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Another writer was critiquing my story, and she mentioned that I should describe the scream and show the reaction of the character instead of having the character actually scream out "Ahhhh!"

Any suggestions or feedback about this advice?

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    Can you provide an excerpt of the scene for context? Commented Dec 22, 2021 at 1:45
  • "Ahhhh" could be an expression of surprise, or a reaction to something cute. "Aarrgghh" is more unambiguously a scream, thought could also be read as a grunt of frustration. More A's would make it sound more like a scream, but it could also be a pirate just thinking aloud. Commented Dec 22, 2021 at 23:12

5 Answers 5

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Onomatopeia is writing text that when read imitates a sound; like a screech, scream, squeaky door, sobbing, laughter, etc.

I agree they should be shunned in almost all circumstances. Perhaps a character telling another a story might do this. I quite frequently write the actually voiced "Ha!" as an exclamation, but never more than one. For that I write "laughed."

I agree the narrator should avoid onomatopeia, and write the name of the sound, perhaps with adjectives characterizing them.

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    Charles M. Schultz would disagree. Commented Dec 22, 2021 at 19:43
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    @RobertHarvey: Sure, but that's a comic.
    – Brian
    Commented Dec 22, 2021 at 21:29
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    OP provides no context, so. Commented Dec 22, 2021 at 23:36
  • What if you're writing a play / script?
    – gerrit
    Commented Dec 23, 2021 at 9:47
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    @gerrit I am not an expert but I have read some books on scriptwriting. For the most part in a script, we can describe such things as capitalized SOUND EFFECTS in an Action line; e.g. 'Cindy SCREAMS in terror'. even if you write a dialogue line, parentheticals are there to interject action: CINDY / Don't, please, no... / (screams) and so on.
    – Amadeus
    Commented Dec 23, 2021 at 12:05
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Be More Specific

"Ahhh" could be a lot of things. Off the top of my head:

  • A long groan
  • A battle cry
  • A wail of despair
  • A screech of surprise
  • The beginning of a sneeze

Rather than writing "Ahhh", and forcing your reader to guess which meaning you want, it is better practice to be more specific.

He screamed.

This is good, because now there's no danger we'll think it's a sneeze. But...

A low noise erupted from his throat, growing louder and shriller until his scream pierced the night.

This is better, because now we get a feeling of loss and anguish, maybe a hint of anger, which tells us more about the character, and why they screamed in the first place.

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I would in general say that you want to describe the scream, but sometimes there are -- Aaah! What was that? -- sorry, there are times when you want the reader to be as startled as the characters, and those are times when it might be better to go for the more visceral direct quote.

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When reactions are shown, even if they are vocal, they can be much more powerful and emotive. A scream is a part of a larger reaction, such as:

Janet jumped in fright and let out a screech, settling into laughter as John revealed his identity underneath the clown mask.

"Ahh!"
"What?" John said, glancing around to see what Jake had screamed about. John froze in place as he saw the huge bulk of a brown bear staring them down.

I have a few examples from my own novel that might help with how you might write such a reaction (according to my own writing style of course). Take with a grain of salt.

One example:

The sound of the breeze upon her ears went quiet, and she opened her eyes and glanced upwards. The stars had all disappeared from the sky and all that remained was the pale blue moonlight. She looked forward across the dune and froze.

There standing tall on the edge of the dune in front of her was a humanoid shape, a figure distinct in darkness like a shadow against the world.

Or another:

The world fell away, stranding her on a dark island of soft, cool sand. A whispering voice echoed from all directions at once.

“Signals. Returning to the signals."

Skye trembled in fear.

An vocal example with gesture:

Skye began to panic, pounding her hands on the darkness like a wall of glass in front of her as the figure remained silent and still. Nothing could be seen of its face nor its body.

“Let me out!” she yelled.

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Although description is less ambiguous it can help with drama to use dialogue 'sound effects' which draw the reader's eye to them. It is a good idea to disambiguate immediately.

Example:

A had retired for the night leaving B and C playing cards until after midnight. Finally they put away the deck and went to their own rooms to prepare for bed.

"Aaargh!"

The ear-splitting scream came from downstairs. B snatched open his door. A was hovering in her doorway looking scared. B glanced around.

Where in heaven was C?

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