Why Most Attempts at Onomatopoeia Fail

I have an axe to grind, and it’s with the “literary device” onomatopoeia. I placed literary device in quotations because in my opinion, onomatopoeia is about as useful as a plug with no outlet.

I hate onomatopoeia and when I say hate, I don’t mean “kind of dislike it, but know it’s good for me” in the way some people say they hate the gym. No, I mean that most attempts at onomatopoeia manage to somehow slither down my butt-crack and give me a sudden attack of the hemorrhoids.

hellodoctor

I’ve got a lot of issues (optional period here) with this device. First of all, there are plenty of verbs that have sound/onomatopoeia embedded in them. Compare the following:
  1. The door creaked open.
  2. Creak. The door opened.

Option 1 has a stronger verb; “creaked” tells you the door opened, it opened slowly, and with a nerve-wracking sound, all of which the reader simultaneously constructs in their mind in a way that puts them in the moment.

Option 2 uses the verb “opened,” which only gives the reader a third of the information available. It also separates the sound from the action that caused it, which means it’s only stimulating one sense at a time. In other words, you’re engaging the reader less with this option,  so why would you risk pulling them out of the story for a weaker verb?

Go ahead– I’ll wait.

OK, it turns out I’m not that patient. Let’s move on.

Sound is still important to your story; you want to stimulate all the readers’ senses. But, when it comes to the use of onomatopoeia, I can’t help but suddenly re-imagine your story in the campy world of the 1960s Batman TV show. If that was your intention, you have succeeded.

powbang

And finally, my biggest gripe with onomatopoeia: it doesn’t sound as accurate as you think it does.

People hear sounds differently. If you are American, you accept that cats meow, but in Japan, cats nyan and it’s not because the cats in Japan are different– it’s the language. Language directly affects how you phonetically spell your onomatopoeia, which means that you may be alienating entire countries with your prose.

Let’s say you don’t aspire to become such a great writer that your book will be translated into numerous languages and bought internationally. Doesn’t matter: I have seen gigantic gaps in how we perceive sounds within the same country/culture.

cheecheechee
Given all its flaws, I really don’t see the point in using this device in fiction. If you’re one of the readers or writers who actually likes onomatopoeia, I want to know why and I’d love to see some great examples of the device in use. Speak up. Prove me wrong.

How do you feel about onomatopoeia?

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3 comments

  1. Well, I agree that onomatopoeia can be clunky. But I’m also equally leery of absolute rules. I guess I’d settle for a caution to use it sparingly an with great thought.

    1. Ruth, thanks for commenting. I totally agree with you on absolute rules! Luckily, this wasn’t meant to be one of them, but more of a “please show me that there is another side to this coin” post. I would really like to see some great examples of onomatopoeia, it’s driving me nuts! haha

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