Writing Reality: Sound Effects in Writing

25/11/2013 at 05:45 (Poetry, Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


When writing, do you speak aloud the words that will form your sentences, to know them for sound as well as structure?

As Capote quite rightly said, “the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the music the words make.” There are a good many comparisons to be drawn between writing – both verse and prose – and music, most notably in the techniques used to establish rhythm and rhyme.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve wrangled with the latter in particular for years, to the point of actively abandoning it for a length of time while writing poetry in my teens. We’ve probably all been there at some point, guilty of wrestling a word down, beating it into shape to suit our intended message. But the result will only ever sound forced. This applies to both poetry and prose; too often, I’ve read my own work aloud and found a sentence / paragraph in dire need of rearrangement, because it didn’t “sound right.” Words didn’t click together where a smooth or beautiful image was my intention; likewise, a scene fraught with tension could have used more staccato sounds indicative of the mood.

Below are a few linguistic sound-effect techniques which I’ve returned to recently – learned in English Language, and perhaps overlooked while writing prose as opposed to poetry, which was my primary creative outlet for some time. It’s quite easy to overlook sound-imagery when a particular genre (in my novel’s case, YA drama) doesn’t tend to be vocalized. Speeches, scripts, adverts, poetry, lyrics, phonetic picture books aimed at children, are more likely candidates.

But this doesn’t mean the mind can’t automatically register a word in its “silent” form, particularly with relation to life experience. In the case of onomatopoeia, “we read not only with our eyes but also with our ears. The smallest child, learning to read by reading about bees, needs no translation for buzz. Subconsciously we hear the words on a printed page.” – James Kilpatrick, Listening to What We Write.

For sensory involvement in text, onomatopoeia is a great way to transport the audience “live” to a scene, without going overboard on lengthy descriptions. Words are used which imitate the action, object or concept they refer to – the rustle of leaves, the hiss of a snake or wheeze of a bad cough (and of course, cough itself is another example.) Farmyard picture books for children, with the animal / industrial sounds displayed in bold letters, are a classic example of onomatopoeia. They are a delightful way of putting words, their relative sounds and animals, into context.

Comics and graphic novels have used onomatopoeia to great effect over the years, with emphasis on character actions:

thwip

and scene events, for enhanced audience involvement:

trwoa

It could be argued that these words will change in relation to the language used, and therefore lose their onomatopoeic value – but as Cornelia Haase points out in her Oxford Dictionaries blog, it’s the initial phonemes used which will round up the differences: “A French rooster says ‘cocorico’ and an Arabic-speaking one will sound something like ‘kuku-kookoo’. Whereas the vowels differ in these examples, all of them contain a plosive (/k/). Once again, this is the quality of the sound produced by a rooster translated into human speech: loud and piercing.”

“From the moment he entered it the wood seemed full of noises. There was a smell of damp leaves and moss, and everywhere the splash of water went whispering about..
Roosting birds rustled overhead; the night breeze stirred the leaves…” – pg 34, Watership Down, Richard Adams.

In this excerpt, onomatopaiea and consonance are used to convey the unsettling motion of the woodland; the wind ruffling rabbit fur, shifting leaves; the fluttering of birds. All are disturbing to the rabbit’s peace, out of their secure home and wandering in alien territory. Consonance being the repetition of similar consonant sounds at stressed syllables, when spoken aloud, the repeated use of the /r/ phoneme makes it easy to imagine their wide-eyed fear, as they take note of every minute detail which might cause them harm.

Alliteration is the repetition of initial consonant sounds, found at points of stress. It’s useful for memorization, for creating text that is catchy and trips off the tongue. As it’s dependent on the sound of the letter, clever cat is alliterative – so is murky with mud; but clear light in the city is not, as the letter C in this case is soft, as of /s/. The first C is relevant to the /K/ phoneme – cat, kitten, school. It’s the feeling you get at the roof of your mouth.
The second C emerges through the teeth and tongue, as with ice, sun and dress. This is an important feature to remember about alliteration.

“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping…
And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me – filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before…” – The Raven, Edgar Allan Poe.

Alliteration is a useful technique for ad campaigns – you’ve no doubt had some earworm heard on the TV or radio, stuck in your mind. Brand names too, can be made memorable with alliteration: Krispy Kreme doughnuts, Range Rover, Mr Muscle. It’s also the reason why I never give names to characters which sound too much alike, particularly the initial letter/sound; too easy for the reader to mix them up in the mind.

Used too often in prose, alliteration can make for clotted language. Phonemes that appear frequently will stand out, and have your audience wondering if there’s some message that they’re missing. Unless there are particular words/phrases you want to drive home, try to avoid overdoing it. That being said, alliteration can make for some truly memorable scenes in prose; as can its counterpart, homoioteleuton:

“He ran quickly and the ice flowed sleekly”
“Someone should call attention to his lack of premeditation.”

Suffixes such as -ing (leaving, beating) -ence, -ly -ance and -ion are often used in this repetitive pattern, to reinforce a connection between words and create a striking rhythm.

Where traditional rhyme uses both consonants and vowels to mark itself out, assonance deals with the latter. It is the echo of internal vowel-sounds, when placed in good proximity of each other. As with alliteration, it’s concerned more with the sound of the letters concerned; these hook onto each other to create another form of near rhyme (particularly when the surrounding consonants do not meet well.) I find that this technique often “rounds out” otherwise hard-sounding words, as of flesh lining bones:

“In sinuous folds of cities old and grim,
Where all things, even horror, turn to grace,
I follow, in obedience to my whim,
Strange, feeble, charming creatures round the place.” – The Little Old Women, Baudelaire.

Though more commonly found in verse, assonance can have a striking effect when used in prose:

“It was a damp April day, with long diagonal clouds over the Albishorn and water inert in the low places – pg 132 Tender is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Dissonance is the intentional disruption of rhythm and sound, to jarring effect. In music, it’s the discord of notes, a lack of harmony; in writing, it can snarl up the reading/speaking process, forcing the audience to focus on the imagery involved:

“In a soil thick with snails and rich as grease
I’ve longed to dig myself a good deep grave
There to stretch my old bones at ease – Baudelaire, The Gladly Dead.

The vowel sounds are elongated, as of stretching out to sleep, to die, to be laid to rest. By contrast, the consonants are thick and cloying; there’s a predilection for the /k/ and /g/ phonemes, which lie heavy in the mouth, evocative of heavy soil that clings to the shovel, to the boots … and of age, the cares of the world, dragging the weary soul down. What’s most striking is the dissonant rhythm created, as the vowels and consonants butt up against one another – the scrape of the shovel through the vowels, coming up upon obstacles such as stones and snails, the soil “thick as grease.”

Sibilance is the hissing effect caused by English phonemes (s), (sh), (z), and (zh). It can take various roles, depending on context – the soothing of a mother’s voice to a child:

“Hush hush little plush
Mama’s near you through the night
Hush hush little plush
Everything will be alright.” – The Mouse and his Child, Russell Hoban.

the sultry atmosphere of a summer evening, calm and pleasant:

‘Tis moonlight, summer moonlight,
All soft and still and fair;
The silent time of midnight
Shines sweetly everywhere.” – Moonlight, summer moonlight, Emily Bronte.

Used in prose, it can evoke connotations of pathos or tension relative to a character or scene. In Watership Down, a particular scene which always stands out for me is the arrival of the Sandleford rabbits at the warren of wires. When a native rabbit is called upon to recite poetry at a get-together, it can be no coincidence that his very name, Silverweed, encapsulates the desperately sad atmosphere of his warren. Sibilance plays a large part in his spoken verse, to unsettling effect:

“The wind is blowing, blowing over the grass.
It shakes the willow catkins; the leaves shine silver…
Into the sky, the feathery sky and the rabbit…
Where are you going, stream? Far far away
Beyond the heather, sliding away all night.
Take me with you, stream, away in the starlight…” – pg 113, Watership Down, Richard Adams.

There is also the presence of assonance in the repetition of the /a/ /o/ phonemes, and homoioteleuton in the -ing suffix – these create a wistful, flowing sensation, as of the wind carrying souls away into the night, leaving behind those who must stay in a numb state of non-life. Silverweed’s tone is almost plaintive; he and the other rabbits of his warren have not only accepted their fate, but almost look forward to the release found in death, because of it. Pipkin’s remark best sums it up:
“I’ll tell you how they strike me. They all seem terribly sad. I can’t think why, when they’re so big and strong and have this beautiful warren. But they put me in mind of trees in November.”

Compare this pathos with the stark atmosphere found in the use of sibilance in the world of Harry Potter. The language of snakes is a spitfire hissing, and known here as Parseltongue. Put into the context of the novel, the use of sibilance creates a tense atmosphere, where the very mention of snakes is connotative of wrongdoing:

“‘It matters,’ said Hermione, speaking at last in a hushed voice, ‘because being able to talk to snakes was what Salazar Slytherin was famous for. That’s why the symbol of Slytherin house is a serpent.'”

“‘They called Slytherin himself Serpent-tongue.'” – pgs 146-9, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling.

Whether for poetry or prose, these are but some sound techniques that can be used to enhance your writing. Audience perspective of a character can be influenced by “their” choice of words, the phonemes resounding with connotative imagery; a scene can be made memorable by the emotional effect of pronouncing each word used to describe it. An atmosphere heavy with tension and thick consonants; a death delivered in whispering sibilance, as of a ghost passing over.
Sometimes, no matter how small the passage, it’s the sheer pleasure of finding music in the positioning of words, the relation of their phonemes to one another:

“There was music from my neighbour’s house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.

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