Onomatopoeia: 5 Writing Tips
Pow! Wham! Bang! Everyone is familiar with the idea of onomatopoeia, even if they aren’t as familiar with the cumbersome word itself. Being able to use words that mean what they sound like is a useful communication tool, as well as a fun “spice” to use when writing. There are, however, certain points that writers should keep in mind when employing it. Here are five tips to keep in mind when using onomatopoeia:
Make Sure It Doesn’t Sound Cheesy…
Depending on how onomatopoeia is used, your story can start reading like a comic book. Don’t go too crazy on “sound words”, particularly in the same section. Consider the example below:
With a screech and a loud crash, the vehicles collided. Joe’s door flew open with a whoosh as he stormed out. Frank likewise slammed his door with a bang and the two confronted each other. Pow! Joe’s fist swung into Frank’s face, causing him to cry out “Ow!”
The excessive use of onomatopoeia in this scene causes it to read like a flurried cartoon. Sound words are like instruments in an orchestra: if there are too many, the tune is drowned out by blaring sound.
…But Don’t Be Afraid of It
On the flipside of the coin, don’t get so lost in complex descriptions that you omit onomatopoeia altogether. Remember, these words exist for a reason: they provide visualization for the reader. Consider this revised example from above with all onomatopoeia removed:
With a loud commotion, both vehicles collided. Joe’s door flew open as he stormed out. Frank likewise threw his door closed and the two confronted each other. Joe’s fist swung into Frank’s face causing him to utter an exclamation.
Though this example could be considered an acceptable revision, the complete omission of onomatopoeia makes the scene more difficult to engage in, and the effect is akin to watching a movie that has been muted.
Use in Dialogue
Onomatopoeia certainly has its place in dialogue. People use “sound words” all the time in everyday life to help their listeners visualize what they are saying. Remember that, in many ways, your characters have more freedom of speech than the narrator. They can stutter, fumble over their words, even use grammar incorrectly. Don’t be afraid to experiment with a character’s use or lack of use of onomatopoeia. Consider the example below of two characters describing the same event:
Frank: “I found the speaker very tedious, his voice irritating, and his speech halting. Several audience members left early. I was tempted to join them.”
Joe: “Man that guy was a drag! For one thing, he stuttered the whole time he was talking, and unless you were sitting towards the front you could barely hear his murmuring. I could have groaned when he went into his second set of slides. A couple of people left early, slammed the door on the guy. You could hear it echo through the whole building.”
In this example, the inclusion and exclusion of onomatopoeia provides both of these characters with their own unique voice, even though they are describing the same event.
The Scene Stopper
Though a bit off the beaten path, sound words often make for an excellent scene stopper, a carefully positioned break that stops the reader’s in their tracks. I like to refer to this technique as the “crash effect”. If you are at a party or other gathering and suddenly hear a loud crash, it is fairly safe to say that the attention of everyone in the room will be immediately arrested. Consider the use of this technique below:
Jeff and Nancy slowly made their way along the darkened corridor, hardly daring to breathe, the flickering candle clutched in Nancy’s trembling hand casting obscure shadows on the wall. The silence was like that of a tomb, icy and ominous. With halting steps they made their way ever so slowly towards the staircase.
Jeff and Nancy froze in their tracks, the candle falling to the floor as the gunshot echoed through the manor.
In this example, the sound of the gunshot provides an effect similar to being jumped from behind. It’s isolation between paragraphs increases its significance and provides the “crash effect” described earlier.
Straight Up Fun
Finally, sound words are great for writing scenes that are just straight up fun. Consider for a moment an object that may very well be the classic prank device: the whoopee cushion. The sole reason for this device existing is that it makes a humorous sound. Some sounds just strike us as funny. As a writer, you should feel free to make full use of this. Consider the example below:
“Alright kids!” Mr. Cosgrove clapped his hands above his frizzy gray haired head. “Who’s ready to put the ‘fun’ back in ‘algebraic functions’?”
Mr. Cosgrove’s offer was met with a rousing chorus of groans.
The lightheartedness of this scenes comes from our ability to picture the negative audible response to Mr. Cosgrove’s misplaced enthusiasm. Onomatopoeia provides the “sound picture” necessary for us to fully engage in the scene described.
In the end, onomatopoeia, like every other writing technique, is a tool, one that must be handled properly. Of all the tools a writer possesses, visual tools are perhaps the most valuable. If a reader can accurately picture the scene being described, they will be able to more seamlessly enter the world you have built. Onomatopoeia is just another tool to make the journey that much easier.
Jonathan Vars is a Christian fiction writer from New England, and founder of the writing website voltampsreactive.com. His latest novel “Like Melvin” is currently available on Amazon and Google Books. In addition to writing, Jonathan enjoys running, hiking, and trying not to freeze to death in the winter.