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:
CreakWhile 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.
Bob spun around. Was that a zombie or just the wind?
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).
How do you feel about onomatopoeia? What’s your preferred method for showing sounds?
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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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