purple prose

Language, Sound, and Word Choice

By Shauna Aura Knight (Guest Blogger)

To spurt or not to spurt? Finding the right word for an erotic scene is occasionally fraught with peril. Using overly clinical words breaks the sensual mood but so does purple prose. Often I focus on the musicality and sound of words while keeping an eye to their connotation, context, and even unintentional humor.

Let’s talk about connotation. Though we have this lovely invention, the dictionary, words shift their meaning over time. Reading about heaving bosoms in a romance novel published today might make you chuckle whereas a generation ago the author could reasonably assume that phrase was sexy.

I don’t use the word “dick” for sexy scenes. Why? In modern use it’s generally an insult, as in “Bob, you’re a dick.” I might use it if I’m writing from the guy’s POV and he’s referring to his own anatomy, but cock is usually my go-to word for penis. It has that nice percussiveness and rawness without being insulting.

But this brings us to the question, why not just use the word penis? It’s certainly specific. However, the word penis isn’t a very sensual sounding word, is it?

Clinical vs. Evocative Words

Let’s look at a few clinical words for human anatomy and functions. Clitoris, Penis, Vagina, labia, perineum, vulva, scrotum, anus, prostate, G-spot, urethra, semen, ejaculate, contraction, cervix, uterus, frenulum, testicles, meatus.

These words are all fairly explicit, but in most cases, they are about as sexy-sounding as formaldehyde.

On the other hand we don’t want to venture to the land of purple prose.

Let’s look at other words for penis: member, manhood, hard-on, erection, lance, shaft, hardness, thickness, length, heat, phallus, schlong, dong, pecker.

Some of those words are right out if you want a sexy vibe. Many of them, however, have a warmer, more sensual sound. Erection is still a little clinical, and manhood’s a little goofy-sounding these days, but what we’re looking at is how the sound of the word can evoke the emotions and sensations you want to bring into your writing. When we’re working with word sounds, there are techniques from linguistics and poetry that describe why words work the way they do.

Ideograms, Onomatopoeia and More

Both of these are part of phonosemantics. Onomatopoeia is when a word sounds like what it refers to. For example, water: swish, slosh, splash, crash, pour, trickle, flow, ocean, creek, brook. Onomatopoeia is a type of ideogram.

Ideograms also include sensory words for concepts that do not make a sound. For instance, we might use the words sparkle, shimmer, glint, and glisten to refer to diamonds, but diamonds don’t actually make a sound.  If you want to get really nerdy, iconism is how specific sounds recur to in language to refer to the same type of thing. Phenomimes and psychomimes are specific sound-effect words for concepts that don’t make a sound.

There are a lot of words that sound like what they describe. More examples of onomatopoeia: breath, breathe, gasp, groan, moan, grunt, cry, scream, whimper, mewl, rough, hoarse, growl.

And there are a lot of situations where the sound of the word is just as important as its meaning.

Trance and Hypnosis

I wear a few different professional hats, and along with writing paranormal romance I also write nonfiction focused on leadership, facilitation, and personal transformation. A lot of my public speaking work includes workshops and rituals for the Pagan, Earth-centered, Goddess, and metaphysical communities. Thus, I’m frequently leading meditations and trance journeys, and I’ve found that my choice in words is absolutely crucial in getting a group of people into a trance state.

I’ve learned facilitation techniques from hypnotherapy, Neuro-Linguistic Programming, shamanic and other indigenous traditions, educational theory, and storytelling. A mentor of mine put it succinctly; if you’re trying to speak to the subconscious mind and keep the talky-thinky conscious mind from interrupting, you want to use the rougher-sounding Anglo-Saxon words as opposed to the clinical-sounding Latin words.

When I thought about this, I realized that Anglo-Saxon words tend to have more ideograms. The more visceral words keep the subconscious mind engaged and invested in the story you’re telling.

Put even more simply, words with more than three syllables tend to be more clinical whereas simple one and two-syllable words tend to engage the subconscious mind. If you’re writing an erotic scene and trying to articulate a very primal, embodied experience, you’re generally going to want to use more visceral, evocative language that keeps people out of thinky/clinical headspace.

In other words, the more you want someone to feel and experience the words, the more you want shorter words using sound and musicality that reflects those sensations. However, it also serves to be aware of when word sounds can have unintended effects.

Alliteration, Consonance, and  Accidental Humor

Alliteration is when a series of words start with the same consonant. Consonance is when a series of words use the same consonant sound anywhere within the word. These sounds in words can evoke a mood, but they can also render a phrase unintentionally humorous. Repetitions of certain consonants is found humorous to our ears.

For instance: “His penis was pounding her pussy til she peaked in pleasure, his hips slapping her posterior powerfully.” A little ridiculous, but you get the idea.

For erotic scenes, words that begin with S or SH tend to evoke the right sound. Even the clinical word sex uses the sound. Too many S-words in a series, though, will tip the balance from sensual to comical when you aren’t intending to make your reader laugh.

Some S-words: slip, slide, slick, silk, slurp, slap, squirt, spurt, spew, seed, stroke, shiver, shudder, shake, shaft, shot.

Spurt and spew are words that can sound ridiculous all on their own just because of how they sound. One of my favorite erotic romance authors, Emma Holly, somehow manages to use the word spurt without it sounding silly. Largely I think that her use of the word fits in context; she’s using more sexually raw language in most of her descriptions. There are a lot of words that will sound ridiculous in one context and hot in another.

Assonance, Internal Rhyme, and Rhythm

Assonance is when you have several words in succession that have the same vowel sound. This can create a sense of rhyme, even if the consonant sounds are different.

This can add a very gentle rhythm to your prose. And rhythm is good; rhythm is one of the qualities that helps to bring people into that light trance state. When I’m facilitating a trance journey, I’m using rhythmic words and I may often use a soft drumbeat. You might notice how some of the most charismatic public speakers use rhythm in their speech, sometimes even physically moving their bodies to that rhythm.

However, too much rhythm and rhyme and you end up with a scene that sounds like a children’s book. Rhyme, just like alliteration and consonance, can make things sound funny when that wasn’t your intention. Of course, if you’re writing a sex scene and you need something to be funny, pop in a few extra consonants and some rhyme and you’ve got it covered.

Here are a few examples. You decide: Hot, or not?

Consumed with lust, she thrust down onto his cock.

He was bucking into her, fucking faster and harder.

Hauling her leg over his shoulder, he was driving her higher til she screamed.

She gasped as he shafted her; she wouldn’t last long.

He jerked and then spurted, roaring in release.

Pulling Together Poetic Sounds

Here’s a sentence that brings in some of those sensual sounds that evoke the sensation of sex: “She pulsed in bliss at his slick, soft lapping of her silky petals.”

I used ideophones with a mix of alliteration, consonance, and assonance without it being too overbearing. A little assonance and internal rhyme is going to create a gentle rhythm. Too much internal rhyme and you’ll end up with that unfortunate sing-song quality.

Choosing the Right Word

Sometimes when I’m writing, it seems like my choices are a clinical, overly-percussive word, or a soft-sounding word that has been labeled as purple prose. And some words have so much onomatopoeia that they evoke a laugh instead of a moan. It always helps to go back to the context and mood of your story.

For instance, the words squishing, squelching, and squeaking don’t usually sound sexy. In the right context, you might get away with it, like referring to the sexy squeaking of the mattress. Dick and cunt are derogatory, insulting words in modern English. Dick is percussive, cunt is percussive and nasal. They aren’t words that I use in my own erotic fiction because they don’t fit the mood of what I write or have the sound that I want. In your writing, either of those words might work fine because the context is different.

When you’re looking for the right word, think about the atmosphere you want to evoke. Is that clinical word too stiff? Do you want that really percussive sound? Do you need a smooth, soft word?

Generally in my first drafts I tend to overuse the word “pearl” because I like the sound, but eventually for my paranormal romance and urban fantasy I have to switch it out for the word “clit” at least few times. I don’t like the percussiveness or clinical sound of clit so I use it sparingly. However, if I’m writing a modern character, they usually know what their organs are called.

On the other hand, when writing a secondary-world fantasy story, or a historical paranormal romance, I might need to avoid clinical words entirely since that’s not how people would have referred to their anatomy. And that’s a whole separate can of worms. In essence, musicality is important, but it always has to be balanced with context.

I can’t think of a context where I’d use the word vagina for a steamy scene. It’s just too nasal-sounding. “I’m going to penetrate your vaginal opening with my penis.” No way.

Generally I go with pussy because I like the softness of the word. If you’re going for a euphemism, you’ll probably find yourself using another poetic device where you refer to the object by its properties. Her slickness, his hard heat. Here is a brainstorm list to get you started. Think about the sounds of the words and how that would impact your fiction.

Vagina: pussy, cunt, sheath, channel, slickness, tightness, heat

Clitoris: clit, pearl, bud, bud of pleasure, nub, joy button

Other: G-spot, sweet spot, labia, lips, petals, mound, mons, testicles, balls, nutsack

Orgasm: climax, cum, come, ejaculation, spurt, pulsing, contraction, bliss, hot jets

I’ll end this deep dive into the poetics of words with one of my all-time versatile favorites. Fuck: this word just has a rough, percussive intensity. This word that has survived for centuries. It’s a swear word, yes, but when I need a coarse, primal word for sex, this one fits the bill. It’s a word that people can actually say during the act of sex; notice that we tend to go for those simple, one syllable words when the sex is really good. And for quick humor, just rhyme it. Fuck a duck. Fuckety-fuck. Fucknugget. Pumpkinfucker.

What words work for you? What don’t? What sound are you going for?

For further reading, if you want to get a little nerdy about language, here are a few links to get you started:


About Shauna Aura Knight

An artist, author, presenter, and designer, Shauna travels nationally offering workshops in the transformative arts of facilitation, leadership, and personal growth and has written several books on those topics. Her urban fantasy and paranormal romance novels include Werewolves in the Kitchen, A Winter Knight’s Vigil, and A Fading Amaranth.

Web site: http://www.shaunaauraknight.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ShaunaKnightAuthorArtist
Leadership Blog: https://shaunaaura.wordpress.com
Design Portfolio: http://shaunaknightarts.wordpress.com

The Pleasures of Writing Promiscuously

by Jean Roberta

Anyone who follows the careers of celebrity writers knows that the great American crime-writer Elmore Leonard passed away on August 20, 2013. Amidst the eulogies, his ten writing rules have been trotted forth:

1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify “said.”
5. Keep your exclamation marks under control.
6. Never use “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don’t go into great details describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Much as I would have liked Mr. Leonard to live past his eighties, the current media-storm of analyses of his writing style is timely for me. I am on schedule to teach a creative writing class for credit for the first time in September. Note that non-credit classes (such as the one I taught in the 1990s to senior citizens) are much different, more like hobbies; there are no grades and no pressure. This time, I will be expected to teach some useful techniques which might actually result in publishing contracts. Therefore I have been checking out “writing rules” of various kinds.

My senior colleague, experienced mystery-writer Gail Bowen (whose novels are all set in the town where we both live) has discussed Elmore Leonard’s rules with approval in Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail:

Well, yes and no. My students all had to audition for my class by submitting samples of their writing to me. I have definitely seen some “Hooptedoodle” in the form of self-conscious writing that strains to be witty or memorable. It would probably be good for all my students to have to follow Elmore Leonard’s rules while writing one assignment. Writers, like singers, can benefit from expanding their range.

It doesn’t surprise me that Elmore Leonard admired Ernest Hemingway, who apparently developed his famously terse style as a journalist, pounding out news articles on a manual typewriter in various war zones. (It should be noted, however, that journalists did not always write like Hemingway. Nineteenth-century newspapers often combined floridly-written news articles with fiction, and at first glance it can be hard to guess which is which.)

I have nothing against the school of Hemingway, Leonard, and their many followers. Showing action rather than describing people and scenes can be an effective way to develop character and a plot at the same time. If dialogue sounds true-to-life as well as expressive, “said” is the only verb that needs to be added.

However, there are other ways to write. Writing about sex, in particular, lends itself to description. (“They met, they fucked, they came” doesn’t work for me as a climactic passage.) Even Hemingway resorted to an extreme metaphor when “the earth moved” for his central characters. A precious, overwrought, bejewelled and archaic style can be great fun to write – and to read.

“Purple prose,” the sort of thing that Hemingway and Leonard aimed to stamp out, is now associated with the famous opening sentence of an 1830 novel, Paul Clifford, written by Edward Bulwer-Lytton before Charles Dickens had become a household name. Note the way this passage violates Elmore Leonard’s Rule #1:

“It was a dark and stormy night, the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

This is not the sort of opening scene that appeals to a reader who wants to cut to the chase. In its way, however—like a lady of the evening in a corset and flounced petticoats–this long sentence is damn sexy. Notice what the author has accomplished, even before introducing a single human character. The reader is plunged into a sensuous experience, as though caught in a sudden downpour. The location has been identified. If even the housetops are “rattled,” the shelters that humans have built for themselves are clearly no match for the power of nature. And the struggling flames that fight against darkness suggest the brave fragility of human consciousness or life itself.

After this introduction, characters can be brought into an imaginary world that has already been set up. As a prologue or declaration of purpose, the opening sentence can be considered direct and concise, rather than too long. And every word contributes to the general effect.

I would like to give a “dark and stormy night” assignment, not as a joke (like the annual Bulwer-Lytton Award that offers prizes for the most extreme parodies of the famous sentence) but as an exercise in writing vivid description.

Writing “rules” can be useful in helping fledgling writers find the subjects, the styles, the genres and the philosophies that work best for them. Ultimately, however, good writing seems to me to be a matter of coherence and faithfulness to one`s own vision.

“Different strokes for different folks” is not only a snappy way to advocate acceptance of other people`s sexual tastes. It can describe a smorgasbord of different writing styles. Just as finding the best Significant Other can require kissing a few toads along the way, finding the best style for a particular piece is likely to involve a few failed experiments. And the journey can be more fun than reaching the destination.

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