Ernest Hemingway once said of William Faulkner: “He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”
This is not an article about the ten-dollar words. Instead, it’s about onomatopoeia: words like bing, zing, and zap! The words themselves don’t represent much, except a single sound. But like any literary device, you can use them to greater effect than their literal meaning. Here’s how.
What Is Onomatopoeia?
Any word formed directly from the sound for which it’s named is onomatopoeia. A bee buzzes, a cat meows, and static electricity zaps.
These words don’t necessarily come from anything except the physical sound they create. Think of the onomatopoeia definition as one of the easiest in English. They are, quite simply, sounds.
Onomatopoeia in Poetry
These days, we often think of poetry taking place in dusty old books. But the art was originally about the sound of words: how they rhyme, how they roll together with meter, and how they make the subject come alive. For that reason, onomatopoeia has an appropriate home in many poems.
The Bells by Edgar Allen Poe
Yet the ear it fully knows,
By the twanging,
And the clanging…
Edgar Allen Poe’s The Bells features onomatopoeia examples almost everywhere. To emphasize the repeated sounds the bells make, Poe often brings these onomatopoetic words in groups: twanging in one line, clanging in the next. Later on, they’re jangling, then wrangling.
What literary purpose do these words serve? Not much. But the way Poe uses them helps reinforce the incessant sound of the bells he’s trying to get across to the reader. As with almost any literary device, it’s less about remembering to use it than how you use it.
Cynthia in the Snow by Gwendolyn Brooks
The loudness in the road.
Like Poe, Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem Cynthia in the Snow uses repeated couplets to paint a vivid picture writing onomatopoeia. She even invents some words, like flitter-twitters. How much better is that—and how much more evocative of Cynthia’s voice—than simply calling snow white and cold?
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Onomatopoeia in Writing
One of the foundational principles of good writing is to show, not tell, the audience what’s happening. While some onomatopoeia might evoke memories of the original Batman TV series, it’s possible to use onomatopoeia to make your prose more descriptive, more lush, and more rich.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Downstairs, I could hear the return of a long-lost sound: Amy making breakfast. Banging wooden cupboards (rump-thump!), rattling containers of tin and glass (ding-ring!), shufﬂing and sorting a collection of metal pots and iron pans (ruzz-shuzz!).
In this highlight from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, we see the narrator Nick Dunne listening to his wife downstairs—but with a sense of dread. In this case, the examples of onomatopoeia don’t just provide a soundtrack to his routine life, they heighten the contrast between characters. While Dunne has some sort of unspoken dread of his wife, Amy is simply rump-thumping her way through wooden cupboards.
Misery by Stephen King
fayunnnn red everrrrrythinggg umberrrrr whunnnn Sometimes the sounds stopped. Sometimes he stopped.
In the opening to Stephen King’s Misery, he starts us out with noises—“fayunnnn”—which later turn out to be the spoken dialogue of the obsessed fan, Annie Wilkes. When King’s protagonist finally wakes up from his injuries, we find out that “fayunnn” was the onomatopoetic version of fan. Leave it to King to use an ordinary tool like sounding out words to heighten the mystery of the opening passage.
Types of Onomatopoeia
Of all the onomatopoeia types, this is the most straightforward. A bell going “ding!” is describing a literal sound. In this example, you’re simply using a word to substitute for the sound an object makes, such as describing a character’s phone as buzzing.
Let’s stick with the ringing phone example. Ring, ring! is an example of literal onomatopoeia. But you can transfer these sounds to verbs to liven up your prose: one character ringing another, for example, is a simpler way to say calling them up.
If one character “groans” at another, you probably don’t mean it as a literal sound. But the long vowels in grooooaaaannn certainly do evoke the kind of sound you want the dialogue to make. In this case, you’re using a sort of hybrid onomatopoeia: a word that describes as well as sounds like what it’s describing.
How to Write Onomatopoeia
As in the examples above, don’t use onomatopoeia for its own sake. Consider when you need to drop in a literal sound to liven up the writing.
For example, Gillian Flynn’s use of onomatopoeia is a narrative technique. It gets us into the hesitating Nick Dunne’s head as he listens to his wife prepare breakfast. Each description, each use of onomatopoeia, freezes that moment in time, heightening the suspense of what is an otherwise everyday situation.
For Edgar Allen Poe, onomatopoeia was a tool for getting us into his character’s head. It’s hard to replace the word twanging in The Bells and come up with a better representation of the droning sound bells can make.
How to Use Onomatopoeia to Make Your Writing Go “Bam!”
Like Emeril throwing a little bit of “bam” into a dish, try to think of onomatopoeia as a spice—just a little bit goes a long way.
Incorporate this literary device when you need it, but use it as just one ingredient among many for adding descriptiveness and vividness to your scenes. Unless, of course, you’re choreographing a Batman fight.
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