Sound and Story

Sounds can tell a story. Have you ever noticed?

It’s not something you might think much about if you, like me, primarily concern yourself with words on a page. But every so often you come across sound really well used and you realize that just a few quick sounds can tell a story. The cadence in the footsteps of a walking person is different from that of a running person. Research in communication theory has proven that tone of voice carries something like a quarter of the meaning in what we say.

In case you’re not sold yet let’s look at a couple of pieces of music that use simple sounds to tell fascinating stories, then let’s flip it around and brainstorm some ways our stories can put sounds in readers’ minds.

First, listen to the theme from The CW’s The Arrow, starting from the 2:00 mark on. Or you can listen to the whole thing, your call. but we’re mostly discussing what happens from the 2:00 mark to 2:20.

Notice how the score is riddled with punchy, sharp strings followed by a harsh note that starts high and pushes higher in tone, creating the impression of a flight of arrows swooping in while a bowstring is drawn tight in preparation for a second flight.

Or listen to the first thirty seconds of The Flash theme. (Blake Neely is apparently really good at this kind of composition.)

Notice how it opens with the Flash’s leitmotif, a single tone builds and falls rapidly like the Doppler effect of a fast moving race car blowing past us, then follows with hurried notes rushing up and down, reminiscent of traffic whizzing by, before sounding the Flash’s leitmotif once again. Perfectly suited for the subject matter.

Sounds can tell a story all of their own. Simple stories, admittedly, but no less impactful for it. The written word has it’s own techniques for this. Often they’re not as effective unless your work is meant to be read aloud but at the same time there are techniques that will emphasize sound even if it’s not being spoken aloud.

The two most common ones are alliteration, or using multiple words in a row starting with the same sound, and cadence. Alliteration is a tricky technique to try, as it quickly becomes difficult to find words that flow nicely with the meaning you want and all start with the same letter. Also, letters are limited in the sounds they create, being as a letter is a stand-in for a sound the human voice can produce and that’s not actually a whole lot of sounds when you think about it.

On the other hand, you can do some fun things with alliteration. “S” and “TH” sounds create a kind of white noise impression, hard consonants like “C” or “T” create a kind of percussion rhythm that can drive a story at a marching pace.

Cadence is a different thing entirely. William Shakespeare made his name writing in iambic pentameter, a cadence driven kind of verse that creates very flowing phrases. It does this by alternating between light and heavy, or up and down syllables. By focusing on short syllables, particularly one syllable words, one can give the impression of text that runs along lightly and quickly while long vowel sounds slow down the feel of a phrase.

Of course, the actual sounds you use in a story, things like dripping water or howling wind, can contribute a great deal to atmosphere but that’s an entirely different blog post in and of itself.

Sound creates powerful impressions and is a useful tool in telling a story in any medium. Even if all you do is read something out loud to see how easily your story flows, analyzing the sounds you use is a necessary part of getting better at your craft. Pay attention to the sounds you use, even when you’re just writing.

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