Friday, March 04, 2016

Zip! Crash! Bang! Using Onomatopoeia

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

This week’s refresher Friday takes a heavily updated look at the pros and cons of onomatopoeia. Enjoy!

I'm going to talk about something controversial, and I'll likely have readers split down the middle over this issue.


Those words that read like what they sound like. Creak. Bang. Swish. They’re those big comic book BAM! and POW! that show sound without having to describe the sound. For example:

Bob spun around. Was that a zombie or just the wind?
While I appreciate this device and what it does for my writing, not everyone likes using sounds this way. They find them awkward, or distracting, detracting from a scene instead of enhancing it, or feel they’re too comic book and not literary enough perhaps, or they seem like a cheap trick.

I find using onomatopoeia gives me a much tighter point of view than describing how something sounds. Creak on its own line jumps out just like a creak in the night would. "She heard a creak" just doesn't have the same sense of intimacy. "A board creaked" is closer, but it still doesn't convey what


does for me. It's someone jumping out at readers on the page. It emphasizes a sound that matters to the scene, cranking up the tension and giving readers that nail-baiting edge-of-their-seat feeling we get in the movies.

Besides, "a board creaked" can sometimes give away too much information. Does our POV character really know it's a board? Can she tell what made the sound? Using just the sound gets around all those pesky POV problems.

But there are levels of onomatopoeia. For example:
“Shh!” She waved a hand at me.

Shh is onomatopoeia. It does exactly what it’s supposed to do—mimic sound. Writing it another way would probably feel cumbersome.

She waved a hand and shushed me.

She shushed me.

Accurate, yes, but it just doesn’t have the same immediacy as


It doesn’t trigger that instinctive response in us as human beings when someone shushes us. It’s a sound associated with danger (or rudeness), and means more to us than shushed.

And that’s why I love onomatopoeia.

Some words can also convey feelings without going full-on onomatopoeia. Ooze. Grunt. Scoff. Frumpy. Skittered. They’re not mimicking sounds, but we get a strong sense of their meaning by how they hit our ears.
  • Ooze feels slimy and icky
  • Grunt feels short and sharp
  • Scoff feels dismissive and mocking
  • Frumpy feels dowdy and bland
  • Skittered feels quick and creepy

The words evoke specific images in our minds, which lets us describe a scene on a subconscious level. Our readers feel it as they read it, and when we mix onomatopoeia in as well, the scene becomes a sensory smorgasbord.

(Here’s more on words that sound like they mean) 

Onomatopoeia is a device best used sparingly, because it packs a wallop. Too much of it will start to feel like a comic book, so drop it in when the scene needs that extra POW.

Of course, if you can't stand onomatopoeia, don't feel you have to use it. There are plenty of other ways to convey sound (just not as cool).

Viva la'onomatopoeia!

How do you feel about onomatopoeia? What’s your preferred method for showing sounds?

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel.

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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  1. I am also an onomatopoeia lover, but I don't use it too often. Even so, after seeing it done only once in my writing, a critique buddy of mine actually told me that it felt gimmicky, like a comic book, and she was expecting to see a big POW! whenever a character hit something. So you're right, people either love them or hate them. And the haters are ruthless. ;)

  2. I don't mind onomatopoeia—as long as it's italicized for clarity *grin*—but I don't think I use it much. I'm far more likely to say "Something creaks" than "Creak". Maybe because everything gets filtered through my first person narrators.

  3. I rarely write it - in fact, I'm one of those people that can't figure out what the sound actually sounds like (it's hopeless, truly). However, I don't mind reading it. I'm fine with either way.

  4. Interesting post. I don't have anything particularly against it (except when overused), but I think it has to suit the situation in the story. Effective when used sparingly.

  5. All I can picture is the old Batman shows. BOOM! POW! BAM!

    I think it's like any other rule or style. Use it well and it works. :)

  6. I enjoyed the post, and I do use onomatopoeia this way sometimes. I did a short post some time ago on the way onomatopoeia works across languages; for the curious, it's at

  7. LOL, I agree. I like onomatopoeia. The only word I really use though is CRASH.

  8. I like the word onomatopoeia, and not just because I still remember how to spell it from third grade spelling classes. However, I do find the one line onomatopoeia to be a little gimmicky IF it isn't used correctly. I think it's one of those devices that has to be wielded by a very good writer; in the hands of a mediocre or bad writer, it's a sure catastrophe.

    I love a good grammatical controversy.

  9. I very rarely use it directly like you. Doesn't really fit the tone of my work. But I can handle it if it's used sparingly.

  10. I don't use it either. But as I read your next book, I'll watch for it. Maybe I'll change my mind.

  11. I don't have anything against it, but then again I'm a comic book fan so I'm used to it...almost a requirement there!

  12. I agree with several people who mentioned they don't mind it if used sparingly.

    I wrote a short story where the main character picked up the phone before the second 'brring'.

  13. I think it depends on the story. I don't use it much in my YA WIP, but my SF WIP is sprinkled with it.

    Onomatopoeia works well for present tense or commentary writing. "Creak." followed by "What was that?" or whatever reaction the character has to the sound. It's also good for when a character can hear but not see something happening, whether over the radio or in another room.

  14. I use it.

    As you say, creak by itself speaks volumes.

  15. I like it. I like alliteration, too (used purposefully). It's in the writer's arsenal. Ya just have to know the right weapon, or word, to get the job done.

  16. And of course, a complete on-line list to help

    Interesting aspect to add to writing. thanks. Janice

  17. That was a very good explanation of intimate, close third person narrative, even though you were talking about onomatopoeia! Which is one of the most fun to spell words in the English language...

    Speaking of English, most of those onomatopoeia are from Old English, Middle English, Old Norse - our blunt origins banging through the ages, hacking away needless words.

    Brevity's where it's at.

    1. I mean *linguistic* origins, obvs! Thanks for the fun post!

    2. Most welcome! Thanks for a little bit of history on it ;)

  18. I've been warned that it belongs more in children's (picture books or middle grade) but I think you made a good argument for using it in all levels of writing. Now. If only I could spell it without having to look it up each time!


  19. I LOVE onomatopoeia! (after misspelling this word three times, I'd better love it after that, hahaha!). First exposure to this was when my kids were small and watching PBS programming. Soon as I saw the connection--and the segment--I was instantly hooked.

    But like with any special effects in writing, use for flavoring only. After reading the previous prompt, I got to thinking did my WIPs include this. They do, especially not realizing "Shhh!" counted as onomatopoeia. So does "hic!" in showing someone hiccuping, I'd think. Or "ooooh," when somebody's in trouble (this may be regional; in NYC growing up, that's what we said when somebody was in for it. :-) ).

    I'll always love onomatopoeia, and for those who don't prefer it in showing the writing, to put it as how the late Pat Conroy said in the primacy of writing, the haters either can't write it it or they're idiots. Fantastic post, thank you.