11 Ways Not To Start Your Novel – No. 4

With Onomatopoeia


I’m really sorry to have to tell you but that is the sound of a literary agent’s expectations plummeting at the sight of onomatopoeia in the first few lines of your novel. Especially if it’s written in capitals, as they so often are.

This is not to say you cannot describe a character mumbling or have someone delight at the clip clopping of horses’ hooves if you so please. You can even say that the water came whooshing down the drain or dripping out the tap if the fancy takes you. In fact, please don’t hesitate to capture any particular sounds you want within your opening lines. The use of sound is a great way to conjure up an image or capture a particular sensation for a reader.

No, I’m talking about separating out onomatopoeia and using it instead of describing a particular sound.

Buzzers, bells and door knockers are the most frequent culprits.

For example:

Terry was just about to take a bite out of his lovingly crafted BLT when the telephone suddenly burst into life.


Or even:


“Oh that clock,” moaned Cinderella, “yes, I hear you. ‘Get up,’ you say, ‘time to start another day.’ Even he orders me around.”

It’s not uncommon for a Bang! to interrupt the narrative flow of an opening page either. Sometimes it’ll be something more peculiar like the noise of an exceptionally tired person finally sitting down on their familiarly sagging couch at the end of a long day – flump, sigh. Come to think of it SPLASH and Tick-Tock-Tick-Tock are other uncommonly common ones too and I’ve even read a couple of novels that start in a way reminiscent of Private Baldric’s poem, The German Guns.

It’s a different story if you’re writing a picture book, of course. This use of onomatopoeia is all types of fun in a picture book. But if your novel is aimed at an even slightly older readership I would recommend avoiding any BUZZZZZs , RING RINGs  or KERPOWs in the opening.

Why? Well it’s a bit like taking a shortcut in a marathon and still hoping for kudos. It wouldn’t show off your marathon-running skills at all. Your time would be irrelevant, whether you could give Mo Farah a run for his money or not.

Use your opening lines to show off your ability to capture a moment or communicate a certain sensation. Don’t let your chosen literary agent get the impression that you might not be a skilled enough writer to adequately describe a sound or that you are prone to taking the easy way out.

No shortcuts. Show them you’re in it for the long haul.


Oh sorry that’s my old Nokia 3310 ringing, I’d better take that.

8 Comments Add yours

  1. Oh dear… best take the “nee naws” out of the police car scene then!

  2. scskillman says:

    Thank you for this excellent post: it was very timely and just what I needed to know, as I work on improving the ms of my novel.

  3. Fran Hill says:

    Great post. My heart went BOOM DIDDY BOOM reading it.

  4. Ksenija says:

    Finally: NOT guilty! What a relief …

  5. kate pomeroy says:

    The fourth tip is good. But that’s all I can see on the post. How do I see the others??

    1. darleyblog says:

      You can see all of our 11 Ways Not To Start Your Novel posts by clicking on the ‘Editorial’ catergory in the menu on the right hand side of this page, up at the top.
      Hope you enjoy the other posts in the series. They’ll be a new one next week too.

  6. Hurrah! After all I got a web site from where I can actually get
    valuable information regarding my study and knowledge.

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