Just Write

Sensory Detail – Sound

GramophoneI cranked up the music to prepare this post and was reminded of the sixties and seventies when I worked downtown San Francisco Monday through Friday. Saturdays were house cleaning days. I centered my Swan Lake record on the turntable and turned up the volume. By the time I was dusting and cleaning downstairs, I was rocking to West Side Story. To finish, I blasted Hair. Odd combinations, I know. But they worked for me . . . a satisfying way to completely clean the house and do laundry.

Sound. . . how do we incorporate sound in our writing?

But first, why do we want to use sensory detail in our writing? Sound can evoke strong memories: screeching tires, whining four-year-old, grinding gears when learning to drive a stick shift, songs from our teenage years, wedding songs, hymns, sing-song rhymes. When we employ sound in our writing, we transform language into sensory stimulation that the reader hears in his/her mind and transports the reader to the world we have created in our writing.

Poet Major Jackson says it this way, in the September 2015 issue of The Writer magazine:

I aim to write poems in which language changes into feeling. With hip-hop and rap music, the expressive medium of my generation, I learned to stylize language and to make language an experience for the reader — whether through an idiosyncratic simile or through an insistent use of repetition or some heretofore encountered combination of rhymes.

Right on . . . and sensory stimulation in writing offers readers a way to vicariously experience other worlds viscerally.  It’s that visceral reaction writers seek . . . the strong emotional reaction when reading.

Notice all the sensory detail in the following excerpt from In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez:

Usually, at night, I hear them just as I’m falling asleep.

Sometimes, I lie at the very brink of forgetfulness, waiting, as if their arrival is my signal that I can fall asleep.

The settling of the wood floors, the wind astir in the jasmine, the deep released fragrance of the earth, the crow of an insomniac rooster.Their soft spirit footsteps, so vague I could mistake them for my own breathing.

Their different treads, as if even as spirits they retained their personalities. Patria’s sure and measured step. Minerva’s quicksilver impatience. Mate’s playful little skip. They linger and loiter over things. Tonight, no doubt, Minerva will sit a long while by her Minou and absorb the music of her breathing.

Some nights I’ll be worrying about something, and I’ll stay up past their approaching, and I’ll hear something else. An eerie, hair-raising creaking of riding boots, a crop striking leather, a peremptory footstep that makes me shake myself awake and turn on lights all over the house. The only sure way to send the evil thing packing.

But tonight, it is quieter than I can remember.

Notice:  Specific words that evoke sound: hear, crow of a rooster, soft footsteps, breathing, creaking

Phrases that evoke sensory detail: the settling of the wood floor, the wind astir, a crop striking leather,

And of course, the sense of smell: wood floor, jasmine, fragrance of the earth.

Your turn: What sounds evoke powerful memories for you? House cleaning sounds (vacuum cleaner)? How about: nursery rhymes, rock ‘n roll, thunder, gum snapping, crunchy foods, sirens, bells, whistling, animal noises, engine revving.

What about water: Running water, gurgling stream water, waves as they lap to shore and recede to the ocean. Or maybe it’s more of a stormy day and the water rushes toward the sand dunes, crashes into rocks and hurries back to the sea.

How about: Squawking sea gulls, the calliope of a merry-go-round, music boxes?

Remember songs from movies, television theme songs, commercial jingles?

What sounds bring up strong memories?

Choose a prompt and write for 12-15 minutes. Put sound sensory detail in your writing. Just Write!

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  1. Kathy Myers

    Sound you say….

    “All the tests indicate you have nerve deafness. That ringing in your ears is the sound of your nerve dying.”

    My darling doctor is cute but blunt. He started quizzing me on my attendance at rock concerts; that being the causative factor for my generation; giving new meaning to the term deadhead. I joked that my forty years as a therapist listening to peoples problems, might be killing my aural organs but he did not laugh. He’s cute but duller than the great thaw. But I do admit I have spent some quality time in front of amplifiers because I have a thing for musicians; always have and always will.
    I met my husband at the Wine Cellar in Ghirardelli Square. He strummed his guitar and we shared a hot pot of fondue and much more later. We were smitten, but had to coordinate our time together. I was a morning glory, he was a midnight sun. Years later we wed and then bred another musician. The last concert I attended was my son Dallas rocking out in front of a bank of Mesa Boogie amplifiers at the Mystic. I enjoyed it even with paper napkins stuffed in my ears but never again. I must protect what precious hearing I have left; doctor darlings’s dull orders.

    1. mcullen Post author

      Love your humor, Kathy. Specially love: “new meaning to the term deadhead” and “hot pot of fondue. . . ” and, of course, “I was a morning glory, he was a midnight sun.” Love the “wed and then bred.” Oh, I just love the whole thing. . de schmire!

  2. mcullen Post author

    How to use subtle detail in fleshing out characters. . . details make your characters real . . . use descriptions beyond hair and eye color. In this example of using sensory detail. . . it’s the lack of sound . . . the quietness that stands out.

    In an article in the July 2015 issue of The Writer magazine, Alicia Anistead opens her interview with Scott Eyman with this, “Scott Eyeman has a big presence.”

    She goes on to explain why, “He has written biographies on some of the biggest names in Hollywood. . . ” including John Wayne.

    Here’s what Eyman says about Wayne, “He was huge. Imposing. Charismatic, Impressive. His body language on screen was very big, very commanding, very domineering, very theatrical. In person, he would hold himself very quiet, and I think it was something he learned to do intentionally so as not to intimidate people.”

  3. Ke11y


    Sometimes, for the best of reasons, a sentence can simply have a beauty all of its own and yet it contain no magic, no mystery. It just ‘is’ perfect.

    I met my husband at the Wine Cellar in Ghirardelli Square. He strummed his guitar and we shared a hot pot of fondue and much more later. We were smitten, but had to coordinate our time together. I was a morning glory, he was a midnight sun. Years later we wed and then bred another musician.

    I could begin a story with just this!

    Love it.


  4. mcullen Post author

    Mood writing – while you are writing, listen to music that matches the mood you want to create. Romantic, swashbuckling, action, dreamy, futuristic, etc.

    If you want to write memoir, listen to music in the time period your story takes place.

    Same with period pieces . . . listen to music appropriate for the time period when your story happens.

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