Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Can You Hear Me Now?

An Echelon Press book

My guest is Stephen Brayton, author of Beta, the new Mallory Petersen, PI, novel. Mallory has a fourth degree black belt in Taekwondo. She's almost up with her creator.
Maybe a more appropriate title would be “How do you hear me?” Or maybe, “Sounds like…” with the proper charades gesture.
What I’d like to discuss is how to add voice or sound to your stories. How do characters speak? What do specific noises sound like? Taking the second question first, it’s not enough sometimes just to write something making noise. To add elements such as mood or emotion, you must show the reader how things sound. You do this by relating the particular noise to something recognizable. For instance, “The rain fell hard against the roof.” This can be spiced up depending on what you’re trying to convey. “The rain falling against the metal slats sounded like a hail of machine gun bullets.” “She sat alone in the cabin. The light rain against the screens was as many whispers silently calling to her.”
Wind and rain are fairly easy to bring to life. The wind can moan like a dying asthmatic, cry like ghosts from the past mourning their own passing, sing like a teakettle on full alert, or whine like an injured animal. Other sounds may challenge the writer. I’ve heard the familiar blatting exhaust of a passing bus described as ‘snoring’ and ‘farting.’ Did you know cats doing the courting dance sound exactly like a crying baby? The similarity is downright eerie.
Voices are another area where you can bring the reader closer to your story. In nearly every story I read, I assign a specific voice to each character, sometimes by the author telling me how someone speaks, sometimes with only the character’s description.
I have a friend who suffers from MS and as a result she can’t read a book very long before her mind gets tired. So she listens to audio books. When we dated, I’d spend hours reading aloud to her. She ended up with someone else, but since then, when I discover a book I think she might like, I’ll record it for her. I’ve heard hundreds of audio books and I enjoy them so much more when the narrator uses a different voice for each character. One who reads in a monotone or with no emotion even in the action packed scenes tends to make a good story boring.
I’ve developed a standard set of voices for various types of characters when I read aloud. Unless I’m specifically told the person has a particular voice, I usually rely on past experience and descriptions. With exceptions, of course, see if you hear the same voices.
Attorneys, especially the adversarial ones usually have an aristocratic tone.
Techno geeks and some doctors are nasally.
Military colonels and general will speak in a bass or gravelly voice.
The beat cop or veteran detective talks out of the side of his mouth while their captains are gruff speakers.
Preachers are charismatic with maybe a touch of southern. On the other hand, priests are quiet and subdued.
Unless specifically mentioned, I usually put a little high pitched waver to elderly voices.
Women are of course done in a higher voice except when you have a Lauren Bacall type character. Breathy, perky, whiny, nasally, domineering, seductive, grating…the voice depends on the character.
Accents are fun, too. Does the Irishman have a Dublin or north country accent? Is the British speaking in a London or rural twang? Cockney or House of Lords? Is the Mexican high pitched or raspy? Is the black person speaking in a deep, formal, commanding voice (think James Earl Jones), sassy street slang (think Martin Lawrence or Eddie Murphy), or very distinctive (everybody recognizes Morgan Freeman)? Is the businessman from Mississippi, Alabama, or is he a boisterous Texan with a hat too big to fit inside his pickup truck? Is the Russian a weary ex-KGB officer or his sexy partner (a’la James Bond movies)?
The point is to make the reader mentally hear the sounds and the voices by giving them life and distinction. How many books have you read where everybody sounds the same, where you don’t here any “grinding metal gates, nerve shattering creaking doors, Armageddon like eruptions, droning insects like miniature model airplanes?” They’re not very exciting, are they?
Give your readers some sound. Their ears will thank you.
Stephen describes himself as a reader, writer, and instructor. He's also a fifth degree black belt in Taekwondo among many other things. For more about Stephen, visit his website at www.stephenbrayton.com or find him on Facebook.



jenny milchman said...

Great reminder to use all our sense in writing! Thanks, Stephen, and Ellis!

Ellis Vidler said...

Stephen, what good advice! We think of other senses so much more and often forget hearing. That's something else to pay attention to.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

We writers often rely on our sense of sight forgetting that all the senses should be engaged in imagery when we write. So thanks for the reminder.

Stephen L. Brayton said...

Thanks for the comments. It's always good to 'hear' from others.

Kat Hinkson said...

Hi Stephen,
I have an advantage over most others, I know and have heard Stephen read. He brings his works to life by putting a different voice to each of the characters. I look forward to seeing how he will describe an otherwise normal scene. Even reading Beta now, I can hear him reading in his characters' voices. His stories come that much more alive for me.

Augie said...

Stephen as always, I enjoyed this post...yes I hear voices (lol) augie

Polly Iyer said...

Recently, I listened to a book where the hero, a vampire (is that what heroes have become?) sounded like the Geico gekko. I couldn't get through it. Voices supply pictures to the reader. Wrong voice, and it's all over. Thanks for the post, Stephen and Ellis.

Anonymous said...

Great article, thanks for sharing...