Waves can roll gently onto a beach while the trees whisper in the wind, or they can roar and crack the driftwood when they crash. Adding sounds to any prose can make a scene feel more real. Sound is an easy element to forget when writing a draft because typically the focus is on setting the scene and dialogue.
Sounds can be subtle scene-setters, however, and often in editing or even in early drafts I now will always make a point to stop and think about what the characters would hear in whatever situation I’ve written for them. Aside from spicing up the narrative and making the scene feel more realistic, sounds can also step in to ‘show’ something to the reader instead of telling them.
For example, imagine a scene in a busy restaurant where two people are having an awkward conversation. Telling the reader that the character paused during an awkward silence at dinner which can work to get the point across, but it might be better to focus the scene on the silence itself with something like: she didn’t respond to the question, and instead focused on the jangle of the spoon hitting the mug like a bell ringing as she stirred the coffee.
Because we often associate sounds with our own memories, the second version of the same scene that includes the spoon jangling in the mug brings the reader into the scene more closely and also help them remember that moment in the scene more because of what was excluded as much as the sound included.
When I’m stuck in a chapter or feeling a sense of writer’s block, refocusing the writing to add in sound often helps improve the scene and help usher me into the next chapter. It’s a little trick that I’ve found to be helpful. I hope that this writing tip ‘clicks’ with you as well!
Setting the scene in writing projects helps transport the reader to the world they are reading about. I like to think that drafting out long descriptions of what a house looks like or what the characters look like then steals a little bit of the reader’s imagination. A reader brings their own view into the fictional world created by the writer, and it’s important to let the reader fill out some of the details in the scene themselves.
Details, and choosing the right details, shared about characters or locations provide just enough for a reader to transform themselves. For example, one thing that I make a point of doing in my writing is allowing the readers to determine what the characters look like. I trust the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks and to co-create the world that I’ve built for them.
That style grew from my own reading, where after a few details about reading about a character, I develop a picture in my mind about them. When additional details on page three or twelve then change that image in my mind, I personally get annoyed as a reader. I already knew what the enchanted cottage garden looked like with only the description of the beige limestone, slate shingles, and wild green garden that grew without any clear intention yet seemed purposefully designed (picture above, for example). Note all of the other details that I left out of my description on purpose.
When the writer then adds a long description about the type of gravel used in the garden paths and the specific flowers that dot the pathway, then my image is dashed as a reader. How authors describe characters and scenes I think probably has a lot to do with the types of books they enjoy and how much of their imagination they like to provide to the reading experience.
For my characters, I trust the readers to round out their images based on some carefully deliberated details. I don’t expect that the reader will have the exact same image in their heads that I do about one of the lead characters, Sam, for example. I describe Sam as someone who looks like a handsome outdoor clothing catalog model.
While some may say that this approach leaves too much for the reader’s imagination to fill in, I disagree. I think a writer’s job is to bring the reader to the the world and to introduce the characters with just the right details – then allow the reader to make the story their own. Trusting in that ‘team’ approach to writing is just one approach of many for setting the scene. The fun part of reading is being able to experience all the different types of writing styles and to discover which ones appeal to you the most.