Conversing With Only Sound

The opposite to the silent conversation is the sound-only conversation. These are usually a result of darkness, barriers, viewpoint character blindness, or other obstructions that allow whatever’s going on to be heard and not seen, but in a more modern setting the telephone call necessitates a sound-only conversation. They’re usually more concise than silent conversations, making them better for use in games, but removing four of the five senses can make even a hearing-dominant situation extremely difficult.

Know how you plan on differentiating between the characters. It’s hard enough when you’re dealing with two distinctive voices that will be recognized by the viewpoint characters anyway. But when you’ve got two people who have no reason to be identified by name, you’re going to need to find something to tag them with. Moreover, you’ll want to exaggerate difference in speech patterns to make sure the characters seem separate; this is particularly important in two-person conversations in text, as the lack of visual elements makes it harder to insert beats, creating line after line of untagged dialogue. If the characters don’t sound different, it’s easy to get lost.

Pay close attention to tone of voice and volume; while the conversationalists aren’t going to be depending on it, the eavesdroppers (and scenes like this cannot exist without eavesdroppers) are. Have you ever gotten into an argument online, when somebody said something one way and it was interpreted another? Not including tone will result in the same effect, but with less cause; since the audience is “hearing” (or actively hearing, in the case of a face to face game) the conversation, they’d pretty much have to be getting an indication not only of what’s being said, but how it’s being said.

If the eavesdropper has good enough hearing, you may even want to pay attention to how the conversationalists are breathing; the rhythms, duration and ease of breath can say a lot about the emotions of the person breathing. In some cases, the eavesdropper doesn’t even need very good ears; imagine someone coming into the conversation after having run half a mile. It’d be hard to mistake that, right?

Note sounds that aren’t talking. This one’s useful in that it covers for some of the missing senses. Footsteps imply that a character is moving, particularly if her voice begins coming from somewhere slightly different. Rustling fabric, or clinking jewelry, might also provide an idea of how still (or not still) a character is holding, and possibly how they might be fidgeting. If someone in an argument sets down his glass too hard or slams his hands down on the table, the impact will be audible. Does magic have a sound? If it’s going on and it does, it will probably be heard. Consider what kinds of sounds might be made if one participant in the conversation is washing dishes.

Consider also the sounds of the background, particularly if what’s going on is a telephone call or equivalent thereof. Most places aren’t silent, even indoors; there are people-sounds, nature-sounds, even occasional interference from the weather. It doesn’t disappear just because the eavesdropper is focused on one conversation; it might even interfere with the ability to hear it.

One way to practice this is to go somewhere public, preferably somewhere that gets a lot of traffic, close your eyes, and listen for a while. After a few minutes, you’ll probably find yourself picking up on noises you wouldn’t have heard. It’ll give you a good sense of what kinds of sounds it makes when people pace, shove their chairs back, or fidget.

Give it a try!

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