Right now I hear Shiner lapping water from his bowl, a flock of trainers heading out from the nearby Air Force base, Wrangler's nails tapping on the floor, and my live-in handyman opening the pantry door and mumbling to himself about breakfast.

All at once.

Yet if we're writing fiction, all the sounds our character hears would be overwhelming for the story. The same with everything she sees.

It's up to the writer to determine how to mix and match these sensory impressions to advance the story.

Sometimes we need to include everything, especially if we want to show how it contributes to the stress the character feels - as if the world is attacking her from all sides.

But most of the time one or two can describe our character's mood or add to the scene or build suspense without going hog wild.

Take the sounds I listed above.

These are all comfortable morning sounds to me. I hear them every day.

But maybe you're writing a thriller. The world is on the brink of war. The whine of jet engines would take on a whole different meaning. Counter that with the gentle lapping of water, and your character knows just how much she stands to lose.

A love story. Hearing her lover's mumbles reminds her of the words whispered in her ear the night before.

A comedy. Your character partied too hard the previous night and has a bad hangover. The lapping water is a raging storm at sea. Nails on the floor. Pounding. How much does that darn dog weigh? He's going on a diet!

And so on.

Listen . . . and be picky.

Your characters will like you for it.


Mason Canyon said…
I love your post. Taking simple sounds and turning them into so many plausible stories. Sometimes I think we try to hard to focus on telling a story without being a part of that story. You're right, we need the sounds (not all) but enough to carry the story along with emotion.
Terry Odell said…
Good advice. The sounds should enhance whatever the plot points are in the scene. And sometimes they can be used to counterpoint moods or situations as well. A tightly wound hero, crouching in the jungle, waiting for the enemy attack -- all those pleasant jungle sounds add tension, not relaxation.
Excellent advice. It's amazing the difference that a few noises can add to a scene - as long as they are not over done.
Helen Ginger said…
Really good advice, especially since sound is one of those senses we sometimes overlook when writing.

Straight From Hel
Elspeth Futcher said…
I try to remember to use all the senses. Not all the time, but when appropriate. There's nothing that gets your heart into your throat like that thump in the middle of the night. On the other hand, freshly baked cookies...

Anonymous said…
Listen... and be picky - excellent advice. I also like how you changed the meaning of each sound to suit the mood of the writing.
Conda Douglas said…
Thanks for the reminder of remembering to use the senses without overusing same. We are so visual...
I remember our hurried drive to Southern California on 9/11 and 9/12 because flights were grounded and we needed to be with a family member who was having surgery. The skies were so quiet with no airplanes in the air. We hit the north side of Las Vegas and all of a sudden two jets screamed down a runway and took off. That would have inspired awe prior to 9/11. On 9/12, it was frightening. Same sound, totally different environment.
Laura Eno said…
I like how you took the same sounds and changed their meanings according to the MC's world. Great advice!
Carol Kilgore said…
Thanks for all your comments. It's been a little crazy here today, so I'm just getting back.

When I'm writing first draft - like now - I mostly concentrate on transcribing what I see in my mind. Sometimes it's like watching a movie while being a part of it. That's when I get sensory input. Other times, it's more like watching the characters against a blue screen - I get dialogue, movement, and thought clouds. On successive drafts I try to pay much more attention to all the senses.
Sheila Deeth said…
Of course, for some characters the overwhelming wealth of sounds might describe how the character feels. We need each sense, but just in the right amount for the person whose senses are engaged.
Shirley said…
Really great post, Carol. Maybe you should write an article on this topic.
Carol Kilgore said…
Yes, Sheila. The real trick is putting yourself in a particular character's head and living there for a while.

Maybe one day, Shirley. Today I just want to work on the next bit of my manuscript.
Kimberly Loomis said…
Good words. Don't want the characters to be hearing so much the reader begins to think they're reading about a schizophrenic. ;) As is always the case with good writing: information written should be done selectively not dumped about muddying up the story.

Thanks for this post- it's a nice, grounding reminder of what not/to do.
Yikes, is there a sense I neglect more than hearing? No, don't think so.

Best Wishes, Galen.
Carol Kilgore said…
Kimberly - Thanks for leaving a comment. Hope to see you back here.

Galen - Maybe hang a pair of Mouse Ears over the corner of your monitor :)
Anonymous said…
This is a very good blog. Right to the point and delivers an important principle in developing a story.

It takes time to learn when to describe a number of details going on at the same time, or try to simplify things in one condensed sentence. Thank God for editors and proofreaders.

Stephen Tremp
Carol Kilgore said…
Thank you, Stephen. When I first started writing, someone told me I wouldn't be good until I'd written a million words. I'm not there yet, but I know I'm better than when I began. I enjoy sharing what I know and what works for me.