How to Use the Sense of Hearing in Your Writing


This blog post is part of a series about why we need to use sensory imagery in our writing. As we learned in my introductory post about sensory imagery, the sensory details draw readers into the setting and allow them to feel a character’s existence. These details must be specific, concrete, and appeal to the senses, whether seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched.  

In this post, we explore the sense of hearing.


How the sense of hearing works.

Sounds enrich our environment; we depend on them to help us interpret, communicate with, and express the world around us. 


What we call “sound” is the vibration of air molecules against the eardrum, which in turn moves the tiniest bones in the body, the hammer, anvil, and stirrup. These three bones press fluid in the inner ear against membranes, which brush tiny hairs that trigger nearby nerve cells, which telegraph messages to the brain: We hear. 


Some curious facts to consider about the sense of hearing.

The one thing we rarely hear is the inner workings of our bodies. While we might sometimes hear our stomach rumble or the thump of our heart when our head is against the pillow at night, we don’t hear the whoosh of blood through our veins or our eyelids opening and closing all day long. In that sense, it’s fortunate that humans don’t hear low frequencies very well; if we did, the sounds of our bodies might drive us mad. Now, there’s an interesting idea for a character. 


Think of how some sounds stand out to us while others recede; for example, the sound of your baby crying, a sound that wakes you from sleep when the noise of garbage trucks thrashing outside your window in the early morning doesn’t even register. 


Think about being buffeted by sound at a loud party where you have to shout to be heard, yet, you still can zero in on a conversation you want to hear. The ear can put some sounds in the background and drag others to the fore. Do any of your characters have selective hearing?


When familiar sounds become unfamiliar.


Sometimes familiar sounds can become unfamiliar. If you are alone at night, how often has the familiar creaking of the house sounded like a lock being forced by an intruder? 


We hallucinate sound more often than sight, and auditory illusions like the one mentioned above turn out to be other than we thought. And then, of course, there are the voices that speak to saints and psychotics. 


Think of all the great ways you can create tension in your narrative. Does your character trust what they hear?


When working on character development, ask your characters ‘What sound do they love to hear?’ and ‘What sound do they not like to hear?’ You’ll get some interesting answers.


Don’t forget to employ sound in developing your settings. 

Is it quiet, or is there a cacophony of sounds? Even a seemingly quiet setting may have a rich undercurrent of sounds. This is a way to show us your character’s environment rather than telling us. By focusing on sounds that we often ignore in daily life, you can create an authentic setting that will resonate with us on a subliminal level. 


To become more familiar with the sense of hearing, try the following exercise.

Sit quietly and close your eyes. Take a few conscious, deep breaths as you allow your body and mind to settle. Now, breathe naturally and put all your attention on what you hear.  If you take the time and sit quietly, you will probably get beyond the familiar landscape of sound and begin to hear sounds you didn’t know were there. 


Now, write a description of what you experienced. You can always do this from a character’s perspective, which will give you some unexpected insights.

Go with your first thought. Keep your pen moving. 

What did you discover?


Now it’s your turn to see how the sense of hearing can enrich your writing.

You can use the prompts below to explore memories or apply them to a character—you’ll be amazed at how much you discover. These prompts work well for both fiction and nonfiction. 


How to start: 

Set your timer for 10 minutes. Write the prompt at the top of your page and begin writing—go where the first thought takes you. 

Keep your pen moving. 


Don’t stop until the time is up. 

Suspend judgment. 

Be curious. 

Have fun!



Write by hand. Writing by hand connects the brain and body and, I believe, the heart. It’s especially helpful in getting those first thoughts onto the page.


Writing prompt #1 

She’d never heard the sound before, and it made her feel …



Writing prompt #2

The shout was distant, but he understood that …  



Writing prompt #3

The voices rose and fell like …


Thank you for allowing me to bring you to your senses. Let me know how it goes in the comments box below.


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I’m Kathryn Kay, the founder of A Writer Within. I offer support and inspiration to women writers through one-on-one coaching, editing services, and week-long retreats in Tuscany. My focus is on getting writers into the creative flow, beyond their internal critic, and their very best stories onto the page. If you have a writer within, let’s set her free!

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