Enhanced hearing – is there really silence?

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?