Friday, December 16, 2011

Can You Hear Me Now?

Maybe a more appropriate title would be “How do you hear me?” Or maybe, “Sounds like…” with the proper charades gesture.

What I’d like to discuss is how to add voice or sound to your stories. How do characters speak? What do specific noises sound like? Taking the second question first, it’s not enough sometimes just to write something making noise. To add elements such as mood or emotion, you must show the reader how things sound. You do this by relating the particular noise to something recognizable. For instance, “The rain fell hard against the roof.” This can be spiced up depending on what you’re trying to convey. “The rain falling against the metal slats sounded like a hail of machine gun bullets.” “She sat alone in the cabin. The light rain against the screens was as many whispers silently calling to her.”

Wind and rain are fairly easy to bring to life. The wind can moan like a dying asthmatic, cry like ghosts from the past mourning their own passing, sing like a teakettle on full alert, or whine like an injured animal. Other sounds may challenge the writer. I’ve heard the familiar blatting exhaust of a passing bus described as ‘snoring’ and ‘farting.’ Did you know cats doing the courting dance sound exactly like a crying baby? The similarity is downright eerie.

Voices are another area where you can bring the reader closer to your story. In nearly every story I read, I assign a specific voice to each character, sometimes by the author telling me how someone speaks, sometimes with only the character’s description.

I have a friend who suffers from MS and as a result she can’t read a book very long before her mind gets tired. So she listens to audio books. When we dated, I’d spend hours reading aloud to her. She ended up with someone else, but since then, when I discover a book I think she might like, I’ll record it for her. I’ve heard hundreds of audio books and I enjoy them so much more when the narrator uses a different voice for each character. One who reads in a monotone or with no emotion even in the action packed scenes tends to make a good story boring.

I’ve developed a standard set of voices for various types of characters when I read aloud. Unless I’m specifically told the person has a particular voice, I usually rely on past experience and descriptions. With exceptions, of course, see if you hear the same voices.

Attorneys, especially the adversarial ones usually have an aristocratic tone.

Techno geeks and some doctors are nasally.

Military colonels and general will speak in a bass or gravelly voice.

The beat cops or veteran detectives talk out of the side of his mouth while their captains are gruff speakers.

Preachers are charismatic with maybe a touch of a southern accent. On the other hand, priests are quiet and subdued.

Unless specifically mentioned, I usually put a little high pitched waver to elderly voices.

Women are of course done in a higher voice except when you have a Lauren Bacall type character. Breathy, perky, whiny, nasally, domineering, seductive, grating…the voice depends on the character.

Accents are fun, too. Does the Irishman have a Dublin or north country accent? Is the British speaking in a London or rural twang? Cockney or House of Lords? Is the Mexican high pitched or raspy? Is the black person speaking in a deep, formal, commanding voice (think James Earl Jones), sassy street slang (think Martin Lawrence or Eddie Murphy), or very distinctive (everybody recognizes Morgan Freeman)? Is the businessman from Mississippi, Alabama, or is he a boisterous Texan with a hat too big to fit inside his pickup truck? Is the Russian a weary ex-KGB officer or his sexy partner (a’la James Bond movies)?

The point is to make the reader mentally hear the sounds and the voices by giving them life and distinction. How many books have you read where everybody sounds the same, where you don’t here any “grinding metal gates, nerve shattering creaking doors, Armageddon like eruptions, droning insects like miniature model airplanes?” They’re not very exciting, are they?

Give your readers some sound. Their ears will thank you.

2 comments:

Patricia Gligor said...

Stephen,
I think it's so important to use the five senses, including hearing, in our novels. Let the reader see, hear, smell, taste and touch what's going on and they'll feel as if they're in the story.

Marja McGraw said...

Outstanding blog, Stephen. And your examples are so on-the-mark. And, yes, it does put the reader right smack in the middle of what's happening.