My top tip for bringing fiction alive is to use Onomatopoeia. This is the Greek term for ‘word-making.’ When we use it in our fiction it means using a word that appears to suggest the qualities of the sound, for instance, murmur, cuckoo and tingle.
I find I especially use Onomatopoeia when zooming in on a scene.
A critique partner, author, Maria Cisneros-Toth will sometimes say that we need to slow scenes down. She encouraged me three or four times during the writing of ‘The Or’in of Tane Mahuta,’ to ‘slow down time.’ Her point was that the story needed a change of pace – it becomes boring with everything flowing at the same rhythm.
Maria would sometimes point out where there was an interesting moment in the story that I had rushed over.
She’d say, ‘Tease this scene out. Put us there with you. Really show us what’s happening in minute detail. Give us what he sees, smells and hears.’
Utilising all the senses is a great way of slowly panning the situation.
Showing every detail is also a great challenge and it tests our resources as writers.
I’ve heard this advice given elsewhere since as well, where the passage of time is concerned in fiction. The advice was ‘to speed time up and slow it down.’ If you were to use the analogy of a camera on a movie set.
The camera pans out and zooms in. That’s how you keep things interesting.
I have to admit, that the minute-by-minute scenes are now my favourite parts of the book. Maria was right. We do need to bring the focus right in on the details sometimes.
For me, being an auditory person, my strongest sense is sound, so I tend to use a lot of sound in my writing. When it comes to ‘teasing out a scene’ and adding all those important elements, I think about how I hear it, first.
For instance, there’s a pivotal scene I’ve been working on in ‘The Sasori Empire,’ where the ancient talisman, the Or’in, is tested for its authenticity. On the wooden pedestal, the talisman starts to move by itself. I use the vibrating sound to emphasize the drama of the moment.
‘The Or’in gradually rolled back-and-forth in a hypnotic motion in the wooden hollow. An eerie rock-rock sound grew louder and more insistent in the interior of the temple, and suddenly the Or’in spilled off the edge of the pedestal and crashed to the floor with a clink, clink.’
As long as we use this device where it’s needed, hopefully it will come across as a natural moment in the story. A subtle evolution.
Janice Hardy, from Fiction University, says, ‘Onomatopoeia is a device best used sparingly, because it packs a wallop. Too much of it will start to feel like a comic book, so drop it in when the scene needs that extra POW.’
Growing up, the single most influential series I read was definitely the Finn Family Moomintroll, by Tove Jansson. Tove’s deft hand with words and the precision of her use of Onomatopoeia are still a lesson to me today on how to include sound naturally.
One spring morning at four o’clock the first cuckoo arrived in the valley of the Moomins. He perched on the blue roof of the Moominhouse and cuckooed eight times – rather hoarsely to be sure, for it was still a bit early in spring. ~ Finn Family Moomintroll
This is the opening paragraph of chapter one. Essentially, nothing has happened. There is no tension, nor dramatic question, and yet the story is already alive in our imaginations. We’re expectant, we’re hopeful. We find ourselves perking up, just as the winter countryside depicted in the first scene is perking up. We wonder what’s going to happen next. Why? Nothing at all has transpired in this first paragraph apart from a bird singing.
Jansson’s skilful weaving of sound naturally into the poetry of her words brings a whole world bursting to life. This one paragraph is like a master class on setting scene. Genius. Poetry. Great fiction.
Yet, not everyone is a fan of using these techniques. In a post entitled, ‘Zip! Crash! Bang! Using Onomatopoeia,’ Janice Hardy explained why some readers dislike sound in text. ‘They find them awkward, or distracting, detracting from a scene instead of enhancing it, or feel they’re too comic book and not literary enough perhaps or they seem like a cheap trick.’
I can understand why readers would feel this way. Yet, sometimes, it really is the most effective way of expressing the moment. As Hardy pointed out, in the aforementioned blog post, with the difference between ‘Ssh!’ and saying one character had shushed another, the two things are not the same.
One expresses the moment, the other doesn’t. The latter falls flat. It fails to engage us.
This is the moment we’ve lost the reader back to their digital devices, YouTube and the television. This is why it is more important than ever to find ways to bring our fiction alive!
Which is your predominant sense? How do you use it to bring your fiction alive?
Yvette K. Carol
Any book that helps a child to form the habit of reading, to make reading one of his deep and continuing needs, is good for him. ~ Maya Angelou