Adding Sound to your Prose

When it comes to writing prose, it’s easy to overlook the value of the sound of the words we choose. Issues of word meaning, usage, and sentence structure tend to dominate our attention when editing a draft. But in the pursuit of excellent prose, it can be useful to borrow a few techniques from poetry. Poets understand that sound enriches writing and connects with the reader on a level all its own.

For this post, I’ve chosen four techniques that can add sound effects to your writing. Though each of them can be distracting and call attention to the writing if overused, all of them can enhance your writing if used with care.

Alliteration: Alliteration occurs when two or more words in a sentence or phrase begin with the same consonant sound.

“From forth the fatal loins of these two foes; A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life.”

—Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

Here, from, forth, fatal, foes, lovers, life are examples of alliteration.

“…neither of those can feel stranger and stronger emotions than the man does, who for the first time finds himself pulling into the charmed, churned circle of the hunted sperm whale.”

—Melville’s Moby Dick

This is not only a great example of alliteration—stranger, stronger, for, first, finds, charmed, churned—but it also exemplifies the technique of assonance, described below—churned, circle, sperm.

Assonance: Similar to alliteration, assonance occurs when a vowel sound is repeated several times in a sentence or phrase.

“Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”

—Nabokov’s Lolita

This is one of my favorite lines in all of literature because it’s not only incredibly musical but also conveys so much of the narrator’s affection for Lolita. It accomplishes so much by employing not only assonance—tip, trip, palate, tap, at—but also alliteration—tongue, taking, trip, tap, teeth.

Consonance: Consonance is also similar to alliteration in that it concerns the repetition of consonant sounds, but it focuses instead on the sound at the end of the word.

“I find it most difficult to express with adequate force that flash, that shiver, that impact of passionate recognition.”

—Also Nabokov’s Lolita

Consonance occurs in the repetition of the “t” sound in the words it, most, difficult, adequate, that, impact, passionate.

Onomatopoeia: Onomatopoeia refers to the use of words that sound like what they mean. Creak, swoosh, gurgle, and clang are all examples of onomatopoeia.

“Who, nothing hurt withal, hissed him in scorn”

—Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

Here, hissed is an example of onomatopoeia.

“After a time he began to wander about, going lippity—lippity—not very fast, and looking all around.”

—Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit

Lippity is an example of onomatopoeia in this sentence. The meaning of the word is contained in its sound.

What do you think of the use of sound in prose writing? Do you think it enriches or distracts? Do you ever incorporate it into your own writing? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

16 Responses to Adding Sound to your Prose

  1. jeffo Jun 19 2013 at 6:08 am #

    I used to read Peter Rabbit to my kids all the time, and I think that ‘lippity–lippity’ was my favorite line in the whole book; it was just exactly right (as is that first quote from Lolita–it does indeed get so much across).

    I think these techniques to add so much to writing, but it does have to be done carefully. In the wrong place, at the wrong time, or in the wrong amount, they can definitely distract.

    • Julie Eshbaugh Jun 19 2013 at 6:29 am #

      Hi Jeff! Yes, well said – wrong place, wrong time, wrong amount of any of these would make a reader notice the writing and then notice the writer, which is never a good thing. 🙂

  2. SharonS Jun 19 2013 at 8:07 am #

    I think sounds are essential in children’s books. In adult books I like them when used to describe unseen threats or actions. Like sounds behind a closed door. I do a lot of beta work and this is an area that new authors need to focus on. I think it is a skill that an author can improve through experience and reading lots of other authors who do it well. So many times I have to say “this doesn’t sound right when I read it. I enjoy writing that has a cadence to it.

    • Julie Eshbaugh Jun 19 2013 at 9:49 am #

      Sharon, yes! I so agree about the use of sound in children’s books. Your point about unseen threats makes me think of the use of onomatopoeia to describe the sound of someone sneaking up, like a creak upon the stairs.

  3. Alexa Y. Jun 19 2013 at 10:53 am #

    What a thoughtful post! I think sound is actually something important when writing prose. It definitely helps when reading a book that just “rolls off the tongue”, so to speak. However, there is the danger of overuse or incorrect use when it comes to these tools, I think.

    • Julie Eshbaugh Jun 19 2013 at 11:13 am #

      Hi Alexa! I always love to get your input. 🙂 I agree that some books just “roll off the tongue” and I think that if we were to go back and look, we might find that those books make use of these tools. Overuse is the danger, of course. Nabokov’s Lolita uses sound heavily, but then again, the first person narrative is intentionally exaggerated. Even Humber Humbert himself says “you can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.” 😉

  4. Kelley Jun 19 2013 at 12:07 pm #

    I’m usually a silent lurker around here, but I couldn’t NOT comment today. Julie, I absolutely love this post. You’ve brought up one of my favorite topics re: language ever. I have such a fondness for the sounds (and cadence) or words, so it makes my heart (and brain) very happy to see this post!

    Alliteration is one of my favorite things ever. And WOW, that assonance quote from Lolita. That might just have been the line that threw me over the edge and made me fall in love with Nabokov’s writing (and possibly with Humbert Humbert, until I got further into the book). <3

    • Julie Eshbaugh Jun 19 2013 at 12:22 pm #

      Hi Kelley! Thanks for coming “out of the shadows” 😉 and commenting! I’m so glad you like the post. I, too, love the sound and music of words. And yes, Nabokov’s Lolita is a masterpiece in so many ways, not the least of which is language. (I often site Lolita as the book that made me want to be a writer. Not that I could ever write prose like Nabokov’s!) The thing about that book is you can just open to a random page and find prose full of music. I honestly opened at random and found the example I used for consonance. Amazing.

      Again, thanks for commenting and I hope you feel enticed to comment more! 🙂

  5. Kim Jun 20 2013 at 12:22 am #

    I agree with what Alexa said. I think sound is important to prose and something that should be used — but not overused. Too many alliterations throughout a book takes away from the power of the tool. Plus, it can get a little annoying.

    • Julie Eshbaugh Jun 21 2013 at 7:45 pm #

      Hi Kim! Yes, overuse can definitely distract. I think the trick is to use these techniques so they are fully integrated into the prose.

  6. Stela Brinzeanu Jun 21 2013 at 4:43 pm #

    Sound in prose makes me stop, re-read sentences out loud and ponder over them. Alliterations are jewels I look for in a book and am very happy when I find them.
    Love the post! Is there a direct way of tweeting it? I tried but the little birdie on the top only takes me to the main PubCrawl page.

    • Julie Eshbaugh Jun 21 2013 at 8:03 pm #

      Hi Stela! I’m so glad you like the post (and alliteration!) I often re-read sentences out loud, too. 🙂
      To answer your question about tweeting, there’s a small button below the bio and above the comments that will open a pop-up that lets you tweet the post. Thanks!

  7. Brandi Ziegler Jun 22 2013 at 2:30 pm #

    I think it enriches and I love incorporating it into my work. Thanks for the great post, Julie!

    • Julie Eshbaugh Jun 22 2013 at 5:59 pm #

      Hey Brandi! Thanks for the comment. I agree – for me, sound really enriches prose when it’s used well. So cool to learn you incorporate it in your own work! 🙂

  8. Hamed Jun 23 2013 at 5:31 am #

    Hi and thanks for the post
    I’ve leaned so much reading your posts and I’m happy that real writing -problems are your concern and not things like “how to have a good night sleep before writing a YA novella”.
    A year ago one of my wannabe-writer friends gave me this book “The Art of Fiction” by John Gardner. In the latest chapters he had mentioned “unintended rhythms” that I couldn’t find out why they are so bad and now my confusion is doubled. Could you please provide us with some examples of using these techniques you mentioned in a wrong way?
    And one more question:
    How can modern writing benefit from these techniques? I mean, yes, Lolita is a modern fiction but the narrator talks like a 17th century’s play writer. Are those techniques only suitable for certain kind of narrator?

    • Julie Eshbaugh Jun 23 2013 at 3:19 pm #

      Hi Hamed! I’m so glad you like this post! I’ve never read the book you mention by John Gardner, but now I think I’ll look it up. To answer your first question, I think these techniques can be problematic if they are overused so that they drawn too much attention to themselves. I read somewhere recently that too much alliteration can make a reader “notice” the writer and think about him/her instead of the story and the characters, which of course you want to avoid. Also, sometimes sound in prose can create its own mood, and that mood might fight against the mood of the story. In a very intense scene you wouldn’t want to accidentally rhyme, for instance, since that might make the prose feel light or childish. “Mortally wounded, the soldier thought of how proud he was of the girl he loved. With this thought, he drew his last breath,” works much better than “Mortally wounded, the soldier thought with pride about his bride. And then he died.”
      I love your description of Humbert as a narrator who “talks like a 17th century’s play writer.” Haha so true! But I’ve noticed sound used well by contemporary writers, too, though more subtly. For example, in The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins uses alliteration and consonance in the scene where Katniss is beginning to hallucinate. “The world begins to bend in alarming ways. A butterfly balloons to the size of a house…” Here, there’s alliteration in begins, bend, butterfly, balloons, and consonance in begins, ways, balloons, size. Definitely more subtle than Nabokov, but effective in infusing a dreamlike quality.
      Hope this all helps! Thanks for being so involved with the blog! 🙂

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