Writing Visually: On Onomatopoeia and Texturizing Text

darkerpages_logo_tempThe other day, a reader sent me a message via Twitter complimenting me for a scene from my first book, That Risen Snow.

Shameless plug: That Risen Snow is now on sale for free in ebook format on Amazon, BN.com, and most other online retailers.

I’ll avoid any spoilers, but basically the scene involves a character revealing that he’s been infected by Snow’s zombies. This character is trapped inside a mine with the other characters, and has basically become a ticking time bomb.

One of the things this reader liked about the scene was my use of onomatopoeia. Throughout the scene, the zombies can be heard in the background digging through some rubble.

Tchk. Tchk. Tchk.

Until I received this message, I hadn’t really thought all that much about how or why I use onomatopoeia. But now that I think about it, I do it a lot! In fact, the current novel I’m working on uses this device a lot.

Tchk. Tchk. Tchk.

I do other stuff, too, to visually cue the reader. For example, if I have a character falling, then I let the words fall, too.

One after another.

And another.


Hitting the return key.

And return again.

Tchk. Tchk. Tchk.

Or alternately if I want to create a sense of claustrophobia, then I’ll make a very dense block of text or if I want to create a sense of rambling confusion then I’ll just have one run-on sentence that goes on and on sometimes erratically like in two hours I need to have another meal or I wonder if my oil change is done or sometimes if I want both claustrophobia and confusion then I’ll do both at the same time.

Tchk. Tchk. Tchk.

My point here is that—as writers—words are our tools. And while primarily they should be used as subjects, verbs, and adjectives and neatly arranged in paragraphs, they occasionally can have other uses. We can work with our tools, but we can play with them, too. The Word Police won’t come after you if you use a word other than it was intended.

Remember, words are read, but they are also seen. And sometimes they’re just out of sight, lurking, waiting, scratching to get in.

Tchk. Tchk. Tchk.

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Immerse Your Readers: Don’t Sing It. Bring It.

Darker PagesA lot of writers like to use the phrase show, don’t tell. Personally, I prefer a catchphrase from one of my favorite old-school wrestlers, Scott Hall, who was known for saying, “Don’t sing it. Bring It.”

Whichever you prefer, the point is the same. When crafting a story, you serve the reader better by immersing them in the story through vivid description and detail.

Here’s an example:

She stepped outside the cabin. It was a bright morning and it was damn cold. She cursed under her breath and hugged her chest.

That’s a whole lot of singing.

Let’s try again.

She shoved the cabin door—swollen in its frame from the cold—and stepped outside. The low sun sparkled on the frost that covered the grass and gravel. It made everything look shrink-wrapped and artificial.

“Damn,” she said, the syllable lingering in front of her face in the form of pale steam.

A shiver rippled from her spine. She hugged her chest, her hard nipples scraping the inside of her shirt.

See the difference? You don’t need to sing about how cold it is, if you bring that coldness to the reader—via shivers, hard nipples, and steaming breath. Likewise, you don’t need to tell the reader that it’s morning if you show the reader a low sun and frost.

If you do too much singing, your reader is going to stay on the surface of your story. You won’t suck them into the moment. But if you bring them into the scene with solid sensory details, riveting metaphors, and skillful description, you’ll enable them to experience the story from the inside.

And that’s right where you want them.

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But, Then, So, and Other Useless Words Infesting Your Stories

Darker PagesThe clock was ticking. But Randy wasn’t done with test. So, he started filling in as many C’s as he could. Then the bell rang. So he scribbled faster. But the teacher told him to stop. So he couldn’t finish. Then he threw himself out the window. But the glass was really hard. So he bounced off it instead and slammed into the floor. Then the teacher called him a “shiftless nitwit” and gave him a detention.

See where I’m going with this? But, Then, and So are three words that arguably can be useful if sparsely used in a story, but should be avoided—or at least strongly reconsidered—as first words in a sentence. Let’s try that paragraph again without all the clutter words.

The clock was ticking, but Randy wasn’t done with test. He filled in as many C’s as he could until the bell rang. He scribbled faster. The teacher told him to stop. He couldn’t finish. He threw himself out the window, not realizing that the glass was too thick. He bounced off it and slammed into the floor. The teacher called him a “shiftless nitwit” and gave him a detention.

Doesn’t that flow better?

But can sometimes be used at the start of a sentence if you’re doing it for pacing purposes. Except can be used in the same way for a little variety. The thing is, you don’t want a manuscript that’s riddled with lots of But and Except sentences. Keep ‘em to a minimum. Make them count.

Then and So already have an implied sequence. Something happens and then something else happens. Something happens and ­so something else happens. In most cases, you can eliminate a then and so without hindering meaning. Often, I think writers use these words because they aren’t confident that they’re getting their meaning across.

Forget all that. Have confidence in your writing. Tighten it up.

Try reading a few pages of your own prose and see if any other useless words jump out. For me, I’m a huge abuser of just. I just can’t help myself. It’s just that the word keeps popping up, and I just don’t know why.

So, here’s what I do. I keep a list of useless words and do a search for them whenever I’m in the final edits of a manuscript. I don’t necessarily remove all of them, but I make sure each occurrence has a purpose.

For example, I’m currently working on Book Seven of The Scary Tales. I have a couple more chapters to go, but I just did a quick search of the document and found 65 uses of just and 31 sentence-beginning But’s. I’ll review each of them and see if they’re worth using. Odds are, I’ll scrap most of them. Sure, it may be a little cumbersome to do that but hopefully my readers will appreciate it.

So it’s just the right thing to do.

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Just Say It: Keep Your Dialogue Tags Simple

My daughter is a voracious reader, and I’ve taken dozens of pictures of her cuddled up somewhere with her nose in a book. Every once in awhile she gets really excited about a book and asks me to read it. One thing I’ve noticed about a lot of these chapter books is that the characters spend a lot of time exclaiming, claiming, replying, answering, asking, interrogating, responding, denying, and so on.

I’m just saying, there’s nothing wrong with simply saying dialogue.

Overly flowery dialogue tags run rampant in some adult fiction, too. And frankly, they’re a bit distracting.

Here’s what I’m talking about:

“But I don’t even know how to bake a cupcake,” Randy explained.

“Well, someone poisoned the entire birthday party,” Officer Denton insisted.

“You’re wasting your time!” Randy exclaimed.

“How do you explain the icing on your sleeves?” Officer Moore asked.

“The boys in the lab will tell you that it isn’t icing,” Randy replied.

It’s distracting, isn’t it?

Now, let’s replace some of those dialogue tags with the more elegant “say” and see how it plays. While we’re at it, let’s lose some dialogue tags and simply pair the dialogue with actual actions. See if the scene doesn’t get a bit deeper:

“But I don’t even know how to bake a cupcake,” Randy said.

Officer Denton crossed his beefy arms over his wall of a chest. “Well, someone poisoned the entire birthday party.”

Randy flailed his arms. “You’re wasting your time.”

“How do you explain the icing on your sleeves?” Officer Moore said.

Randy stared at the floor. “The boys in the lab will tell you that it isn’t icing.”

Notice that I didn’t “said” instead of “asked” for the questions. That’s because the question mark tells you that it’s a question. I also omitted the exclamation point, because they’re a bit overused as well. In the vast majority of cases, the strength of the dialogue and actions in a scene will imply the exclamation point.

Likewise, let the strength of your dialogue stand on its own. Don’t try to prop it up with dialogue tags. Let it be. Just say it.

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Avoid Filter Words: Write Through Your Characters, Not On Them

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One of my biggest pet peeves in writing is the use of filter words, which are basically unnecessary words that put the POV character between the reader and the scene. Some examples are feel, know, realize, decide, think, look, see, and here.

The worst offender is feel. Your characters rarely need to feel! If we’re in their heads, the feeling is assumed.

Here’s an example of a filter-filled passage:

Randy felt sharp claws slash across his chest. He realized the were-rabbit’s claws contained a sleeping toxin, because he saw the room fade to sparkling grey and then total blackness. He heard his body thud to the floor.

It’s a bit like watching a shifty bootleg of a movie recorded from a theatre screen, isn’t it? You can almost feel the distance from that second camera. Now try this revised version:

Sharp claws slashed across Randy’s chest. Damn. The were-rabbit’s claws must’ve contained a sleeping toxin, because the room faded to sparkling grey and then total blackness. His body thudded to the floor.

See how much deeper this puts you into the scene?

Now, these filter words aren’t always bad. Sometimes they’re necessary for clarity or for when you want to draw attention to the POV character’s act of perception. For example:

Randy looked into the were-rabbit’s unwavering pink eyes and knew that hateful gaze would be the last thing he ever saw.

More often than not, filter words only serve to hold the reader back from total immersion in the story. So, tighten up your writing by editing those dastardly things out. And, of course, watch out for were-rabbits.

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