Onomatopoeia is something many of us briefly touched upon in primary school—cats meow, superheroes smash, bees buzz, doors bang—before discarding it in favor of elegant literary devices better suited to Serious Writers™. You might be surprised to learn that onomatopoeia doesn’t have to be restricted to children’s nursery rhymes and classic comic books; when used effectively, many onomatopoeic words can enhance auditory imagery and create a more vibrant, immersive story for your reader.

Let’s take a closer look at the onomatopoeia definition with some common examples of words, along with some example sentences, and how to use this literary device to make your writing pop.

What is onomatopoeia in writing?

Onomatopoeia is a literary device in which a word emulates a certain sound. Examples include ruff for a dog’s bark, the tick-tock of a clock, the ding-dong of a bell, a crackling fire, or the bang of a starter pistol. All of these onomatopoeic words sound like what they mean when you say them out loud.

The word “onomatopoeia” comes from the Greek and means “the making of a name or word.” Onomatopoeic words always sound like what they’re describing.

Does your brook babble, burble, or gurgle?

For example, describing a “rushing wind” gives the reader an idea of what the wind is doing, but it also brings the sound to life in the ear; “rush” is a little bit like what wind sounds like as it moves through tree branches.

Another onomatopoeia example might be a “screeching car.” Not only is this an action verb your readers will recognize, but it creates the sensation of sound on the page; you can imagine the “skreeeeech” sound as the car comes to a halt. All of these fun words work to describe sound in a clear and engaging way.

We’ll look at more examples of onomatopoeia below.

Onomatopoeia is a literary device that emulates sound.

How to pronounce onomatopoeia

“Onomatopoeia” is a pretty big chunk of change to carry around in your mouth. Here’s how it’s pronounced: “ahn-uh-mat-uh-pee-uh,” hitting the first and second-last syllable.

Should onomatopoeia be used outside children’s stories and comic books? We say yes!

Why do writers find onomatopoeia divisive?

You might notice on your creative writing journey that some writers tell you never to use onomatopoeia in adult fiction. Say huh? Does this mean your cars can’t screech, and your wind can’t rush, and your brooks can’t burble?

Well, no. Sometimes people say onomatopoeia shouldn’t be used because they don’t have a very clear idea of what it really is or what it can offer a story.

The biggest issue with onomatopoeia in literature comes from lack of subtlety and overuse. This can make your writing feel cliché. Here’s one onomatopoeia example:

They inched farther into the haunted house, and then—BANG! The door slammed shut behind them.

This sentence isn’t out of place in middle-grade fiction. But for a more mature audience, overt use of onomatopoeia can feel as though you’re leading your readers to the tension of the story rather than letting them discover it themselves. Consider instead:

They inched deeper into the house and, with a sudden whoosh of stagnant air, the door slammed shut behind them.

You actually still have onomatopoeia in this sentence, but in a smoother, more elegant way. The “whoosh” shows the reader the sound the door makes as it falls back towards the door frame, and “slammed” shows us the sound it makes as it connects (locking our heroes inside… forever…!). Here, you’re using onomatopoeia and figurative language to create the same level of tension without the reader even realizing you’re doing it.

Use onomatopoeia and figurative language to create tension in a story.

Onomatopoeia vs. Phanopoeia

Another auditory literary device you might come across is phanopoeia. This is similar to onomatopoeia, but instead of bringing sound to the page in a specific moment the way you would with onomatopoeic words, phanopoeia brings sound to the overall sensation of the poem as a whole. This is usually done by paying attention to creative use of consonance and assonance.

For example, if you’re writing a story about the sea you might favor lots of w words, sh words, and soft vowels like “whooshing,” “rushing,” “wishes,” “soon,” “would,” “shore,” “whirl,” and so on. When read out loud, these sounds give the sensation of soft, gathering waves.

Another example might be if you’re writing about a noisy city, you could use hard consonants like k, d, or t to create a sense of sharp dissonance. By using words like “crack,” “tatter,” “broken,” “back street,” “district,” or “dirty,” you create a segment of writing that’s alive with life. Notice how different they feel when read out loud compared to the softer ocean sounds in the previous example.

In your writing, try combining onomatopoeia (sound at the line level) and phanopoeia (sound at the broader level) to really bring your poem or story to life.

Use onomatopoeia and phanopoeia to bring your story to life.

Examples of onomatopoeia from everyday speech

As you can see, onomatopoeia isn’t always about crashing, banging, or barking. Not just limited to comic book-style stories, auditory language shows up in our everyday speech all the time. Human sounds and natural sounds that describe the world around us often become integrated into our language without us even realizing it. Here are some examples of onomatopoeia words from day-to-day language.

Onomatopoeia shows up in our everyday conversations.
  • “The only sounds were the rustling of pages.”

  • “Water splashed up against the wheels.”

  • “I’m going to catch some Zs before class.”

  • “The clock ticked mercilessly on.”

  • “She slammed her keys down on the table.”

  • “The logs crackled in the fireplace.”

  • “He slurped his soup gratefully.”

  • “A car honked at her as she stepped onto the street.”

  • “They called a plumber to fix the drip in the faucet.”

  • “There was a knock at the front door.”

Not only do these onomatopoeia examples all sound like what they’re describing when spoken out loud, they’ve become a fluid part of our daily language. We don’t even notice that the hard K in “knock” sounds like knuckles against wood; we simply recognize it as a distinctive action. In a story, however, these onomatopoeia examples work on a subconscious level to create a more lifelike setting that we can see and hear.

The hard K in “knock” sounds like knuckles against wood.

Onomatopoeia examples from literature

Now that we know more about what onomatopoeia is and the potential it has to elevate a story, let’s look at some other examples from literature.

“A Dream Of Coltrane” by Joel Jacob Todd, Jr.

Walking through Greenwich Village in New York

I hear a distant melody.

What is this cacophony of color, line and sound—

These spiraling notes that seem so angry?

A shrieking saxophone, a moaning horn—

What type of music was being played?

Onomatopoeia is one of the cornerstones of poetry, especially in poems related to music. In this jazz-inspired poem, the poet uses “shrieking” and “moaning” to create a vivid image of the scene. The hard k in “shrieking” and the long vowel in “moaning” make the words sound like what the speaker is hearing. They work well with other supporting aspects of language like “cacophony” and “angry” to immerse the reader in the poem.

Use your instincts and your ear to find the right word for your story.

October, October by Katya Balen

The noise is still there. It rolls between a hiss and a growl. My heart starts to jump and I wish I had my machete or a tiger. There’s a rustling too and it’s not the normal scuffle of leaves or branches twitching in the wind.

This scene uses vibrant onomatopoeia to describe the world for the reader. We have words like “hiss,” “growl,” “rustling,” and “scuffle,” which come together to create a soundscape of the scene. The double s in “hiss” and the gr in “growl” illustrate what the moment sounds like. When the speaker talks about “rustling,” you can imagine the animal sounds of some unseen beast scraping against the undergrowth.

Crackle vs. crunch: what’s the difference?

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

He saw nothing and heard nothing but he could feel his heart pounding and then he heard the clack on stone and the leaping, dropping clicks of a small rock falling.

A man famous for embracing simplicity in his narratives, Hemingway uses click-clack to illustrate the sharpness of tiny sounds against the silence. The key takeaway in this onomatopoeia example is in the specificity; “click” and “clack” are almost exactly the same word and refer to very similar sounds, and yet each one is exactly right for what Hemingway is trying to communicate. If you were to reverse the two words, the meaning wouldn’t be as powerful.

The more specific you can make your onomatopoeic word choices, the more vivid and immersive your scene will be.

Click or clack? Specificity is everything.

How to use onomatopoeia effectively in your story

Now that you’ve seen how other writers use onomatopoeia in their work, let’s wrap up with some tips on using onomatopoeic words in your own writing.

1. Look to everyday language

As we saw when we looked at onomatopoeia words from everyday speech, much of it is already deeply entrenched in our day-to-day vocabulary. Many onomatopoeia examples happen all around us in advertising, your favorite catchy song, and even casual conversation. Onomatopoeia is always at its best when it’s subtle—when it gives the scene another layer of color without the reader knowing it’s happening right before their eyes.

Remember that specificity is key. Try writing down a few similar onomatopoeia words that you could use in your scene—for example, “rustling,” “scuttling,” “rattling,” “scuffling,” etc—and see which of the sound words feels like the perfect fit for that moment. There will almost always be one that seems to naturally slot into place.

Remember to use all the senses in your writing.

2. Use your ear

Onomatopoeia is deeply instinctive. It’s one of the rare times when you can simply make up words without really having to explain yourself, because your readers will understand. James Joyce was a writer who was notorious for making up onomatopoeic words in his novels.

For example, you could say “his boots shlupped through the mud on his way to the front door.” His boots huh? And yet, this word is all the reader needs to imagine the shlup shlup shlup sound of plastic shoes against wet, clingy mud.

In your writing, try to “listen” as you create your story world and look for ways to use vowels and consonants to convey your own sounds onto the page.

It’s okay to make up onomatopoeic words.

3. Imitate sound with rhythm

Sometimes, onomatopoeia comes from the rhythm of a piece rather than one particular word. This is especially true in poetry, but you can find it in prose, too. One famous example that uses this technique is Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Bells,” where he uses the word “Bell” to imitate a bell sound.

The word itself doesn’t sound a lot like a bell in the way some other onomatopoeia words do, but Poe uses a repetitive rhythm to create the sound he needs:

Keeping time, time, time,

In a sort of Runic rhyme,

To the throbbing of the bells—

Of the bells, bells, bells—

and so forth. Here Poe uses rhythm to create a sound effect on the page. Each time he uses a repeated word, it sounds like the repeated tolling of a bell. Try experimenting with syllables, rhythm, and sentence structure to imitate the sort of different sounds you want your reader to hear.

You can use onomatopoeia to create rhythm.

A list of some common onomatopoeia words

If you’re still not sure what onomatopoeia is, check out these examples of onomatopoeia:

  • Pop

  • Hoot

  • Bam

  • Bang

  • Bash

  • Beep

  • Belch

  • Blab

  • Blast

  • Boing

  • Boom

  • Burp

  • Buzz

  • Clack

  • Clang

  • Click

  • Clink

  • Clap

  • Clop

  • Thud

  • Thump

  • Creak

  • Crunch

  • Crackle

  • Rattle

  • Shuffle

  • Ding

  • Dong

  • Tick

  • Tock

  • Drip

  • Fizzle

  • Sizzle

  • Flap

  • Flick

  • Flop

  • Flush

  • Gargle

  • Groan

  • Grunt

  • Gulp

  • Gurgle

  • Gush

  • Hiccup

  • Honk

  • Hum

  • Kapow

  • Knock

  • Lurch

  • Mumble

  • Munch

  • Rumble

  • Rustle

  • Natter

  • Ping

  • Plop

  • Plunk

  • Pow

  • Puff

  • Rap

  • Rasp

  • Ring

  • Scrape

  • Slam

  • Slash

  • Slosh

  • Slurp

  • Snap

  • Splash

  • Swish

  • Swoosh

  • Toot

  • Twang

  • Whip

  • Yammer

  • Yap

  • Zap

  • Zing

  • Zip

  • Zoom

  • Squawk

  • Thwack

  • Squish

  • Squeak

  • Squelch

  • Tweet

  • Warble

  • Chime

  • Clunker

  • Crash

  • Crinkle

  • Flip-flop

  • Pitter patter

  • Tap

  • Wail

  • Whistle

A lot of these words sound or look similar on the page, but they bring to mind a very distinctive sound. That’s the power onomatopoeia gives your writing.

Onomatopoeia is more than saying “a dog barked,” or “an owl hooted.”

Use onomatopoeic words to create a more expressive story

Onomatopoeia is one of those literary devices that has a sore reputation; used with intention and precision, however, words related to sound can help your writing become more expressive and immersive for the reader. Between natural sounds from the world around us, animal noises, and all the different sounds that we hear every day, you have a whole auditory palette with which to bring your story world to life.