To Onomatopoeia Or Not To Onomatopoeia

All right, this topic. I have done perhaps two minutes of research, so I’m pretty qualified.

Onomatopoeia is interesting. I’ve seen it used or avoided in writing. I, myself, have used it sparingly without really thinking about it. Surprisingly, when I posted a snippet of my work on a forum, a reader told me that they didn’t like onomatopoeia. They said, and I quote: “I’m not a fan of using onomatopoeia outside of middle-grade fiction. It looks too juvenile.”

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This surprised me at first. Looking back, I can almost see the connection, as onomatopoeia brings up the idea of comic books at times, and some people see those as childish. I’m not really one of those people, as the first ‘comic’ I ever read was Watchmen. Regardless, some people might see onomatopoeia as juvenille, or as just a cheap attention-getter. Is that really all it is?

It can be. Onomatopoeia (I have this word on my clipboard now) is easy to use by itself. It invokes a sound in the reader’s mind with little effort. Is that a good thing? Maybe. As a novice with little research under my belt, all I can offer are my observations and suppositions, which should be taken as law.

So here’s an example:

Gregory moved through the crowded auditorium, unconsciously picking out bits of conversation as he moved. The voices blended together in a rolling mumble, spiking here and there with distinct expressions and exclamations. Once, he heard his voice and almost turned to engage, but he managed to stop himself. Nobody here knew him. It didn’t matter.

Creak.

Gregory stopped next to an elderly woman and looked down. The carpet beneath his feet almost blended with that around him, but not quite.

What is wrong with this example? At least to me, it doesn’t seem to fit. Hm. Let’s try another:

It was two in the morning when she arrived home. Bruises were beginning to form on her legs and arms, and even stepping down off of her bike caused her to grunt in pain. She’d feel worse tomorrow. Leaning the bike against the porch rails, she tiptoed up the front steps and gingerly grabed the doorknob.

Creak.

The door ruined everything. The lights turned on even as she flinched, and her parents appeared, staring at her.

I personally like this second example better. Why? Because it gives us the right mood.

Both of these examples (which I wrote on a whim just now, pardon the quality) use the same noise to indicate a development in the scene. Perhaps Gregory found a trapdoor, and we know what happened to the girl there. Is there a difference between the two examples? To me, the biggest one is setting.

When I read the word ‘creak’, it makes a sound in my head. That sound, especially with the paragraph break on either side of it, stands out and stands alone. In a quiet or tense setting, a creak would stand out, and it needs to be written so that it does stand out. In a crowded auditorium, a creak would be almost imperceptible.

Now for a revision:

… Nobody here knew him. It didn’t matter.

As Gregory turned sideways to sidle past an old woman, the floor creaked slightly. He frowned and put more weight onto his left leg, and felt the floor giver ever so slightly. This was it. Gregory looked down. The carpet beneath his feet almost blended with that around him, but not quite.

Is it perfect? No. Does it fit the mood better? You bet.

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Now, I may have strayed from the initial topic. This became more about writing in a style that fits the mood of your story. However, isn’t that what onomatopoeia is for? It strongly evokes a sound, giving that sound more emphasis than any other in the story. If the noise isn’t the centerpiece, don’t use onomatopoeia, or at least don’t give it its own paragraph. Even then, don’t overuse it. If you find onomatopoeia distasteful, certainly don’t feel an obligation toward it.

As for me, if a sound accompanies the centerpiece, the pivotal moment of a scene, I am going to make you hear it.

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