Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The use and creation of sound in fiction

In films it is obvious how sound fits in, the soundtracks nowadays usually detailed and blasted on high. Silent movies are now beyond a rarity to almost non-existent. In movie soundtracks, not only do you get the spoken word but you also get music and incidental sounds. If you listen to the complete soundtrack by itself, not just the song listing, it sounds very much like a detailed radio show or talking book. A very high quality one. So much so that I often wonder why they aren't edited with a narrator's voice or just released as is for those interested in listening to them rather than watching. Many of us travel long distances in cars and these would work well in keeping us all awake and interested.

Same goes for cartoons, anime and TV shows but the soundtracks of these would be less appealing as versions of talking books, given the emphasis on short interludes, cut tales and the length of the overarching story lines.

But other than films, sound in its original form (in wavelength form rather than memory references) is used primarily in talking books and the occasional children's book. Like the use of pictures, sound has been dropped almost entirely from adult works of written fiction. Now it exists almost solely within the limited section of talking books and is used to replace the reading process altogether. It is a pity, as far as I'm concerned, but not so much as the loss of pictures from adult works.

But even in the two fields of talking books and children's books the sound used is loud, often varied and inclusive of music. Only the most staid of talking books consist of a single narrator reading a piece, putting on various voices as s/he goes. The best of talking books are akin to radio plays: inclusive of several readers, containing incidental sounds and an opening and closing music track at least. Likewise, children's books contain a variety of incidental sounds referencing sounds likely to be heard in reality as well as quick explanations in a chirpy voice. Both appeal directly to us through the use of sound in its original format and are in some ways richer for it, especially when they are produced with care and an attention to detail.

But what can be done when there is no sound to be used? Well, we write it out. Comics provide a good example of this, containing many a "zap", "splat" and "poc" amongst other things. Onomatopoeia is one of the main ways that action and a clash of characters is expressed in comics, standing alongside dialogue as second to illustrations alone. In comics we have to imagine the sounds but with onomatopoeia and blatant illustrations it doesn't take much to insert a "crash" or "kapow" into our thoughts as we read them. The sounds may be distorted from what they might otherwise sound like in reality but that is memory and the reading of onomatopoeia for you. Reading onomatopoeia is like reading Italics, there's an emphasis and a reference but you're often just reading (internally or no) the word in a different way. But with onomatopoeia it becomes quite easy to fabricate your own soundtrack of sorts while reading comics, even if it is restricted to the imagination rather than to the expressly auditory.

A step further again into silence is the average fiction book. Non fiction contains even less again but those aren't written so much for providing entertainment as for providing information. In fiction we attempt to insert a soundtrack through the written dialogue, some limited use of onomatopoeia though this is mostly out of fashion except in long descriptions or in a snappy action scene. Strangely, through the decline in use of onomatopoeia the imagined sounds are closer to real ones remembered as there is less mental interference as happens like the above with colour.

In written fiction, sound that isn't dialogue has dropped in usage to the point where it is barely above smell as a sense to be described. Most authors tend to focus on sight first and combine it with dialogue as the main reference to sound. What is odd about this is that most of the sounds you create or hear every day don't actually include speech - unless you're a voice actor or a radio host etc. The average person may speak a fair amount in a day but even then the sounds around them and created by them are far greater in quantity and in often volume. Just listen and you will see.

Even a person occasionally muttering in a quiet room is greatly overwhelmed by sounds not made through dialogue. Right now, there is the hum of a computer, the whine of a screen, the tapping of keyboard keys, the ticking of a clock, chatter of birds, the hum of the fridge, a cat meowing at the door, cars rumbling past, a plane overhead, my breathing and my clothes rustling as I move, wind in the trees and if I turn on a movie again to provide a little more noise to cover up the "silence" there will be a movie soundtrack blasting away on top of it. And that's just now. I'll soon be banging about in the kitchen making bread and out feeding the birds and disturbing their peace. Meanwhile, not a word is spoken and won't be until the cats come in and hassle me or the bread burns.

Yet most of this would not be written down in a book because it is general background noise of a single scene likely of little importance to the plot. Most writers want to and do write a complete scene through referencing multiple senses, focusing mainly on sight, then hearing and smell, then taste and touch. Limited attention is given to any particular moment and the divide between the senses lesser still so that the representation of sound is intermittent and usually apparent in action scenes (carriages don't always rattle but swords always zing and snick and swish). 

Plenty of dialogue is used to shunt any book along and create colourful characterisation and interactions. They say include lots of dialogue because it increases the pace and helps build character and plot while being easy to read. But I have read books that focus heavily on dialogue and found the characters very much like cardboard cutouts because of it and the action shallow and fleeting. In other words, too much sound only as written dialogue can be incredibly boring to read.

Yet if sound is used in other ways, such as to describe the click and crunch of a clockwork robot grinding to a halt you suddenly have a whole lot more going on in the imagination than when a girl named Emily says "Oh my dear, I forgot to ask. Would you like a cup of tea?". A And funnily enough, both are perfectly acceptable and reference some scenery and action. But what makes sound really come to life isn't the dialogue, which can only be imagined with different voices. As with sight (through the referencing of colour and texture and depth and shadows over "there was a tree") adding more details to sound and winding it through the descriptions is what helps build a world that can be said to be full and brilliant in the imagination.

While sound isn't the first sense pulled on outside of dialogue (which still is mostly second to the description of sight) its actually quite important to creating a fictional world even when the method of conveying that sound is solely through the written word. Sound isn't always obvious. It doesn't always leap out and grab your attention but even when subtly interwoven into a work of written fiction it really does make the world sing, as it were.

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