Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Zip! Crash! Bang! Using Onomatopoeia

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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

Onomatopoeia.

You know, those words that look like what they sound like. Creak. Bang. Swish. I love these guys and I use them all the time in my writing.
Creak

Bob spun around. Was that a zombie or just the wind?
But not everyone likes using sounds this way. One of my beta readers absolutely hates them, but she's accepted the fact that I'm not changing it and now only points them out where they really bug her. And she's usually right.



I find that using onomatopoeia gives me a much closer POV that 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 better, and I'll use that too, but it still doesn't convey what

Creak

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

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

Of course, if you happen to be like my friend and can't stand onomatopoeia, don't feel you have to use it. There are plenty of great ways to convey sound (just not as cool).

Viva la'onomatopoeia!

14 comments:

  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. ;)

    ReplyDelete
  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.

    ReplyDelete
  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.

    ReplyDelete
  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.

    ReplyDelete
  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. :)

    ReplyDelete
  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 http://talktoyouniverse.blogspot.com/2008/09/bow-wow-boom-smash-onomatopoeia.html

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

    ReplyDelete
  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.

    ReplyDelete
  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.

    ReplyDelete
  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.

    ReplyDelete
  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!

    ReplyDelete
  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'.

    ReplyDelete
  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.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I use it.

    As you say, creak by itself speaks volumes.

    ReplyDelete