Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Hear the Evil

The other day good chance brought me to an interesting blog post about sound, something that made me think about how we write about sounds.

As Rob points out in the post, we spend a great deal of energy getting rid of unimportant sounds in our world. Our brain is hard-wired for this task, and because of its hard work, the sounds that actually trickle into our conscious minds are highlighted for our attention. A sound might be attention-worthy because it's new and unusual, or at least something we haven't heard for a while. It might be attention-worthy because it's something we've learned is important. We've all had the experience of riding the bus and hearing someone else's phone ring--it's not worth getting worked up about unless the person has your same ring tone. You have habituated yourself to a quick response when you hear that sound, and your ears can pick it up even over the annoying chit-chat of fellow bus riders.

This has two effects on our perceptions of sound cues in fiction. For one, we automatically assume that a sound cue is meaningful. People don't reference sounds unless they really affect the narrative. If a character makes a noise, the reader will work hard to try to figure out how that noise changes the scene. As readers, we know that every sense reference is important, but because of our superior aural filtering systems (I think most people have very adept noise filtering powers, much stronger than our visual "ignoring" powers), sounds really pop for us.

Also, sounds stand out as more threatening. I'm not crazy here; we're hard-wired to be skittish about noise. Humans have weak night vision, and so night, our most vulnerable time, is also the time we have to most attune ourselves to our hearing. In the dark, every sound elicits a leery response. Every noise is analyzed for its threat quotient. When we force our readers to rely on auditory sense cues, we make them turn to their internal danger diagnostic and mull over their peril.

I think this is one reason why hearing is such an under-used sense in most fiction genres. Writers often limit themselves to auditory references that are linked solely with communication: sighs, grunts, purrs, groans. It's a method certain to keep readers in their comfort zones.

But what about writers who are eager to get their readers out of their comfort zones?

There is one genre that relies heavily on sound cues, and that's horror. There's a reason why haunted house stories are famous for their clanking chains and creaking floors: in real life, those sounds are actually scary. Writing them into our stories is one way to tap into simple, natural terror.

One way to take your creaks and groans and other eerie noises and give them a little extra mileage is to tinker with their placement in the text. Position your auditory references where your readers can't ignore them. Here's an example--a passage written with the same sentences, just reorganized.

I walked out to the front porch and realized night had fallen without my notice. The wind nudged the old swing, making it creak. Over the lawn, fireflies twinkled.

I could almost believe Mama wasn't dead.


I walked out to the front porch and realized night had fallen without my notice. Over the lawn, fireflies twinkled. The wind nudged the old swing, making it creak.

I could almost believe Mama wasn't dead.

There's not much difference in the two passages, but I personally feel as if the sound cue--the cliched creaking!--is played up by its placement at the end of the paragraph in the second variant. The first version of the exercise feels more tender; the second, a little more spooky. Maybe Mom's a ghost!

Of course, it's easy to think about silence and spookiness right now. I just spent four nights in the Quinault Rainforest, a place heady with dark clouds and darker forests. And I might be thinking a little extra about writing because I was on a retreat with a number of incredibly talented writers.

I can't say enough about the beauty of the last weekend, but I can say: it was a great place to start writing a ghost story. :D

(Picture stolen from John Remy.)


Miriam S. Forster said...

Ooo! I like this. I usually think smell is the most underused writing sense, but I might have to reconsider...

Wendy Wagner; said...

Hi, Miriam! I do think that you're right about smell (and taste, really) being the most underused. My hunch is that we typically use more hearing cues, but in fairly limited ways. In most pieces, I think the emphasis is to use sounds as a supporting cue for speech -- things like "his voice sounded," "I sighed, "her voice trembled" -- and less as a tool for setting.

Cate Gardner said...

Excellent post, Wendy. I'm now concentrating on the tick of my clock, the click-clack of my keyboard and the roll of my chair wheels.