Enhanced hearing

Is there really silence in a scene you’re writing?

We’ll often write that there was a silence, often between two characters or when someone is listening out for something, but is there really silence? Are we outside or indoors? Is there a clock in the room? Any passing traffic? You should consider these things in order to keep your reader in a scene.

If you wrote there was a silence when your characters are standing on the hard shoulder of the M25, it would be difficult to believe. There can be silence between them (neither speaking) but the background sound should be passing traffic.

I had my ears syringed a while back (excess wax build-up after the winter … in case you wanted to know) and the resulting clarity of sound was remarkably enhanced. Every click, tick, and shh of speech was noticeable and there were sounds I’d forgotten I couldn’t hear: birdsong outside when I’m indoors; the prolonged tonal note of two glasses clinked together; water going down the plug hole, the rustle of my own clothing.

It set me to thinking of the importance of sound in the world and the importance of nuances of sound in a story — not just the sound itself. How long does the dying note of two glasses clinked together go on for — what effect are you seeking if you use this sound? How different are the sounds of clothing depending on the material worn — and why would it matter in a particular scene? Is the water in the plughole gurgling or slurping — and what might that tell you about someone’s plumbing, and why would you be telling it?

It’s the small things that create setting and place and make them believable rather than the more obvious, such as birdsong outside, the wind in the trees, cars going past. There are many more sounds that we subconsciously pick up, but don’t often notice, in our surroundings; the more obscure sounds that can lend reality to a scene.

Sounds alter depending on atmospheric conditions. Foggy days can make sounds muted and a thundery day makes them crisper and closer. Do you remember what it sounded like outside when you woke up to your first deep snowfall?

Don’t forget, using sounds in your story might be purely for setting the scene and giving the reader a picture of where they are, or you might be using sound as clues to what is going on in a scene or in a character’s thinking. You still need to ask yourself why you are using a particular sound as well as thinking about any other element you’re using in a scene or story.

What are those little sounds that tell you where you are, the ones you don’t usually notice or remember but ones everyone will identify with? I’ll start you off with a few suggestions but it’s up to you to listen to sounds around you and remember them.

  • The sound of a dropped purse
  • The prolonged tonal note of two glasses clinked together (how long does it go on for?)
  • Sycamore seed casings (or conkers, or fruit) falling to the ground on a windy day
  • The distant whine of a power saw heard from a field in the middle of nowhere
  • The shuffle of feet under a dining table you are sitting at
  • The almost inaudible click of dentures when a wearer of them is talking
  • The tick of a timer switch plugged in somewhere nearby
  • The whirr of a CD player kicking into life

Try writing 50 or so words about any sound you hear. Try describing it and putting it into some sort of context.

Don’t forget Chekhov’s advice:

… every element in a story must be necessary, and irrelevant elements should be removed; elements should not appear to make “false promises” by never coming into play.

This is why you need to think about every element you put in your story. What does it mean to the story and how are you going to use it and why?


Characters: what does one character know that another doesn’t?

truth jigsaw

They say the camera never lies, but it never tells the whole truth either. You think you can see what’s real but there are all sorts of things you can’t see just beyond the frame of the photograph and beyond the moment when the photograph is taken. That happy smiling person you can see may have troubles in their life that you know nothing about, that idyllic scene may have mountains of rubbish and a power plant just out of shot making it a nightmare wasteland instead of a beautiful landscape.

There is always something missing even in the fragments of our own lives – we can never know the whole story that makes up any truth. It is only as we perceive things at the time that we make our own truths.

Truth is made up of many fragments and they are all subjective. Your truth is not my truth. My perception of things is not your perception of the same things.

It will be the same for our story characters. What one character understands as the truth won’t be the same as another character’s understanding. This leads to conflict and misunderstanding.

If everyone presumes that another person knows something that is known to all the others no one thinks of telling that other person. Consequently when that other person finds out what everyone else knows it can come as a shock to them and alter the way they see things and what their subsequent actions and reactions will be.

You need to ask yourself ‘what does one person know that another doesn’t’, ‘how does that character find out what the other person/people know’, and ‘what happens when they find out’?

This might be a bit of a philosophical discussion but you need to have it when writing your characters to make them seem real.


Show Don’t Tell: Describing emotion

Woman wiping her eyesHow often have you read something like: ‘He felt embarrassed’? or: ‘She started to cry’? and not really felt the emotion yourself?

When was the last time you started to cry because a character in the book you were reading started to cry? Have you thought about why you felt the emotion strongly enough that it touched something in you?  Continue reading

Making your characters believable: Body Language

Body Language

When you watch other people you don’t always need to be told what their relationship is with each other or what that relationship is like — you can see it in their body language, their eyes, and hear it in the way they speak to each other.

Using descriptions of body language in your story shows your reader what is going on between two characters rather than telling them. It helps to create an emotional response in your reader, which reflects the emotional responses your characters are experiencing.  Continue reading