Exploring the Senses: Hearing

A series looking at the five senses and how to use them to immerse your characters and reader in a story. This essay deals with hearing.

Image Credit: 
© 2017 Epytome / Used With Permission

Follows: Touch

Senses are integral to understanding the world around you, but are often overlooked by writers. Hearing is one of the senses that you cannot avoid using in your writing. Whether in dialogue or just what your characters experience in their surroundings, you’re going to be using sound quite a bit. However, you can craft quite a powerful environment or situation with your use of sound and how your characters experience that by writing something that resonates with your reader.

What your character hears doesn’t always have to be accurate. It’s one of the senses that is, arguably, the most unreliable. If you write someone with hearing impairments then they may not always hear the world as it actually is, but your average person with perfect hearing will still experience things that aren’t exactly in line with reality from time to time. Be it auditory hallucinations, mishearing things or our own anxieties and fears creating sounds out of nothing, we can’t always trust our ears. This can certainly create a sense of tension within your writing.

Imagery for Empathy

You can use sound to create a feeling of empathy between your reader and your characters, as the sounds imparted can build a common bond.

You heard—the song the moth sings, the babble
Of falling snowflakes (in a language
No school has taught you), the scream
Of the reddening bud of the oak tree

As the bud bursts into the world’s brightness.

Muted Music by Robert Penn Warren

In this extract, Warren uses exaggerated, metaphoric sounds to create an image in the reader’s mind; this in turn helps to start an empathetic reaction. You feel the same emotions that the characters are feeling because of the way that the situation has been described using the sense of hearing, instead of the telling the reader what the character is feeling.

By using emotive imagery as a way to show your reader the story, as opposed to telling it to them, you can create a much more powerful piece of writing that will not only resonate with your audience, but also stick with them. Using sounds is one of the easier ways to create this emotive imagery.

Relation to Environment

You can also use your characters’ sense of hearing to create a very clear, concise image of what environment they are in. This can help to create a more holistic approach to your writing.

Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft,
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

To The Autumn by John Keats

What Keats does here is create a very clear image of the environment. The lambs, crickets and chorus of birdsong are all things that we can hear in our mind and this is what crafts this image for us as the reader. Usually there is a cacophony of sounds that we are exposed to at any one point. Making use of this is in your writing can help your story telling by showing your readers the environment that your characters are in, rather than telling them.

More often than not we, as people, tend to ignore the more common of background noises that are thrown at us every day. However, by highlighting these noises, as well as others, you can create a much more real account of what is happening to your characters that resonates with your readers.

Interpretation of Emotion

You can use sound and your characters’ sense of hearing to create an emotive response in your readers.

the voice of the last cricket
across the first frost
is one kind of good-by
it is so thin a splinter of singing

Splinter by Carl Sandburg

In this extract, Sandburg creates a sense of loss by using sound. By symbolically describing the passage of time through the use of noise, he’s effectively creating an emotional image that resonates with us as readers, without telling the reader what it is that is truly being described. This kind of symbolic description can improve your writing greatly when combined with the senses. By describing an event, such as the passage of time, or an associated emotion, the loss, through sense it creates a much more powerful image that can have a lasting impression on the reader.

You can use sound and your characters’ hearing, or even your narrator’s interpretation of the sound to create an emotive reaction from your readers. This helps to draw your audience into the story and create a lasting relationship between your characters and your readers.


Having your character not hear things with perfect accuracy can also be a very effective tool in your story telling. Especially in first person, your main protagonist can relay their sense of the world to your reader; this doesn’t have to be the truth. Our sense of hearing in the real world is not perfect and the environment around us can create an emotional response within us. Whether or not that is an appropriate response, such as feeling sad when you hear an emotive song or an inappropriate response, such as feeling fear when we hear a creaking pipe in the house.

Describing your character’s senses in general is a good thing to do to add a lot of depth to your scene, your characters and your writing overall. You’re already going to be including a lot of hearing and sound already, but it is worth remembering the power that sound can create, and making use of it to add that extra depth and realism to your work.


Next: Taste

David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.

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