How To Write Sounds: Onomatopoeia Definition and Examples

by Joe Bunting | 39 comments

Screech! Hold up. Did you hear that? Boom! No, not that. Ring-ring. Not that either. Moo. There it is.

That is the sound of onomatopoeia, one of the most fun words to spell in the English language, and if you want to know how to write sounds, an absolutely essential literary device.

How does onomatopoeia work? And how can you use it to write sounds? In this article, I'll give you the definition of onomatopoeia, share a list of onomatopoeia examples, and end with a creative writing exercise.

How to Write Sounds

Onomatopoeia Definition

Onomatopoeia. A word that sounds like the sound it describes, e.g. bang, boom, pow. 

t doesn't always describe a loud noise. It's any sound effect that is spelled like the sound it makes. 

How to Write Sounds with Onomatopoeia

You've probably seen onomatopoeia in comic books where the good guy punches the bad guy and you'll see “Pow!” or a bomb goes off and you see the sound effect “boom!” Onomatopoeia is for more than comic books though. 

Adding onomatopoeia to your writing engages the reader's imagination and forces them to mentally say that word, invoking the image or sound effect that you're trying to get across.

When you're writing, you may want the reader to hear the sound of gravel crunching beneath a character's feet.

James walked across the gravel driveway, his boots crunching with each step.

Not the best story I've ever told, but you get the idea, right? Onomatopoeia tries to capture the natural sounds that emerge from character action or setting detail.

It doesn't have to be a poetic sound or a pleasant sound—the goal is to capture image, to add a sensory element to the scene. 

To add onomatopoeia to your writing, pay attention to sounds around you. Is a faucet dripping? Or maybe you can hear the woosh of cars as they fly by on the freeway beside your house.

Whatever you hear, try to capture it in a writing sound or a kind of sound effect for your reader. Also note that onomatopoeia doesn't take quotation marks.

Use Onomatopoeia to Describe Animal Sounds

Onomatopoeias is often used to describe the sounds animas make, like “oink” or “moo.”

My favorite recent example of onomatopoeia is a humorous song about the sound a fox makes (amid other animal noises) called “What Does a Fox Say” by the Norwegian group Ylvis.

Dog goes “woof”
Cat goes “meow”
Bird goes “tweet”
And mouse goes “squeek”
Cow goes “moo”
Frog goes “croak”
And the elephant goes “toot”
Ducks say “quack”
And fish go “blub”
And the seal goes “ow ow ow”

But there's one sound
That no one knows
What does the fox say?

Different languages have their own onomatopoeias as well. For example, American dogs say “woof woof,” but French dogs say “ouah ouah,” and Japanese dogs say “wan wan.”

Ylvis - The Fox (What Does The Fox Say?) [Official music video HD]

Make Up New Words With Onomatopoeia

Going back to our example:

James walked across the gravel driveway, his boots crunching at each step.

You could use the word crunch, which is a great example of onomatopoeia.

But if you wanted to take onomatopoeia a step further you could alter the word, or even make up a new word, to describe the sound. For example, say you have a very specific idea of what that sound is, so instead of saying that the gravel crunched, maybe you make up a word that, when spoken aloud, sounds like the gravel. Crinch or shimpch or even stomp-ch.

Onomatopoeia is, with a few exceptions, the one time when you're writing that no one will correct your spelling!

List of Onomatopoeia Examples

Here's a list of some of the top onomatopoeia examples:

  • baa
  • bang
  • boom
  • cheep
  • clack
  • cluck
  • crack
  • crunch
  • giggle
  • groan
  • haha
  • hee hee
  • moo
  • quack
  • ring
  • slam
  • smack
  • stomp
  • thwack
  • tinkle
  • toot
  • tweet
  • wham
  • woosh
  • wow

Whichever examples of onomatopoeia strike you as the best description for your action, try a few today and see how they enliven the scene.

What is your favorite onomatopoeia sound word? Are there any onomatopoeia words I forgot? Let me know in the comments.

PRACTICE

Ready to put onomatopoeia to use? Great! Here's your creative writing prompt:

Write for fifteen minutes about a group of friends experiencing the last few days of summer. Incorporate as many onomatopoeias as you can.

Share your practice in the Pro Practice Workshop, and leave feedback for a few other writers. Not a member? Join us.

How to Write Like Louise PennyWant to write like Louise Penny? Join our new class and learn how. Learn more and sign up here.

Join Class

Next LIVE lesson is coming up soon!

Joe Bunting is an author and the leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris, a real life adventure story set in France. It was a #1 New Release on Amazon. Follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).

Want best-seller coaching? Book Joe here.

Joe Bunting Headshot

Work with Joe Bunting?

WSJ Bestselling author, founder of The Write Practice, and book coach with 14+ years experience. Joe Bunting specializes in working with Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Historical Fiction, How To, Literary Fiction, Memoir, Mystery, Nonfiction, Science Fiction, and Self Help books. Sound like a good fit for you?

View Joe Bunting's Profile

39 Comments

  1. Katie Axelson

    Ok, best conversation ever: we were in Guatemala and my friend asked one of the children what dogs say in Spanish. The little girl, like 6, responded, “Dogs don’t speak Spanish!” (She didn’t say, “Duh!” but that was the tone in her voice).

    Reply
    • LetiDelMar

       Ha ha!  We are raising my little girl bilingual (Spanish/English) and all our friends get confused when she point to birds and says “piu piu” instead of “chirp chirp” or “wow wow” instead of “Bow wow”.  So yes, dogs speak Spanish. 

    • Katie Axelson

      That’s great that you’re raising her bilingual. I hope do the same with my kids someday. Learning a language is hard but doing it when you’re young makes it easier than in the classroom (I’ve done that twice).

      Katie

  2. Msadaku

    How do you write Gasp! (when someone gasps), when you are writing a story and you want to emphasize that word in action?

    Reply
  3. wendy2020

    Finally, someone that gets that if the dogs (or pigs or cats, etc.) of the world got together they would need an international bow-wow translator. 🙂

    Reply
  4. Lisa Roberts

    “Ugh,” she frowned as she threw her head back towards the bright sun beating down on them.  “I so don’t want to go back to school.”

    “Well, as they say, all good things must come to an end.”  Her father spoke absently as his hands slipped over the large smooth wheel.  He was coming about, steering the boat back towards the harbor entrance.

    Ting, ting, ting, ting.  The large striped sail was luffing in the wind and the sail ties snapped wildly against the mast.

    “Honey, can you tighten the main a little?”

    I tucked my tanned outstretched legs underneath me so my mother could grab the line.

    Click, click, click, click, click.   My mom screwed up her face as she used all her waning strength to slowly crank the winch for the main sheet.  Rrrrrrt!   At last the sail was tight, she could crank no further.

    “Ok!  That’s good!  Now cleat it off.”

     As the sail stiffened, it became quiet and once again we were left with only the sound of the boat rhythmically surfing through the afternoon swells.  Swish, Swish…the sound and the gentle rocking nearly always put me to sleep.  Once again, I leaned my head back against the cabin, closed my eyes and let the sun warm my face.  

    I was nearly asleep when I heard the familiar clang of the harbor beacon.  I sat up and peered around.  It was nearing 5:00 pm and the boats that had gone out that day were on their way back in.  As the beacon bobbed to and fro, I caught a whiff of the sea lions perched upon it and lazily atop each other.  Like a plate of noodles they nestled into one another until the largest among them suddenly lifted his head and thrust his chest out towards the horizon.  His mates slithered off his back, rudely awakened. 

    Ohr!  Ohr!  Ohr!  One by one, they all clamored their way to an upright position.  Soon they were falling over one another trying to catch a scattering of tiny orange treats.  

    I should have known.  It was my brother, tossing goldfish crackers to the sea lions from the bow of the boat.

    Splash!  A baby fell into the ocean and soon they were all in the water diving and swimming, poking their heads up looking for treats.  

    That damn kid.  He always knew how to ruin a perfectly peaceful moment.

    Reply
    • Chiara Keren Button

       This has to be some of the best use of onamatopeia I’ve ever read! It all sounds so natural, you can imagine the sounds coming from a boat. I liked your analogy of the sea-lions “like a plate of noodles”, too!

    • wendy2020

      What a well-crafted piece.   If someone had asked he to guess the writing prompt that inspired this story, I never would have onomatopeoia.  That’s how seemlessly it is woven into the story.  It stands out, yet disappears as just another compelling part of the narrative.

      I really enjoyed your submission!

  5. Zoe Beech

    Too tired to read this post tonight, but that is the most beautiful cow I’ve ever seen… Great photo!!!

    Reply
    • Joe Bunting

      I know. I was impressed too. 🙂

  6. Juliana Austen

    Thud.   Sally opened her eyes to the warm darkness of a summer night. She listened intently but all she could hear was Doug’s breathing next to her. She smiled and pulled the light sheet over her.
    Thud.   Silence.   Scrittch, scratch, scratch,scratch. Thud.
    Her heart began to race and Doug stirred beside her but the noises in the next room had stopped.
    Phoooph – an exhalation of breath not quite a snort, and then another flurry of scratching. Thud …. thud it sounded as if something was being thrown around the room.  Doug was sitting up beside her now. She hardly dared to breathe. Squeak, squeak – then silence. Ominous silence.
    “Bloody cat! Its got a rat.” Doug lay back down pulling her with him.
    In the morning, just outside their room they found the remains – a long grey tail and a small pile of viscera. The cat was asleep in the sun.

    Reply
    • Charlie Goch

      Great build up of tension with your sounds there. Well done, I was expecting it to be much worse than the already bad cat offering. Like.

    • wendy2020

      My favorite sentence:  Doug lay back down, pulling her with him.  And I love the use of the word scritch.  So much more texture than if you had just left it all up to scratching.

      Good job.

  7. Chiara Keren Button

    The last days of summer in Vladivostok. It had sounded like a great idea. It was still a great idea. Theoretically. In practice, however…

    Abigail moaned, almost physically sick, as the slurge of Chantelle’s umpteenth belly-flop lurched across the pool area.

    “Telly!” yelped Isabelle, as droplets of water tinkled delicately onto her tanning skin.

    There ought to be rules against wearing bikinis, Abigail thought. She glanced sideways at Daffy. Daffy had looked up over her reading glasses, but evidently wasn’t concerned. After all, Daffy could keep her calm through the worst of their sisters’ tricks – the time Telly danged the frying-pan over Isabelle’s pretty head, for insance. A few shrieks couldn’t upset her. She returned to the no-doubt engrossing subject of the Russian Formalists.

    Abigail, glancing anxiously at the other occupant of the pool area – a short man, fast asleep, evidently on a mission to tan bulging paunch – decided to try unconcern, too. Lying back on the lounge, she shut her eyes, dreaming of a remote village in Peru. A few whoops from headhunters could hardly be worse than this.

    Perhaps it was a premonition. Or maybe the light pop-splash of a beach ball plopping lightly into the pool.

    Abigail sat bolt upright – just in time to see the beech ball leave Chantelle’s hand and warrump onto that bright, tempting paunch.

    Telly blinked innocently as the man fixed her with bulbous eyes. “How unexpected!” she exclaimed. “Must be a sort o’ magnetic ‘ttraction ‘tween round objects. I’d better go after it, ‘adn’t I?” Telly pulled herself out of the pool and disappeared round a corner, splat-splatting water everywhere.

    The lightest whoosh was Isabelle slipping into the pool and underwater before the man could trace any sisterly likenesses.

    Daffy’s reading glasses folded with a clickety-click. Snap! Their case shut. A mild thud sufficed to shut the Russian Formalists between their covers. A delicate “Ahem!” as Daffy stood up.
    “I seem to have forgotten my phone upstairs. I’m expecting an important call…” Clip-clip-clip as she effaced herself, neatly and efficiently, as always.

    Abigail lay back, ramming her sunglasses over her eyes and jamming her sunhat on top of her face. If she were only half as adept at making excuses…

    Reply
    • Marla4

      Good job!

    • Lisa Roberts

      A great use of onomatopoeia without making the words stand out like a sore thumb – very natural.  Nice job!

  8. wendy2020

    “Ahhhhhh,” Nicki sighed, Tory Burch flip-flops by her side.  “You’re so lucky you guys have a pool.”
     
    Splip.  Splip.
     
    “You really are, Tessa,” agreed Jill.  “Look how unswollen my feet look in this water.  I wonder if it would work for my ass?  It’s gotten huge!”
     
    “Haha!  Mine, too!  Tessa, come join us.”
     
    Sigh….
     
    “I’ll be there in a minute,” said Tessa.
     
    Ka-chick. Ka-chick. Ka-chick.  Watermelon rind was still no match for the five-year old knives Tessa’s had gotten for her wedding.   Black teardrops dotted pink flesh of the summer fruit. 
     
    “Grrrr.”  The seedless sticker had lied to Tessa, again.  
     
    Zap-splat, Zap-splat, Zap-splat!
     
    “Ow!!  Mom, Patrick shot me in the eye!”
     
    “Wah-wah-wah, you little cry-baby!  It’s just water, Caroline!  Besides, it was an accident.”
     
    Whap. Whap. Crack.
     
    “So was that.”  Caroline smiled, a now-broken plastic pail dangling from her five year-old fingers.
     
    “I’m gonna get you for that!”
     
    “Eeeeeek!” Caroline flung the red bucket from her hand, and zoomed away, with her twin brother in hot pursuit.
     
    Bonk. Clatter. Shatter.
     
    Tessa bent down  and picked up the pieces of the glass pitcher, sticky with spilled lemonade.  Tessa had gotten it for her wedding, too.   “Ding Dong the pitcher’s dead…” played in parody in Tessa’s head.  She and Bill had registered for different pitcher.  But her mother-in-law had given them this one, instead.
     
    The shards clinked like tinkling wind chimes in warm breeze as Tessa dumped them in the garbage. 
     
    “Stay off the patio!” Tessa called to her children, who seemed to have forgotten they hated each other and were now playing a game they’d invented called “I can make a grosser sound that you can!”
     
    Blech….Buurrrp….Gaaaag…
     
    Psssttt-pssst-shhhh-pssst. Even across the yard, Tessa could catch a few of her friends’ whispered words, including “My kids will never be like that,” and “I know, doesn’t she read Parenting magazine?”
     
    Hmmmph.  Next month Nicki and Jill would each give birth to their first child.  Until then, they would have all the answers.
     
    “Help me up,” Jill said to Nicki. “I gotta go pee.”
     
    “Great.  Now you got my bladder thinking it has to go pee, too.”
     
    Ms. September 14 Due Date and Ms. September 22 Due Date groaned as they struggled to launch their beach ball bodies upward.
     
    “Through the playroom and then first door on your left,” Tessa directed.  It wasn’t the closest bathroom, but it was out of earshot of the kitchen.
     
    Pop. Fizz. Blibble blibble blible. Swish.
     
    Tessa toasted the setting summer sun.  Etiquette be damned, she downed her champagne in one glorious gulp.
     
    Kindergarten began on Tuesday.
     
    Ahhhhhh.

    Reply
    • Marla4

      You’re a master at this!

    • Rainey

      Fantastic onomatopoeia!  

    • Lol

      I agree

  9. Rainey

                The cool
    sea breezes softly stroked the cheeks of the three friends as they sat on the
    small plot of sand that throughout the summer, they had come to consider as
    their own.

                “Isn’t this
    the best?” Becky said, closing her eyes and letting out a long, contented “ahhhh.”  The waves wooshed as they climbed the up sand
    towards our feet, but just as they were about to lap over our toes, fell back
    with a prolonged shoosh.

                “I don’t
    want to go back to school,” Drew said, gulping the last of his soda, then
    smacking his lips in a dramatic fashion that made his companions giggle.  “I say, we claim this beach in the name of
    Beach Bums everywhere!”  He leapt to his
    feet, plunking down into the hard-packed sand, hands flying to his hips in a
    comical fashion.

                Becky and
    Allison began scooping up the wet, soppy sand and piling it into a rudimentary
    castle.  As they scooped, the sand sucked
    and bubbled, as if it was angry at being removed from it’s comfortable, squishy
    bed.  They piled their tower so high,
    that it eventually collapsed like the Tower of Babel.  “Aw,” they said in unison, sticking out their
    bottom lips.  Allison shrugged, and
    inspected her nails, flicking the crusty sand from beneath the edges.

                “I never
    want to leave this spot.”  Becky wrapped
    her arm around her best friend, who in turn wrapped her arm around Drew.  The three companions sat staring out into the
    glassy sea, letting the caw of the
    gulls lull them into a late summer trance, as the cooper sun dipped sluggishly
    behind the horizon.

    Reply
    • Marla4

      This is wonderful!

    • wendy2020

      Great imagery!

      Loved the part about the sand being angry about being being pulled out its comfortable bed (I’d leave out the word squishy though, cause I think being pulled out a comfortable bed is strong on its own and lots of people can relate to it.

      Seems like no one wants school to start (except the moms?).

  10. Marla4

    We are here on the White River just as the sun is setting,
    the three of us, and we are slick with suntan lotion and we are drinking white
    zin with a splash of Sprite and we feel the way you do when you know an ending
    is close, though none of you will say it.

    We play a game from back in the day, when we stayed out
    late, hiding behind big trees and small houses, signaling to each other in the
    black night.

    “Hoo,” I call from my place on the beach towel, and Royce
    calls back.

    “Hoo, hoot,” she says, and takes a swig.

    Gaylene takes over then.

    “Hoo, hoot, hoosier,” she calls, and starts to laugh, the hiccupped
    laughter she’s famous for.

    A boat whooshes by, a great plume of water in its wake. 

    Royce pulls out the firecrackers she’s been holding onto
    since July.  She stands, unsteady on her
    feet, and lays the firecrackers out on the bank of the river.  The group of them is as big as a dish towel. Gaylene
    jumps up and brings her cigarette to Royce, who lights the row of tiny explosives.  There are pops like gunfire and the firecrackers
    flick and snap and hiss and sizzle.

    We raise our fists and we thump our foreheads, we dance
    together, as if the fireworks are the grandest thing we’ve seen.  Everything tonight is bigger than it should
    be.  The moon seems too close now, so big
    and so bright the stars fade beside it. 
    I smile to hard, and my back teeth are probably showing.  Gaylene is  turning in wide circles calling the
    Razorbacks.  “Woo, pig, sooie,” she calls
    and wiggles her fingers like she’s just touched something hot.

    Tomorrow she’ll be heading to Fayetteville, where she’s a
    freshman at the University of Arkansas. 

    “I’ll hate wearing a picture of a hog on everything I own,”
    Gaylene says.  “If I was little like
    Royce, I wouldn’t care, but one me it looks like a confession.”

    And Royce says, “You’re going to be fine, sweetie. And you
    haven’t been fat since seventh grade.”

    In the distance the wind whips across the hills, the sound
    like wheezing.  The highway is a half a
    mile away, the cars swooshing by, and we stand there, listening. 

    Royce is getting married in a week, something we’re all
    trying not to talk about, and so we focus on  Gaylene, who stands beneath the glinting moon,
    and we try to see her future, high and lifted up, and we hang onto it,  we hang onto each other, and we are slashes of
    light that streak across the black water of the river and spark across the
    midnight sky.

     

    Reply
    • Juliana Austen

      That’s beautiful!

    • wendy2020

      You have some really great phrases, like the razorback being a confession and and an ending is close though none of us will say it.  Also, you developed the friendship very strongly.  I wanted to know them better.

      Maybe you added some things just for the sake of the onomatopoeia exercise, but I think if you were to develop this into a short story, you could leave out a few scene descriptors (like the boat passing, unless it has relevance to the story, like if it happened after they set off the fireworks and they are afraid they are getting busted?) and you will still have a strong setting.

      Beautiful framework.  I can definitely see these 3 as chick lit characters. 🙂

    • Rainey

      Really beautiful imagery.  You really have a knack for expressing feelings.  I loved this scene.

    • Marla4

      Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  11. Beck Gambill

    I love onomatopoeia! In my piece for the short story contest I wanted to use a word describing a girl calling out. I had in mind a particular sound but wasn’t sure if I could just make it up (now I know!) so I tried to find something like it on dictionary.com. Woohoo, which surprisingly is a word, wasn’t the sound I was after. I ended up using the Australian call cooey, which is also an actual word, even though the story is set in Scotland. I knew words like pop and buzz were onomatopoeia but I didn’t know it was legitimate to make up your own. Even more reason to like onomatopoeia! I also just like saying it! 🙂

    Reply
  12. Mirelba

    I’ve got problems with onomatopoeia-  years ago I wrote a story in college that my
    professor loved and made me read aloud in class.  There was one bit with a clock ticking, and I
    felt ridiculous reading out the tick tock.  My prof said- rule of thumb:  if you feel awkward reading it out loud,
    don’t write it.  So I don’t.

    The only way I could do
    this, was by doing a children themed piece, so here goes:

     

    Splish went the water as
    they jumped right in,

    Into the ocean where they
    loved to swim.

     

    Whooosh went the sea
    shell held to their ear

    Sounding like the ocean
    that they loved so dear.

     

    Shoo-oo-oo went the soft
    summer breeze

    That blew the fine
    grained sand that made them sneeze.

     

    Squish-squash went the
    wet sand beneath their toes/

    “Mommy, where is it
    that the ocean goes?”

     

    But now that summer has
    come to an end,

    Good by ocean, shell,
    summer breeze and sand.

     

    Reply
    • Anonymous

      Nice!!!!

    • Mirel

      Thanks 🙂

  13. Vasily

    “Blaah burla burla burlah” – cackled the boiling laughter of
    the bong. Followed by a long sigh-like “Paaaaaaaaah” and real lifelike cloud
    burst out of his mouth filling the room above them with thick white smoke.
    “Pheeew, Johny that`s a big one! Where did you get lungs like that!” Said Susan
    and pulled the bong from his hands.
    “Well my dear, I`m a trained expert in homemade clouds, mists and any sorts of
    smoke-like activities.” Johny laughed.

    “Blurp blurp blurp.” The bong gargled angrily in her hands.
    Susan closed her eyes and let out a long “Phooooo” of smoke towards the ceiling.
    The pictures on the back of her eyelids begin to move and she could almost swear
    she heard the whirring “Swish swash” of the lightsabers she swings in her mind.
     

     

    Reply
  14. Anonymous!

    Lol. This is sooooo funny 😉

    Reply
  15. Lol

    You could say, footstep. And say the t, and p, heavily.

    Reply
  16. Lol

    La la la la la la ,a la la ,a Lanka ka kamdehvdkebfiebfinedosbdubwi

    Reply
  17. TerriblyTerrific

    Oh, wow. I got to learn a new word! What a cool one! Yes. I must practice this one! Thank you!

    Reply
  18. Bruno Miller

    How do you all write zip, do you add extra zs or ps when trying to make a sound rather than explain the action of zipping?

    Reply
  19. Val Holmes

    How do I type the sound of seats being thrown out of a train window and also the sound of a train taking off?

    Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Say Yes to Practice

Join over 450,000 readers who are saying YES to practice. You’ll also get a free copy of our eBook 14 Prompts:

Popular Resources

Books By Our Writers

Box of Shards
- K.M. Hotzel
Headspace
- J. D. Edwin
The Girl Who Broke the Dark
- Evelyn Puerto
6
Share to...