The Sounds of Science
Tweet! Crash! Sizzle. Flip through a physics textbook, and you’ll find sound among the subjects. Since we’re having fun with physics this month, it’s the perfect time to delve into sound, especially the musicality of language and how we can apply it to science writing. Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano’s A BLACK HOLE IS NOT A HOLE, from this month’s book list, will serve as our mentor text.
Poet and children’s book author Renee LaTulippe discusses sound devices in this video on her Lyrical Language Lab YouTube channel, which I highly recommend. She identifies:
Let’s look at each device in turn with examples from DeCristofano’s book for tips on how to add these to our own work.
Onomatopoeia is sound effects. Like those I started this post with. In Chapter 3, DiCristofano uses several instances of onomatopoeia to add drama to the end of a star’s life, including WHOOOOOSH! CRASH! And BOOM!
Alliteration is when words that are close together start with the same letter or sound. DiCristofano has some wonderful examples of this, including this phrase from the subhead to chapter 1: “A black hole is a place in space with powerful pull.” Notice that place, powerful, and pull all start with p, an example of alliteration.
This phrase above also has an example of assonance, which is words that are close together with the same vowel sound. In this case “place” and “space.”
Consonance is when words close to each other have the same consonant sound anywhere in the words. Chapter 5 has this line: “Others, like a black cat on a dark night, aren’t lit brightly enough.” Notice all those ending k sounds. The t sounds also show consonance.
Repetition is just that — repeating words or phrases. Here is an example from Chapter 1: “Nothing can out-tug a black hole. No army of tow trucks, no convoy of supersized earth haulers, no fleet of giant rocket engines.” That repetition of the word no for emphasis, is just perfect.
In prose, we don’t usually use end rhyme, but we might use internal rhyme. That’s when words in the middle of a line rhyme, as they do with “place in space” above.
Easy does it
Adding musicality isn’t difficult. I usually focus on this part of writing after I’ve got my structure in place.
When I want to pepper my prose with alliteration, I look to an online thesaurus. I brainstorm synonyms and pick some with the same starting sound.
When trying to find rhyming words or words with assonance, I turn to Rhymezone. If I look up the word “space,” I find lots of words with the same vowel sound, including trace, base, case, and race. I normally write down lists of rhyming words in my notebook and see if any make sense for what I’m trying to say.
The key with sound devices is not to overdo them. Too much alliteration, for example, can cause the reader to trip over the words. Always read your work out loud to make sure it’s both clear and musical.
Putting it all together
Let’s end by dissecting DeCristofano’s fabulous first line from Chapter 1. Which of the sound devices above can you find? How do you feel about her use of all the elements? Are they too much? Not enough? Just right?
Kirsten W. Larson
Kirsten used to work with rocket scientists at NASA. Now she writes books for curious kids. She is the author of WOOD, WIRE, WINGS: EMMA LILIAN TODD INVENTS AN AIRPLANE, illustrated by Tracy Subisak (Calkins Creek), an NSTA Best STEM BOOK, A TRUE WONDER: The Comic Book Hero Who Changed Everything, illustrated by Katy Wu (Clarion, Sept. 28, 2021), and THE FIRE OF STARS: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars Are Made Of, illustrated by Katherine Roy (Chronicle, Spring 2022), as well as 25 nonfiction books for the school and library market. Find her at kirsten-w-larson.com or on Twitter and Instagram @KirstenWLarson.