two ideas about sounds I want to use in my work in progress. Here’s how I received Cleland’s suggestions.

1. Tone Down Sounds for Greater Effect

image by Prawny

I think of how melodrama is less effective than more subtle reactions. This is true for responses to sounds. Cleland says, “Strident shrieking gets noticed; calm quiet gets results.”

This example came to me:

Loud: Mother came toward me, waving scissors over her head. “You think you’re so beautiful?” she screamed. “I’ll show you! I’ll show you!”

“Please don’t!” I yelled, my heart pounding.” She grabbed a strand of my hair. I shrieked as she hacked it off.

Quiet: Her face a purplish red, Mother came at me with scissors gripped in her beefy fist, her breaths snorting through her nostrils. “I’ll show you how beautiful you are,” she said in a low, guttural voice through clamped teeth.

I stepped back, my head shrinking into my cowering shoulders and my heart freezing into a solid mass. In sneaker soles coated with glue, I rotated toward the hallway that led to my room. She grabbed a handful of my mane, and my head jerked back. A sharp pain burned my scalp. Dull scissor blades rasped as they chewed my hair.

2. Force a Response Like One From Pavlov’s Dogs

Cleland writes, “You can produce predictable responses in your readers by using Pavlovian conditioning to generate certain specific expectations.”

In addition to the reader, this made me want to create a Pavlovian reaction in my main character. My blogs on wounds and strong females characters with wounds came to mind. We can set up early in the story sounds that occurred every time the wound-creating instances happened. Then we can use the sounds later to elicit the character’s automatic response when they hear those sounds.

image by RitaE

Here’s an example in synopsis form; reactions would need to be shown not named.

When Ellen was a preteen, her live-in uncle entered her bedroom drunk on many Tuesday nights. He’d lumber in right after the train rumbled through town a block away and its whistle blew at the intersection. As soon as she’d hear the whistle, she’d start shaking and whispering prayers that he wouldn’t enter her room that night. As an adult, Ellen lives nowhere near train tracks, but on a business trip, she wakes to a train whistle and starts shaking and whispering prayers, waking up Sally, her business colleague in the other bed.

We can turn this into a positive sound event. Ellen was always afraid alone in the low-rent apartment and couldn’t sleep with the arguing outside and the pounding on nearby doors. Daddy always came home minutes after the train’s whistle blew. Once she heard him close the door and turn the lock, she felt safe and drifted off to sleep. Adult Ellen is afraid in the motel alone on her business trip. Then a train whistle sounds and she falls asleep.

How to make sounds elicit strong reactions in your stories. Click to tweet.

What sounds or lack of sounds might work in your story?

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American Christian Fiction Writers

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