Sound and Silence: Shaping the Mood

Someone shrieks. A parent scoops up a child and flees. Gazes swivel skyward as a sudden crashing sound shatters the brittle quiet. The thumps and thuds of hurrying feet sound a timpani beat on the stairs.

What is this? The aftermath of a horrible crime? Fear engendered by a natural disaster?

No. This is a three-year-old’s birthday party that I recently attended. Taken out of context, the sights and sounds above have a veneer of tension and horror. (Perhaps the notion of a three-year-old’s birthday party fills you with horror now.)

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When a bunch of small children congregate in one space, you might imagine you’re in a war zone when you catalogue the amount of spillage, breakage, and yell-age (not a real word, but appropriate) taking place. Somehow seven small children can seem like 30, especially when they’re sugared up.

Actually, the most eerie sound at the party was the sudden onslaught of quiet. All of the children were upstairs in one child’s bedroom being very quiet. The silence sent every parent rushing up the stairs to see what was going on.

Since I was in charge of games at this party, I was privy to the most sounds: shrieks, protests (“I didn’t get a turrrrrrrrrrrrrrrn”), and questions. (“Where’s my baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaalllllll?”) I wondered what the neighbors thought of all of the sounds coming from this place.

Expectations factor into how sounds are received. Because we expect a bunch of kids ranging in age from 2 to 7 to be loud when they congregate, screams aren’t as ominous as they would seem coming from a crowd of adults at a non-sporting event. Therefore, our heart rates remain even when we hear them, unless we recognize the switch in a child’s tone (from excited to upset).

violin1The birthday party reminds me of something to which I need to pay more attention in my writing: sounds and their effect on a listener. Consider the way sounds shape our reaction to scenes in films and shows. We’ve all seen horror movies where high- or low-pitched instruments are the signal that something awful is going to happen. At the Moving Image Education website, I found a quote that encapsulates this experience:

Pitch can greatly affect audience response: a low rumbling sound might imply menace, while a high, sustained note might create tension.

If you’ve got time and don’t scare easily, you can watch one of the most famous scenes in cinematic history—the shower scene from Psycho (1960), one of director Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous films. (Seems a lot tamer than movies today.) Listen to the music and how it affects the mood of the scene.

If you watched the scene or remember it from the past, did you notice the quiet at the beginning? That aspect makes the murder all the more jarring.

In a book, an author has to work hard to help a reader correctly interpret the mood. For descriptions of sounds, we have to rely on figurative language and other well-chosen words to create a frame of reference for the reader, since he or she can only “hear” through his/her imagination. (For example: “I said, no!” Jessica’s “no” sliced the air like a knife.)

I usually look at the behind-the-scenes documentaries of shows like Clone Wars or movies like The Lord of the Rings to learn what sound engineers do to create sounds that add to our experience of the media. A great online resource for the use of sounds to convey mood is the article, “Change The Sound, Change The Mood,” at NHPR (New Hampshire Public Radio). Click here for that article. If you have time, check out the videos that show how the mood of well-known movie trailers drastically changed as the music used in them changed. (The revised Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory trailer made me laugh out loud. The boat ride is key.)

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The boat ride from Willy Wonka

How has a sound affected your mood lately? How do you use sound in your writing to heighten the mood? What book or poem have you read recently where the descriptions of sounds made the text even more vivid?

Birthday hats from trendymods.com. Violin from bibleconversation.wordpress.com. Willy Wonka boat ride gif from pandawhale.com.

Go with the Flow

When I’m stuck in a word constipation, where every word feels forced, the words on the page don’t seem to flow.

Sometimes my writing seems like a conga line—images and thoughts linked up and moving in the same direction, having a great time. But sometimes what I write seems like a sixth grade dance—everyone standing around awkwardly. At times like that, I need the “laxative” (sorry, but I have to carry through on the constipation theme) of a walk in nature or a long, relaxing drive in order to flow once more. Chocolate also helps.

Jauss Book

Author David Jauss tackles the subject of flow in “What We Talk About When We Talk About Flow,” one of several essays in Alone with All That Could Happen. You’re probably thinking of the flow state right now, if you’ve heard of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychology professor who wrote the bestseller Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, based on his studies.

I learned about Csikszentmihalyi through a classmate’s research for her graduate lecture and through a book I had to copyedit for my job. I’ve been meaning to read Csikszentmihalyi’s book, so I won’t try to fake my way through a discussion about it here, since I’m not directly referring to the state of mind where you lose track of time because you’re so caught up in what you’re doing. But based on what I’ve read, Csikszentmihalyi avers that you have control over this state. For Jauss, you also have control—over whether or not your writing flows:

Those of us who don’t instinctively write flowing prose can practice the skills and strategies involved until they become so habitual they are, for all practical purposes, instinctive. (Jauss 60)

Jauss helps us go with the flow (heh heh) with advice on syntax. Here are a couple of tips on writing prose that flows:

• Vary your sentence lengths. I have a habit of using complex sentences, trying to cram as much as I can into a sentence until its own weight crushes it, because that’s how I roll. Not a good thing. But the flowing writer employs simple, compound, and complex sentences. Don’t believe me? Try it. I dare you to give it a shot.

• Pay attention to rhythm. Rhythm works to create a mood. In moments of high tension in stories, the sentences often are simple to show the heightened reality of a character: for example, the throat-tightening fear he or she feels during a chase or the shock of an awful discovery. Complex sentences slow the pace and cause the tension to dissipate. Check out these sentences from The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: “I know what to do. I move into range and give myself three arrows to get the job done. I place my feet carefully” (Collins 243). Imagine how different the effect would be had Collins used complex sentences.

There’s more to Jauss’s essay, but you can read it for yourself. As for me, I need to find some chocolate as soon as possible.

Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. New York: Scholastic Press, 2008. Print.

Jauss, David. “What We Talk About When We Talk About Flow.” Alone with All That Could Happen: Rethinking Conventional Wisdom about the Craft of Fiction Writing. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2008. 59-85. Print.