Creating Sibilance

Ever wondered how you can create poetic resonance within your narrative, or you’ve read what you have written and you’ve discovered it has strong characteristic sounds? The descriptive language somehow appeals to your senses to create an extra dimension to the narrative. This is known as sibilance.

Sibilance is a literary device which writers can use to create certain sounds within their narrative, usually a hissing sound with ‘s’ or ‘z’ or ‘sh’ and sometimes a soft ‘c,’ and it is most often found in poetry. These words resonate with the reader, it visualises sound and if done properly, it can bring the description to life.

Sibilance can either appear within narrative or you can use it in dialogue, but as with all writing, it’s about knowing how and it works and where the sibilance should be placed that counts. It’s an effective tool to create multi layers to what might be flat, uninspiring narrative. Besides, effective use of language is what writing is all about and writers should take advantage of all the tools in their writing toolbox.

Sibilance in narrative

Scenes of description can benefit from sibilance, it gives can help create atmosphere, it can draw tension, it can paint a more colourful picture for your reader. 

Of course, using sibilant words doesn’t mean littering a scene in such a way that it somehow weakens the narrative rather than strengthens it, for instance by using every word beginning with s, such as ‘he slowly sank in shifting shadows, senses starved...’

This is overkill and reads more like a shopping list. This is the wrong way to approach sibilance. Remember that sibilant words don’t have to begin with‘s’ to create sibilance.

Here’s an example of how it should be done within narrative.  I've highlighted the sibilant words:

Your deceitful sheen stretched tight across a burnished expression.

Nearly this entire sentence has sibilance. The soft ‘c’ in deceitful, the ‘sh’ sound in sheen and the ‘s’ in stretched is further bolstered by the ‘ss’ in across, ‘sh’ in burnished and finally ‘ss’ in expression.

Notice that not every word begins with‘s’, but that other words which express the softer ‘sh’ and ‘c’ sound and the harder ‘ss’ sound have been utilised.   

This is how effective sibilance works. It doesn’t have to be overt, most often it is subtle, and each word doesn’t have to begin with ‘s’, but the sentence is written in such a way that a reader will notice the sounds created within the sentence on a completely subconscious level.

Here are some more examples:

The sounds brushed against the ears like a soft soliloquy.

Here both the ‘s’ at the beginning and end of the word sounds, the ‘sh’ in brush, the ‘s’ in ears, the ‘s’ in soft and finally the ‘s’ in soliloquy are sibilant.

The light zapped across the sky, an intense forceful, flash.

Again, the ‘z’ in zapped, ‘ss’ in across, the‘s’ in sky, ‘s’ in intense, the soft ‘c’ in forceful and the ‘sh’ in flash all work together to create sibilance.

Sibilance in Dialogue

Sibilance in dialogue works slightly differently to narrative, because unlike narrative, dialogue isn’t describing anything except for the attributions, ‘she said, he said, she screamed, he scowled’ etc.

In dialogue, try not to go for these obvious attributions when instead you can show the reader the emotions of your characters and create the sibilance in the sounds for the reader to hear.

Instead of, ‘I despise you,’ she hissed, try this instead:

Something simmered on her tongue. ‘I despise you...’

Here, ‘something’ and ‘simmered’ is coupled with ‘despise’. All have the‘s’ sound. The reader will hear the slight hiss without you having to mention the word ‘hiss’ because ‘something simmered’ is enough to allow the reader to hear the anger in the character’s voice.

Instead of ‘Get out,’ he scowled, try this:

His face creased, anger slithering up his throat. ‘Get out!’

In this example, ‘his face creased,’ creates sibilance, which is coupled with ‘slithering’ and ‘his’ to create a complete sibilant sentence. The reader will know he is upset from the way the character’s face creases and the anger rising in his throat, so there is no need to say ‘scowled’.

Instead of, ‘Help!’ she screamed, try this:

Shadows closed in, stifling her. Fear seeped into her voice. ‘Help...!’

The sentence does away with the attribution ‘she screamed’ and makes use of sibilance to create atmosphere and show the tension by using the ‘s’ in shadows, ‘c’ in closed and ‘s’ in stifling. This is coupled with the‘s’ in seeped and soft ‘c’ in voice.

This works much better. It creates sounds for the reader and helps them visualise the scene and it also brings tension and atmosphere.

Remember, sibilance isn’t about making every word begin with ‘s’ to create the ‘sss’ sound, it’s about using different words together that hint at the sound. It is such a useful device for writers to play around with. It’s there, so make use of it.

Next week: Strengthening sentences with a little weeding.


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