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I'm writing a non-comedic fantasy novel, and I find myself using onomatopoeic words, like "SLAM!" and "TWISH" (for the shooting of arrows). To my knowledge, onomatopoeic words are almost only used in cartoons and comic books/manga. Perhaps also in cinematography which is derived from set genres. But what about using it in writing, in a non-comedic fantasy novel?

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Unlike with comics, you wouldn't want to use sound effects as dialogue or dialogue adjuncts (in comics the letterer makes them separate from actual speech), though you can get away with it in something humorous.

You can, however, evoke sound effects.

The door slammed shut.
vs.
She shut the door hard.

Or

She nocked another arrow, let it fly, and smiled as it hit the target with a satisfying thunk.
vs.
She nocked another arrow, let it fly, and smiled as it hit the target's rings.

These are fairly subtle examples but they each use words one might imagine in a comic but in regular narration. I left out "twish" as it isn't one that ahem speaks to me.

You can also bring sound into the narration more directly. This is basically the point of the sound effects; they're shorthand for narration. Describe the background noises just like you would the scenery. Use sounds for emotional impact just like you would the feeling of air whooshing by (another sound effect word).

Make your auditory world as rich as your visual one. But do it with solid narration, not with shortcuts.

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Fair warning: as a reader I have a pet peeve about onomatopoeia; I dislike it intensely as it tends to break my flow when reading. This is usually when non-word syllable strings are used rather than proper words but my aggravation carries over to all forms.

You can use onomatopoeia in any genre - at least you certainly can if you're using a first person narrative; I'm not completely sure about third person, but I wouldn't. In first person you're describing the experience of the narrator so onomatopoeic language is an appropriate mechanism. However onomatopoeia does not translate well, if at all, across people and cultures: what one person thinks the word "twish" sounds like is not the same as another. Nor in fact is one person's experience of what an arrow sounds like going past going to match that of any other particular person.

  • 1+ for the distinguishing between 1st-person and 3rd-person. I didn't quite get the problem about the onomatopoeia not translating well in different languages. Only people who know English are going to read, and if the book is translated, surely the onomatopoeic words will be translated as well, i.e. English "woof", Spanish "Guau". – A. Kvåle Jul 7 at 20:43
  • @A.Kvåle Exactly "Guau" doesn't look like it sounds anything like the noise a dog makes (I did fail Spanish miserably at school though). – Ash Jul 8 at 10:14
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    Does your pet peeve extend to character statements? I get why the narrator shouldn't be onomatopeic, but what if a character is telling the story of a bar fight he got in and says something along the lines of "And then - POW! - right in the kisser!" It seems more acceptable for characters to use them as opposed to the narrator, no? – Flater Jul 8 at 11:53
  • @Flater To some extent yes, again largely because of nonsense syllable onomatopoeia and it's tendency to break the flow of the sentence around it, having said that I would agree that it is more fitting as part of natural dialogue. – Ash Jul 8 at 12:01
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You can certainly use them; but you have to set them apart from the text in a very deliberate way. You can italicize them, encapsulate it in em dashes, both...

As long as you do not overuse them, or--if you do use more--make sure they are clustered. One cluster or word per three or four pages at a maximum, I'd think. Therefore, only use them when they actually add to the verisimilitude of a scene.

At the same time, do not use them too little, either. They have to be part of the overall style of the story for your reader to grow accustomed to them. For this I cannot really give any indicatives, sorry.

  • Italicizing them isn't really an option, as I use that for thoughts, and readers would probably very quickly believe the onomatopoeia was in the characters' thoughts. Putting them in parenthesis I don't think would look good, you could say it wouldn't be visually stylistic to my novel. 1+ for the mentioning of finding a balance of not using them too much and using them too little. Some people have said I should use them very rarely, but I think that would only make them stand out more, negatively. Thanks for a new word too, "verisimilitude". – A. Kvåle Jul 12 at 12:33

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