“Loud” Is Too Quiet: Tips for Describing Sound

I’ve now edited several books and stories written by others (though not all have made it to print). It’s made me sensitive to words that I see over and over that don’t actually add anything to a sentence. The word “loud” is high on that list. If someone shouts, you don’t have to say ‘he shouted loudly.’ If a gun goes off, you can just say ‘it went off with a bang.’ There is no such thing as a bang that isn’t loud, so a ‘loud bang’ is redundant. If it is not loud enough to be a bang, then you need a different word to describe what is happening.

One noted exception is if you are using a verb that is normally quiet but is being carried out loudly instead. If someone somehow is capable of tiptoeing loudly or is using a loud whisper (which is also called a stage whisper if the intention is for people to hear it as an aside), then it can be worth including the word loud. But most of the time, there are a ton of alternatives that are so much more interesting, and as is the case with “large”, can add flavor and nuance to your writing while mixing  up your word choices. But first, let’s explore the peculiarities of trying to capture the sense of hearing on the written page.

How Can We Read Sound?

I had a hard time finding images to go along with this post because obviously “loud” is something experienced through our ears. So how can you get your readers to “hear” loud using only the written word? (And most importantly, WITHOUT using the word “loud” itself?) The pictures I found that clearly conveyed loudness had one important thing in common: they employed emotive faces.

These people are all clearly encountering or making some kind of noise, but their emotions range all across the board. So why can’t writers take a page out of photographer’s books?

The next time you have to get the idea of loudness across, focus on how loudness makes the character(s) feel in different situations. Any migraine sufferer can tell you that something doesn’t need to be loud to feel that way. For instance, if your characters are having a contemplative moment of silence, any sort of disturbance is going to feel loud, even if it is a happy sound like laughter. If people are startled by a noise they may curse, stand, spill a drink, or make some other sudden and disruptive sound or movement. This shows the reader that the sound was perceived as “loud” even if it would be objectively not that big of a deal.

On the other hand, if you’ve got people in the middle of a death metal concert, loudness would be an important part of the experience. The thud of the base in your chest and the feeling of being totally absorbed in the sound could feel liberating, or to the uninitiated it could add to a feeling of claustrophobia. Loud kids are usually happy kids, but a dog that is making a lot of noise is probably pretty agitated. If a person is both happy and loud, they could be described as ebullient, but a loud and angry crying jag is called keening. It’s all about the feelings.

Alternatives to Loud Adjectives and Nouns

Sometimes, you just need a good synonym or simile, and varying your word choices will help to keep the interest of both yourself and your readers.

Loud adjectives: thunderous, cacophonous, sonorous, vociferous, clamorous, blaring, deafening, piercing, ear-piercing/ear-shattering/earth-shattering, powerful, forceful, lusty, forte, insistent, vehement, emphatic, urgent, noisy

Loud nouns (though many of these can also act as verbs): clang, ping, thwack, whack, slap, whoosh, boom, beep, blast, explosion, wail, cacophony, clamor, clangor, clatter, clash, crash, crunch, hoot, peal, racket, roar, snap, thunk, honk, din

Combine anything from list one and list two, and you’ve got a pretty exciting way of saying “loud”! A thunderous boom, a forceful clang, an urgent wail, the list goes on! However, be careful not to get too liberal with your pairings, especially if the same sound is being described more than once. Try to whittle it down to the most effective way of conveying the kind of tone you want the reader to imagine (high or low pitched, hollow, metallic, etc.), the length of the sound (staccato, echoing, reverberating, continuous, etc.) and the feeling you want to convey (is the character frightened? Joyful? Relieved? etc.)

Loudness in Dialog

And sometimes you want to show that a character is speaking at a high volume without ever using the word loud.  The easiest way to do this is simply to use an exclamation point in the dialog itself. Italics is also a good tool to show someone is hitting a particular word or phrase in the sentence harder than the others, which is often accompanied by a slight increase in volume.

Then of course, this is English and we’ve got a TON of words to choose from. Here are a few synonyms I came up off the top of my head to take the place of “she said loudly.”

Synonyms for speaking/emoting loudly: cried (out), crowed, shouted, called, yelled, screamed, whooped, guffawed, howled, screeched, wailed, erupted, exploded, shrieked, scoffed, yowled

Like the adjective and noun pairings above, be sure to be judicious in your use of dialog tags that aren’t “said.” There are some people who feel REALLY strong about this, and may even put down a book at the first sign of anything else. I’m not in this camp personally, though I do think it is a good idea to choose the times you use any dialog tag wisely. This includes the more colorful, emotive ones as much (or maybe even more) than “said.”

Descriptive Tags to Reflect “Loud”

Dialog can also be a fun place to add some voice to your writing with literary devices like similes and metaphors. I prefer to have anything that describes how a person sounds but isn’t a direct dialog tag to come before the spoken words, but this is by no means a hard and fast rule. However, I like this because then I am more likely to “hear” the line spoken the right way rather than having to revise it in my head after I get to the end of the sentence. (I am sure some of this preference comes from how much I like to read out loud to The Mister, and making sure I understand the right tone as I speak out the words makes it all run smoothly.)

Here are a few examples of interesting way to convey a high volume through action tags that employ literary devices rather than dialog tags:

Her scoff rang out like a church bell.

He barreled through the silence like a locomotive.

Susan declared her intentions with the booming voice of a queen.

John’s tone started as a rumble and ended as a roar.

A great way to loosen the old gray matter up if you are having trouble deciding how to express “loudness” while you are writing is to do a little brainstorming. Take a few minutes and see how many different loud things you can think of, or use the list below to get your mind moving.

  • Basically all trucks (tow truck, garbage truck, fire truck, etc) and farm equipment
  • Stereos, speakers, feedback from instruments or a microphone
  • Waves crashing, something hitting water from a great height
  • Barking/howling dogs, mewling cats, hungry guinea pigs
  • Air passing by your ears during free fall
  • Large engines like airplanes or trains
  • Children playing/children crying
  • Sirens, car horns, and school bells
  • Heavy things hitting each other
  • Structures or trees falling
  • Hand guns and other weapons
  • A death rattle
  • Power tools
  • Fire
  • And don’t forget, the silence of absence can also feel loud if you are used to the happy sounds of a full house

What are some ways you’ve found to dress up the descriptions in your writing? I’d love to see your examples in the comments!

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