The word is onomatopoeia.
Onomatopoeic words are words that sound like what they describe.
Words that describe sounds are the obvious ones. Everybody knows animal sound descriptors, like meow, woof, moo, hiss and baa – they’re among the first words children learn. A few minutes thought will remind you of dozens more. Birds alone have tweet, hoot, coo, warble… the list goes on. Then there are the animals that are named for their sound, like the cuckoo.
But there’s a lot more to onomatopoeia than replicating barnyard sounds, especially for writers. Onomatopoeic words introduce to written works the subtle, glorious power of sound.
Sound is often forgotten by producers of the written word, but this is a terrible mistake and not just because it can lead to clunky, unbelievable dialogue.
The sound of the words in the mind of the reader can either detract from, or reinforce, pace and meaning. I’m sure you already know, for instance, that action scenes work best with short words and sentences, to convey urgency and sharp changes. But the sounds of the words themselves can also work for you and onomatopoeic words are brilliant at this.
Poets understand this, either instinctively or by training, as do spoken-word storytellers. I would encourage any writer who lacks experience in these areas to get some. Read some modern poets (like Dean) and go to an open-mike night and listen and even have a go yourself. Feel the power of the sound of words (not just their meanings) to evoke mood and emotion. Then bring that back to your prose.
And if you still need convincing about the effectiveness of onomatopoeic words, look no further than:
Cartoons (for those old enough to remember): Pow, bang, whack, zip, wallop
Advertising: Snap, crackle and pop
And modern pop culture: Bling (a newly-made piece of onomatopoeia)
Onomatopoeic words include concrete and abstract nouns, verbs and adverbs (although the last are best used sparingly). Here are a few of my favourites to be going on with.
Mud, sludge, ooze, slime.
Corpulent, excrescence, puss (as in infected goo, not cats)
Moan, murmur, mutter, hiss, croak, yodel.
Sizzle, gush, slide, whoosh, thud, splash, scrape.
And that is just the very beginning. The dictionary is positively bulging (see what I did there?) with them.
If you have any favourites, or if these get you on a roll and you come up with others, share them in the comments.
Maybe I’ll create an onomatopoeic cheat sheet for those times when you think your scenes need a little more punch!
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