Writing out loud
Hearing your words is a great way to detect awkward phrasing and rhythm, bad pacing, and more
Published: May 10, 2011
“To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the music the words make.”
Most people would probably say that reading is a visual experience. But they’d be wrong. Reading is an aural experience. While it is true that good creative writing must always be a full sensory experience—images, sounds, tastes, smells and textures must all come alive—that’s not what I’m talking about. When we read, we hear the words. We hear the cadence, the inflection, the pauses and full stops. We hear the lilt of prancing language, and the ponderous trudge of heavy-footed syntax.
Writing falls on the ear as a kind of soundtrack, the pitch and timbre of which will, like all music, have a visceral effect. Just as a film’s music can deepen a mood, the subliminal soundtrack of your prose will enhance your narrative.
“In conversation you can use timing, a look, an inflection. But on the page all you have is commas, dashes, the amount of syllables in a word. When I write, I read everything out loud to get the right rhythm.”
The words that form our soundtracks should be composed for the ear. But how can you know if your composition sings or stinks? Read it aloud. Better yet, have somebody else read it aloud to you, or record it and listen to the playback. This accomplishes two things: You will experience the words as your readers will—aurally. And you’ll identify, by the stumbles and hitches in the reading, where phrasings are awkward or unclear, and where the dialogue rings false.
Before I wrote novels, I wrote plays. And whenever I went to a read-through, I heard lines that made me wince. I learned to welcome those winces. They told me which lines needed to be rewritten. The same applies to all poetry and prose. One reading aloud can help you spot problems that might remain hidden through a dozen silent read-throughs.
Listen to your work. Hear it.
Understand the effect of certain stylistic choices. A series of short declarative sentences increases pace and dramatic tension. James Lee Burke has written exceptionally evocative descriptions, but this example from A Stained White Radiance shows he also knows the value of short, unadorned sentences:
I returned to the bar and asked the bar-maid for a pencil and a piece of paper. She tore a page from a notepad by the telephone and handed it to me. I scribbled two or three sentences on the back and folded it once, then twice.
Did you notice the pattern at work in those sentences? Subject, compound predicate; subject, compound predicate; subject, compound predicate. You probably didn’t notice it on a conscious level, but you heard it, and the sound of that repetition, like the barely audible thump of a pumped-up bass line pulsing from a teenager’s car, had its effect on you.
Longer, more fluid sentences will slow the reader down. Hemingway is known for his short, journalistic sentences, but his cumulative phrasings are no less masterful. This passage from Death in the Afternoon captures both breathless tension and physical fluidity:
The bull was watching the man and the triangle of red cloth, his ears pointed, his eyes fixed, and Hernandorena kneed himself a yard closer and shook the cloth. The bull’s tail rose, his head lowered and he charged and, as he reached the man, Hernandorena rose solidly from his knees into the air, swung over like a bundle, his legs in all directions now, and then dropped to the ground.
Words create images, yes. They bring characters, settings and actions to life, give voice to speech, thoughts and feelings. And all the while, the soundtrack plays in the background. So compose your soundtrack as deliberately as you do your narrative.
Randall Silvis’ 12th book, the novel The Boy Who Shoots Crows, is due out in December from Penguin Books.||