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I'm trying to write a shriek, something like "AHHHHH!" or "AAAAH!".

However, I don't really want to use all caps and repeated letters.

Does anyone know any other techniques of showing a scream occurred besides what I stated?

closed as off-topic by JP Chapleau, Galastel, Sweet_Cherry, Ajnatorix Zersolar, Pawana Jun 21 '18 at 10:40

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  • 1
    The only use of all caps that I enjoyed was in A Prayer for Owen Meany. If you don't want to do it, don't do it. – De Novo Jun 19 '18 at 16:47
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    Unless you're going for comedic effect (e.g. girlgeniusonline.com/comic.php?date=20060510), I would go with describing the effect of the scream and how the character feels. – Llewellyn Jun 19 '18 at 18:42
  • I think that you should give more background to what you are writing, because you will get a different response if you are talking about a Comic book versus a Novel. – Malachi Jun 20 '18 at 13:25
39

Inarticulate speech or sounds is an instance where I tell, I do not show.

Shriek, Screech, Scream, Howl ... It can help if it startles somebody that comes bursting into the room to protect her, or she wakes up already screaming, if it echoes off the walls, if it pains her throat, if there is some other consequences of this action.

But I don't try to write anything readable to sound like a scream; I just don't find it ever works well. The same goes for laughing; beyond the single "Ha" we sometimes really voice (and recognize). And moaning, and the sobs of hard crying, or giggling, or roars. I Find ways to describe those using actual words or metaphor or simile.

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    I find that if there is a tense scene on the page and something happens in 3 paragraphs and that action is written with ALL CAPS and AAAHHHH then my eyes can drift down there before I've finished reading through that line and spoil the moment. It's a dead giveaway that something is about to happen and I might even know exactly what, but I'm not quite there in the story yet. – Brad Jun 19 '18 at 20:02
  • Note that "Ha" is usually an intentional statement, rather than an actual laugh. There is a grey area here, but most cases I can think of apply. – Flater Jun 20 '18 at 5:56
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    @Flater Right, which is why I made an exception for "ha". It is an exclamation, sincere or not, and a word. Like "Huh" or "Ah" or "Ew". – Amadeus Jun 20 '18 at 9:51
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    @Brad Interestingly enough, it has the opposite effect on me. I usually read the caps and such as having a more intense effect when I finally get down the page. To me, "He shrieked and fled the scene, tripping over his feet as he ran past me" doesn't have the same visceral effect if I'm really immersed. Amadeus, could you add a piece about how you provide that instinctual feeling without the emphasis like caps/bold/italics? – Anoplexian Jun 20 '18 at 14:51
  • "Show, don't tell" is a wonderful guideline while writing and editing, but it's so important to remember that there are no laws of writing. (Of course there's a legal system, but you know what I mean...) – corsiKa Jun 20 '18 at 21:51
17

Um, don't, the words "blood curdling scream" exist for a reason.

Disclaimer: I find a lot of sounds don't respond well to the onomatopoeia treatment, to the point where I completely skip over any string of letters that isn't a recognisable word. Now part of this is because I am a lazy reader, as a rule I read word shapes not letters. It's also because I can't be bothered puzzling out sounds; they're not that important, what they say about what's happening is and as long as I have, or can extrapolate, that information it doesn't matter much.

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    Nice answer, but it's probably a good idea to avoid using worn out phrases like "blood curdling scream". – Andrey Portnoy Jun 20 '18 at 0:29
  • @AndreyPortnoy I don't know about that, it says a very particular thing very well, also because it has been so used for so long there's a certain freight of emotion and history etc... that goes with it that make it, potentially, the perfect phrase in the right place; even if only because the POV character chides themselves for thinking such a banal thing afterwards. – Ash Jun 20 '18 at 10:02
  • I would add the caveat to your disclaimer (which I otherwise agree with) that such usage doesn't work well in non-graphical media. Onomatopoeias work just fine in graphic novels and comic books (and manga, Japanese has onomatopoeias for everything, including silence), and are in fact primarily expected there. – Austin Hemmelgarn Jun 20 '18 at 12:00
  • @AustinHemmelgarn My disclaimer is purely a matter of my personal preference and habit, I don't find that it works anywhere, but that's me. I agree that a lot of people, not leats the authors and artists, seem to find it works well in a graphic setting but it's just "not my cup of tea". – Ash Jun 20 '18 at 12:03
  • Blood curdling scream, no matter how you slice it, is hackneyed, cliched, and vapid. It is what William Watt would call a “counterword”; it does nothing but the opposite. – August Canaille Jun 21 '18 at 4:19
6

Think about how the effect of articulating the shriek against describing it is used with good effect in Harry Potter. If a shriek or an involuntary yell happened to be for something that wasn't truly scary (like a cat licking your toe), then it adds to the fact that both you and the character are likely to be chuckling about the unexpected fright straight afterward.

If, however, your antagonist appears and starts to do horrible things to people, then using an "AAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRGH!" will undoubtedly soften the message of truly horrifying terror that the reader is meant to experience.

It would work far better for a serious situation to say something like:

The Dark Lord of Wherever rose from the ground, his fingers reaching out and clutching the throat of the person beside him. The woman standing beside him shrieked in horror as her partner died before her eyes.

You can feel this is far more sinister, and the reader will be more likely to be take away the impression you are aiming for.

4

I'm gonna answer from experience as a reader, instead of a writer.

When you make your character shriek you usually want to send a shiver down your reader's spine. There have been many suggestions about describing the shriek instead of using an onomatopoeia and they are great, but if you have your heart set on using it, or it's more appropiate for your medium because you lack a narrator (like it can often happen in comics or videogames), I've always found "AIIEEEEE" to have a particularly strong impact:

https://i.pinimg.com/736x/34/7a/ce/347acef0ddf2b90542cd13a4688ad4f4--horror-comics-the-farmer.jpg enter image description here

When I read the question title: "How do I write a shriek?" I immediately thought of the first time I saw this onomatopoeia: It was in the videogame "Monkey Island", and the expression got burned in my impressionable kid mind.

Graphic adventures (and 90's RPGs) were a lot like books or comics. They communicated a lot of character with just wording and a few pixels, and there was an impact in that onomatopoeia that I just hadn't experienced before with any other written scream, and I couldn't explain why.


Note: Unfortunately, I couldn't find an image of that exact moment of the game, will edit if I do.

2

When writing a Comic Book, you may want to produce the scream and try to assemble the letters as you hear them, and then apply font and size as you deem necessary, really there is no limit in this scenario.

On the other hand, when writing a Novel you would want to describe the effects of the scream and how it affects the characters. The reason for this is that you cannot see what the characters are doing or how they look when the action takes place. In a Novel, you want to let the reader decide a lot of things about the environment and what it sounds like to them, what should that shriek sound like to them to get your greater idea across about the situation.

These are huge differences, and to get a good answer I think you should define what you are writing.

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