Writing is more effective when the sounds create a rhythm in the reader's mind. Whether the sentences are short and direct or long and complicated, if the words rise and fall through their impact or through their sound, or through the way they sound next to each other, then they hang together with memorable meaning.
Novelists are often told that it's best to mix short and long sentences to create good rhythm and to avoid boring the reader. Cadence, syllable length, sentence length, and word choice all count. This applies to all genres.
We are not often told to pay close attention to the sound of the words next to each other, but that is precisely what Priscilla Long focuses on in her excellent discussion of the use of sound effects in prose. In her book, The Writer's Portable Mentor, she explains the use of sound effects at the word level. Essentially, what Long says we want to do is go for the echo of word sounds.
In poetry, this is done all the time. In prose, all the time is too much for many of us. If you are a writer who values story over words, you will not want to sacrifice pacing to making the words as beautiful as possible. But it's important to realize that even the fastest-paced novels have far greater impact if the writing uses word sound effects to advantage.
Here are two of the types of sound effects that Priscilla Long identifies as effective for creating echoes in prose:
Alliteration: when first consonants make the same sound and thus set up an echo. For example: 'Power to the People.' Slogans often use alliteration, but in prose writing it's important to use alliterative echoes without overdoing it. Too much is obvious and kitchy (my word, not Long's).
Here's an example of good prose alliteration I found in a short story called Selway, by Pam Houston:
"They threw us their rope and we caught it. There were three of them, three big men in a boat considerably bigger than ours." (Pam Houston, Cowboys Are My Weakness, p. 27, Selway)
See all those 'th's' echoing each other? Notice how the echo creates rhythm and emphasis? Also alliterative here are 'big,' 'boat,' and 'bigger.' Same effect.
Assonance: the echoing of vowel sounds. The words, 'historically, stiffness, and discourse,' for example, assonate in their hiss-stiff-ness-dis sound. Another example Long provides is about saxophonist Ben Webster:
"His tone is thick and reedy, almost as full of air as note." (Ira Sadoff, "Ben Webster," 255)
Priscilla Long points to the long 'o' sounds in this sentence: tone, almost, note.
The reader's ear hears these long o's and strings them together to create an underlying rhythm/sound to the sentence that adds resonance.
Other types of word sound effects are also explored in Long's chapter on Working With Language in The Writer's Portable Mentor, but these two, alliteration and assonance, are techniques that come naturally to most prose writers.
If you take a look through a chapter of your work, you're sure to find places you've used sound effects. If you're like me, you'll find plenty of places where you can improve the writing by realizing what you might do with sound effects to create more emphasis at key points without using more words—just better words, ones that create an echo.
Do you have a standout sentence to share that uses word sound effects well, whether from your own writing or another favorite author?