Appeal to sense of sound when writing

When writing descriptions, one of the five senses that you can appeal to is sound.

We’re surrounded all day by sounds, though most of it is tuned out. When we do hear something out of the ordinary – an alarm, the crunch of metal when cars collide, the annoying repetition of a water drip – it stands out.

Likewise, most authors use sound in the same way in their stories: the sensation is often implied but only used at a moment when it can most contribute to raising dramatic tension or add to a description of an important object in the story.

Matthew Johnson does this in his short story “Lagos” (which appears in the Aug. 2008 Asimov’s Science Fiction). The story, about a Third World worker named Safrat who vacuums other people’s houses by telepresence, never describes the sound of the vacuuming in the opening paragraphs, but as we learn about a day in Safrat’s life, the reader almost can hear the changing whirs as the type of vacuuming performed changes. It isn’t until the 13th paragraph arrives that the sense of sound is directly appealed to, when Safrat laughs when her brother tells her in her sleep – in the language of the wealthy people whose houses she vacuums – about taking a vacation. The sound points toward the poignant irony of such a dream. As the story nears its climax, the number of times the sense of sound is used increases.

One way to insert sound into your story is through the use of onomatopoeia. Onomatopoeia occurs when words are spelled like the sound they make, such as buzz, whoosh, beep. Again, such sounds shouldn’t be inserted into a description for the sake of having sound in your story but instead to generate dramatic tension or to show some important characteristic of an object.


My name is Rob Bignell. I’m an affordable, professional editor who runs Inventing Reality Editing Service, which meets the manuscript needs of writers both new and published. I also offer a variety of self-publishing services. During the past decade, I’ve helped more than 300 novelists and nonfiction authors obtain their publishing dreams at reasonable prices. I’m also the author of the 7 Minutes a Day… writing guidebooks, four nonfiction hiking guidebook series, and the literary novel Windmill. Several of my short stories in the literary and science fiction genres also have been published.