Phonics is a huge topic, in which I can’t possibly address everything – this post is about using sound in your prose to shape a desired effect.
Certain sounds have characteristics of sounding pleasant or rough to our ears. There’s a reason certain languages sound so nice and others sound very rough to an English audience – often times, in speculative fiction, we’re creating languages or names, so you can utilize sound to help you shape a character or place. A character named Kreb sounds rougher then another named Suth. Utilizing monosyllables also creates that choppy effect – Tukekib still sounds a little softer than Bob, but I’ll discuss rhythm further below.
Generally speaking, these letters make the roughest sounds: B, D, T, G, K, but sometimes it depends on the speaker’s accent and how it’s paired. Sometimes, R’s can sound rough. Softer sounds are more like CH, S, TH, F, QU; but once again, it depends on what it’s in conjunction with. Generally speaking, your vowels are neutral, but if your made-up word sound very similar to a word readers are familiar with, it might deter both how they would sound it out, and the lexical implications.
Now, that’s all well and good while you’re naming characters or locations, but how does this help during regular prose? Let’s consider the same sentence, I’ll rewrite it several times, and we’ll focus on sound.
Bob walked to the store to buy milk.
Now, let’s focus on soft sounds:
Bob slinked silently to the store to purchase milk.
Now, let’s look at hard sounds:
Bob trudged to K-Mart to buy milk.
You may say that there is hardly any difference – or perhaps you don’t want him at the Kmart, he needs to go to the 7/11 for plot purposes, and he’s neither trudging nor slinking. That’s okay – most of the time, you don’t have to utilize sound unless it’s intentional – however, if you’re not getting the feeling you want for a scene, consider the use of sound. Are your sentences short and choppy, or long and flowing? Even though most people won’t be reading your book aloud (unless you write children’s books) we still internalize the sound. Consider this piece of dialogue:
The princess snapped, “I’ll never marry you!”
Very cliché. Let’s compare:
The princess snapped, “I’d sooner bed a dog!” Different then, “I oppose this union with every fiber of my being!” In all these examples, she’s against the idea of marriage – but we incorporate different ideas, and, different sounds associated. Let’s look at the former rewrite – let’s say we’re in a world where we don’t want to imply bestiality, but we still want to make this sound rough, but we’ve already established that the princess likes the sound of her own voice. Let’s have the princess say, “You dare try to force me to wed you? You are not worthy to tie the sandals on my feet. My brothers shall rescue me, and you shall be torn limb from limb.” Without analyzing every sound there, it sounds a lot harsher than, “I’ll never marry you!” And not just from the threat of violence – Consider: “you Dare Try To force me to weD you.” The harsh sounds come out first, the part where she’s promising dismemberment comes after, and is actually the soft sounding part of the dialogue. Of course, it would sound ridiculous if she is only using soft-sounding words or hard-sounding words, but you can consider how key dialogue sounds if there are multiple choices for delivery.
Sentence Length and Pacing
Generally speaking in prose, the more complicated the action scenes, the shorter your sentences become – if Sir Galahad is scaling the dragon to the weak spot to give the death blow, it’s easier to give an account of him doing each action – especially if this dragon is flailing around and trying to squish him.
Sir Galahad leapt to the tail of the blue dragon. He gripped hard to the scale to keep from being thrown. The dragon roared. It began to run. Galahad pulled himself up towards the dragon’s flank, looking for the light patch. Weakness.
That reads quicker than:
Sir Galahad gracefully bounded on to the flickering tail of the great blue dragon; whereupon he clasped a glistening blue scale with his steel gauntlet, and pulled himself upon the great thundering beast. The dragon let loose a terrific roar, and began to run, hindering Galahad’s sojourn to the light patch of scales on his right buttocks, where Merlin said the weakness would be.
This shorter, choppier segment allows your reader to increase the pacing of a sequence. Conversely – things such as inactive description and telling things in the passive voice tends to slow your pacing down – this is useful; for while it’s not necessary to always use the active voice, occasionally slipping into the passive allows you to slow down and take a breather in your book. While most advice is ‘don’t bore your reader’ your reader doesn’t need to be riding the dragon the entire novel, either. You can have areas of relative slowness so that you can pick up the pace for the action sequences.
Using polysyllables can also be helpful for name and word creation – as said before, using sounds to make things longer makes them seem more formal, and this is true with character and location names as well.
Unless you’re using poetry or telling a very stylized form of story, you probably won’t be utilizing sound the entire way through your manuscript, but understanding some aspects of sound might help you make decisions in forming your prose.