Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Describing Noise

Today and tomorrow I want to talk about noise and how to describe it in prose, in case you reach a point in the writing of your novel (or short story or essay or other piece of writing) where you need to describe a noisy scene with some word (or words) other than noisy.

You can come at the problem of describing a noisy scene in various ways. Using a broad brush, you can apply words like noisy, cacophonous, and so on (see below). Using a finer brush, you can particularize the noise, describing it as clangorous or sonorous or whatever  (see further below), perhaps even going as far as inventing a noise-word to describe an actual instance of a sound, such as a huge cork coming out of an empty barrel with a SHBUNNKKK!

Another thing you can do is devote word-power to describing the effect(s) of a noise, rather than concentrating on describing the actual noise (e.g., a car stereo with chest-thumping hip-hop). Describing the effect of a noise puts you a little further down the road of showing rather than telling.

But you can also bend imagery to your purpose (something I'll try to show in tomorrow's post) and try to reconstruct sounds using non-sound words. This takes a bit of ingenuity, but it can be well worth the headache.

Let's take a quick look at the vocabulary of noise (in English).

Noise Words
English words that can be used to indicate noise include babel, ballyhoo, bedlam, clamor, commotion, din, discord, fracas, hubbub, hullabalou, outcry, pandemonium, racket, ruckus, tumult, turmoil, uproar, vociferation.

Characterizing Noise
The word "noise" is rather generic (and thus vague) because it can refer to so many kinds of sounds. Sometimes you want a word that can put more specificity on the noise. Consider the following words:
  • obstreperous—unruly noisiness (usually implies difficult to control).
  • cacophonous—harsh sounding, grating.
  • clamorous—marked by confused din or outcry.
  • clangorous—noise characterized by clanging.
  • plangent—loud, resounding, and often melancholy.
  • sonorous—a sound that's full, deep, rich.
  • stentorious or stentorian—loud (usually used in reference to a person's voice, in honor of the herald, Stentor, in Homer's Iliad). 
  • strident—loud, harsh,  grating.
  • stridulous—implies a shrill creaking sound, as of floorboards being being torn up, a creaking door, or possibly the death-gasp of some person or animal. Many insects have special adaptations that allow them to emit stridulatory sounds (e.g., crickets, grasshoppers).

Words Indirectly Suggestive of Noise
Words that can be used to suggest noise include unruly, riotous, rampageous, pandemonic. These words imply chaotic behavior, rather than audible sound per se. They can be bent (through synesthesic metaphor) to other semantic scopes; for example, "neon lights in riotous colors."

Individual Types of Noises
The list here is endless: bang, boom, buzz, growl, hiss, jingle, pop, screech, squeal, tinkle, whimper, whine, yelp, etc. (All of these can serve either as verb or noun.) Many sounds are associated with particular sources (e.g., the caterwaul of a cat). I don't know of a book that catalogs every conceivable type of noise (although J.I. Rodale's Synonym Finder is a good place to start). I'm sure there are hundreds of such words.

Noises can be further characterized by auxiliary words (adjectives) that describe a sound's unique characteristics (e.g. the staccato clack-clack-clack of a stick along a picket fence).

With all these tools in your toolbag, you'd think it would be easy (or straightforward, at least) to describe a noisy subway station, or crowd noise at a rally. It's actually harder than you might think, unless you simply want to say "the crowd was noisy" and be done with it. Tomorrow, I'll show an example of how I handled a noisy bar/restaurant scene in a piece of fiction I'm working on. Bring your ear-plugs.