I’ve just finished one of the most poignant yet captivating books I’ve read in a long time: Sabastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side. Right at the beginning his narrator asks: “What is the sound of an eighty-nine-year-old heart breaking?” An extended metaphor, dragged up by a childhood memory gives us the answer. For those of you intrigued enough to want to find out, you’ll have to read the novel. Why I bring that up: it got me
First of all, it made me realise sound plays but a small part in my writing. True, I love music and music often plays a part in one or other of my characters’ lives. But going through my stories, I realised you often don’t hear the music, although there are exceptions. And leave music aside and my stories are often quite soundless. Not like the world we live in at all.
My life is full of sounds. I often just don’t hear them. Living next to an old Gothic church with a wonderful bell-tower means we rarely have to wonder what time it is. Yet, it took me several days recently to realise that the oh-so-familiar chime was no longer ringing out across the surrounding square. And how often do we realise how quiet things have become, when suddenly a noise we never heard in the first place, stops.
Is our writing teeming with sound? I suggest not. And that’s probably a good thing. Just as our ears or our mind filter out a large part of the sound around us, so our writing shouldn’t really include every single little sound we can cram into it just for the sake of authenticity. But, and this is the what I’m really trying to get at, is our writing soundless? If it is, I suggest we sit and do some listening. And while we are doing this, let’s ask ourselves some questions.
- Where and when do the sounds come from?
- What does this particular sound express? Safety, fear, joy, sadness etc.
- What does this particular sound awake in me? Emotions, physical reactions (tapping feet etc.), horror, expectancy and so much more.
- What could this sound mean to one or another of my characters? And don’t forget, one man’s drum beat may be another man’s death roll. So ask this question for different characters.
- What sound(s) is your character unable or unwilling to hear? Why? What significance could this have on your story? Non-English speakers often have difficulty hearing certain sounds we frequently use in English. Of course, the opposite is true of English speakers who risk entering the learning sphere of another language, as I myself can testify to having been the but of more than one joke.
- And finally, ask yourself how you can make that sound mean something totally different to one of your characters. Screeching breaks usually hints at danger or the idea of an escape. But what about Santa Claus arriving at the hospital just in time with that organ due to be transplanted into a dying patient? And that birdsong: what if it was a frantic attempt to warn your main character that if he continues down this path, he’s going to see something he’ll regret for the rest of his life. As is so often the case with writers, imagination has no bounds.