The Senses: Hear Me Out

“Show, don’t tell.”

How often, as writers, do we get this little piece of advice?

“Show the reader what you want them to see, they don’t like being told it.”

There is nothing wrong with this advice, to be sure, because descriptive language is the key to being a good writer. You need to allow your reader to immerse themselves in the same world that you’ve created.

However,  I myself get a little too lost in this advice, and it causes me to block out all of my other senses and focus on what I want the reader to see or think.

As an exercise for myself, I decided to start toying with hearing. Below this, I have the same passage, and I’ve written it three times. One with sight being the main and only sense, one with sound, and one with an even mixture of both. I wanted to see which ones worked better together for this particular passage, and utilized the senses as a sort of trial-and-error way of perfecting my writing.

This passage is when the main characters from my novel enter the castle they’ll be — staying in, for lack of a better phrase — for the first time.

They approached the castle’s boundaries. The mountainous castle loomed ominously in the newly formed darkness. The sun had melted behind the neighboring hills and left its blood red mark on the clouds. They crossed over the bridge above the moat as the gates of the portcullis rolled up to allow their entrance.

The inside of the castle was just as mind blowing as the outside. It had what Donovan imagined when he thought of a castle; a cobblestone walkway, built out of stone with a bunch of merchants and people walking around. The gatehouse was a roofless square enclosed by the curtain walls protecting the inside of the castle. The small peddler’s plaza on the other side of the portcullis hid the castle’s enormity, making it seem as though this was the center of life in the city. As they entered, the keep extended high into the sky, a warning beacon to any intruder who thought they could tear down the castle walls.

The crowd moved quickly apart for the prince.

The plopping of the horse’s hooves quieted as the castle neared. The world became silent as the mountainous castle’s ominous presence became known. The hoot of the owl marked the passing of the sun as night began to encompass them. The horse started up its trot again over the bridge above the moat as the gates of the portcullis moaned with anguish when they were opened.

The noise was almost deafening as soon as they had entered the castle walls. The click of a hundred horses pulling carriages over the cobblestone walkways drowned out the sound of their bustling merchants. A bird squawked as it flew overhead, and the armor of marching guards creaked as they paced within the curtain walls. Music rang from the small peddler’s plaza on the other side of the portcullis, bringing life to the center of the square. The echo of the voices and laughter desisted halfway up the keep’s walls, merging into a foreboding silence warding off enemies.

Robes scuttled on the ground and footsteps quickened as the crowd pushed each other in order to move for the prince.

The plopping of the horse’s hooves quieted as the mountainous castle neared, looming ominously in the newly formed darkness. The hoot of the owl marked the passing of the sun as it melted behind the neighboring hills and left its blood red mark on the clouds. The horse started up its trot again over the bridge above the moat as the gates of the portcullis moaned with anguish when they were opened.

The noise was almost deafening as soon as they had entered the castle walls. The click of a hundred horses pulling carriages over the cobblestone walkways drowned out the sound of their bustling merchants. The gatehouse was a roofless square enclosed by the curtain walls protecting the inside of the castle. Music rang from the small peddler’s plaza on the other side of the portcullis, bringing life to the center of the square. The echo of the voices and laughter desisted halfway up the keep’s walls, extending high into the sky as a warning beacon for potential intruders.

The crowd moved quickly apart for the prince.

The first passage, or the sight passage, was pretty much copied as is from the manuscript of my novel. I only changed the opening of the portcullis, because I had already used sound for that description. But it was the only sound I had used. The second passage, or the hearing passage, was, in my opinion, far better than the first. Hearing is all part of the experience. What you see is the same idea as what you get from looking at a picture. You get it, you understand what the person in the picture was experiencing, but it’s not as good as, say, watching a movie, where you can actually hear what’s happening as well as see it. The final passage, where I mixed both of the senses, marks a combination I’m far more comfortable with in order to allow the reader to understand the massiveness of this castle.

Perhaps I’m crazy, but I think utilizing more than just the visuals of text will allow the reader to expand their imagination. Too often they’re told what to see, what to think, what to believe — but sometimes the story becomes richer when the reader is allowed to decide what they see, what they think, what they believe, with the author only acting as a guide.

Try it for yourself. Take a passage from a novel or a short story or some form of descriptive work, and write it only using what the character sees, write it again using only what the character hears, and then again mixing the two and see if you can get the point across by allowing the reader to imagine what they see just as much as they’re told what to see.

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