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Sound Effects

Imagine watching a movie with no sound effects. It would not be satisfying.

You, the author, are the sound effects creator and sound mixer for your verbal movie.

Rhetorical devices and sentence structure add rhythm and emphasis to your prose, but there is also the task of decsribing the sounds in your setting.

You must decide when to add them and which words to use.

Onomatopoeia is the rhetorical device that provides sound words such as: whine, chirp, buzz, roar, clatter, clank, harrumph, giggle, guffaw, chortle, snort, twang, thwack, ring, clang, boing, knock, screech, hoot, bay, and bark.

Sound effect words are often used in conjunction with a simile or metaphor: The seal opened quickly with a pop like a champagne cork.

Building a sound track is more than using sound words; it is using them in clever, memorable ways.

1) For every scene, choose a location. We all make sounds: people, animals, nature, machines. Every location on the planet has its own unique blend of noises. If it is an actual place, even if you can't go there, you can usually find a video of it. If it is a made-up place, then your imagination can fill in the details. There will be background noises: ticking of clocks, rattling of train tracks, and shush of the ocean. Use sounds to set the scene.

Orient yourself in the scene. Close your eyes. Listen. What do you hear? What it is important for your reader and character to hear? Why?

2) Use sounds to define characters. 

Does the character constantly snuffle, cough, clear his throat? Do her high heels echo on the tile floor?

How is the character feeling in the scene? What noise might he make if surprised, hurt, angry, shocked? How can you use sound words to emphasize the moment?

Is the character calm, tapping the table out of anxiety, or groaning in agony? What does the scene call for?

3) Story Building Blocks III contains a list of sound words. Add your favorite bugaboos. In the final revision passes, do a search for specific words using [Control] [F] or Find, or read through your manuscript and highlight the words.

Have you used each word more than a few times?

Can you change them or use them in an unusual way?

Is the sound necessary? Does it add something to the sentence? If not, cut it.

4) Avoid purple prose.

Romantic scenes and fight scenes are danger zones for clich├ęd sound effects: smacks, slurps, sighs, groans, slap, oomph. 

There are only so many sounds a person can make, but there are pedestrian and master craft ways of utilizing them.

A beginner writer reaches for common sound words and uses them literally.

A master craftsman transforms common sound words into passages with a visceral effect.

Here are a few examples from one of my favorite writers, Tana French, and her new release The Secret Place:

She shut the interview room door behind us, flick of her wrist and a slam.

The music has turned into a distant hysterical pounding and shrieking, like someone has a tiny Rihanna locked in a box.

The night is thick with clouds and cold; they have to grope their way down the paths to the grove, wincing each time a branch twangs or a clump of leaves crunches.

In the darkness they're just a trail of rustle and laughter, sweeping a circle around the edge of the clearing.

A wisp of a laugh, a frail thing, lost, drifting between the slick posters and the make-up smeared tissues. Not a laugh she'd learned off some reality star and practiced; just her, missing that day. Here was why she needed to see Selena and Chris through a dirty snicker and a gagging noise. That was the only way she could stand to look.

For the list of sound words and more revision tips, check out:

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