Books are one form of story telling, but if there is one thing that creates an interesting schism, it’s the quiet of reading. Books are stories that unfold in the mind–we imagine the characters, the sights, sounds, smells, the entire world.
For that reason, world building is such a pivotal part of the writing process in novels. Fantasy books are often presented as sequels or trilogies. Much of the first arc is consumed by the need to set the stage.
For most of us who are seeing and hearing individuals, sights are likely the easiest sensory details to communicate. Smells can be relayed in poetic, familiar terms, associated as they are with both sight and taste.
But sound is tricky. Music is even more emphatically difficult.
The first books we read use music in a way that is simplistic, defining our vocabulary of sound into onomatopoeia: boom, crash, thud, shh, plop, squelch, et cetera. Doctor Seuss is lauded for his ability to create words that focus on auditory context.
When using words that describe sounds, I find myself deleting the passage and searching (often in vain) for another way to phrase my meaning to avoid these simplistic terms. Perhaps this is a personal reflex, but I would be curious to find if others have similar barriers.
When I think of successful examples that incorporate sound consistently into their narratives, The Name of the Wind comes to mind. This story places so much weight on sound and music. The main character, Kvothe is a musician who plays the lute. This defining trait goes a long way into explaining the powerful presence of sound in the story.
But sound is given a key role in other ways, through one of the main character’s ambitions; he seeks the name of the wind. To discover this name is almost synonymous with calling the name, to understand the shape of the name and the way the voice wraps around that shape to give it depth and force.
The catch of course is that the reader must imagine what that sound would be like to experience. In the end, the sound waves are caged within our minds. Unless the reader is also a musician or a fan of medieval folk music, it may be difficult to truly “hear” Kvothe’s voice when he sings “The Lay of Sir Savien Traliard,” accompanied by his lute as the strings break and the silence practically sweats with tension.
One of the rewarding challenges of world building is taking into account the sounds that we encounter on a daily basis, the tunes and beats and white noise that filter into the web of our environment. When those little touches are forgotten, the echo of those quiet pages can become deafening.
I am in the process of applying a final polish to Roots of Ash. I know, I know, I said I was done. My gut told me there was more I could do. Especially to trim the page count. It’s also needed so I can refresh myself on events to begin working on the sequel!
While polishing, I’m taking the opportunity to read the book with my ears as well as my eyes. I am reviewing the scenes for sensory details. In a way, I am learning more about Sarria and how she engages with sound. She is an introvert and many of her more “active” moments are through meditation. Her mental activity is presented through metaphor to maintain that sensory richness, and I want to ensure that I strike the right balance.
Another joyous step on the writing journey.