The best kind of writing is the kind that makes you listen closely. It forces you to disappear into the words. To really connect with the beats of each word. And a little thing called sibilance is the secret of that strategy.

But what is sibilance, and how do writers use it to enrapture readers?

Today, we're going to go over the definition, look at some examples in literature, and even pull apart what makes sibilance different than techniques in writing.

Let's not waste any time, and get started right away.

What is Sibilance? Definition and Examples for WritersNeve Campbell in 'Scream'Credit: Dimension Films

What Is Sibilance? Definition and Examples for Writers

Some words come with a hissing or even a hushing sound, words that help emphasize certain emotions and feelings. They also can be repeated to form a rhythm or rhyme. But there's way more to sibilance than that.

Sibilance Definition

Sibilance is the repetition of hushing or hissing sounds. Like in, "Sam sold serpents," or, "She had a hissy fit."

The word “sibilance” has its origin in Latin, with the word “sibilare,” which actually means “to hiss” or “to whistle.”

To create sibilance, you do not need to put "s" sounds directly next to each other in a sentence. Instead, they need to be close together within a sentence or paragraph.

The Sibilance Definition for Writers 'V for Vendetta'Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

What Sounds Are in Sibilance?

We've covered the "s" sounds a little above. but as you know, there are other letters that make that sound. Apparently, there's some debate between scholars about whether or not sibilance can be done with letters other than "s," but I like to keep an open mind.

  • "Sh" - My favorite tongue twister of "Susie sells seashells by the seashore" is sibilance.
  • "F" and "th" - Check out the sibilant sounds of, "She thinks shark fins taste fine."
  • "Z" and "v" - The "z" and "v" sounds have a certain music to them, like in, "Buzzing velociraptors zip and veer through sheer grass."

What is Sibilance? 'Jaws'Credit: Universal Pictures

How Is Sibilance Used by Writers?

Have you ever had the joy of hearing your work read aloud? I can count the number of times it occurred for me on one hand, and each time felt like the culmination of all the hard work I'd put in. When you hear your words, you want them to sound musical, not boring and bleak.

You want people to feel something.

Sibilance can only really happen if you choose words that sound good together. They make your work have a curated and dedicated feel. Like no small detail went unplanned.

What Is the Difference Between Sibilance and Consonance, Assonance, Sibilance, and Alliteration?

There are many literary devices that people confuse with sibilance. Let's sort out other definitions.

  • Consonance: the repetition of the same consonant sounds. Sibilance is technically part of this, but only with specific sounds.
  • Assonance: the repetition of vowel sounds. Sibilant sounds are never assonant.
  • Alliteration: the same sounds repeating at the start of words. Some instances of sibilance can be alliterative, like "She sells seashells."
  • Onomatopoeia: An onomatopoeia is a word that represents a sound. We have a huge list for writers to use. Sibilance is often a kind of onomatopoeia since it focuses on the hissing and hushing sounds.

Sibilance Examples in Literature 'Romeo + Juliet'Credit: 20th Century Fox

Sibilance Examples in Literature

Now that we have the scope and idea of what sibilance is, it's time to see how expert writers use it in literature.

Let's start with William Shakespeare's Hamlet. In this scene, we have Bernardo and Horatio talking about seeing a ghost. The sibilance comes in almost every line here.

Sit down awhile;
And let us once again assail your ears,
That are so fortified against our story
What we have two nights seen.

In John Keats's An Ode to Autumn, we get the full sibilant treatment. There are lots of hissing and hushing from "s" and even soft "c" sounds. It makes the words and themes blend together in interesting ways, changing like leaves change in autumn.

“SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.”

Summing Up "What is Sibilance?"

Now that you understand sibilance, it's time to put it to good use. Think about your writing. Whether it's a character description or scene description, can you involve repeated sounds or words to make the details pop? Can you add some music to the way things play out?

What are your favorite examples of sibilance?

Let us know in the comments.