How to Write Poetic Prose: The Sound of Words


Image: Morguefile

This is an exercise to show you how even prose writers can use sound as a tool in their prose. The repetition of sound patterns is something that many writers do naturally, but I’ve heard some say that the ‘poetic’ style just isn’t their thing or that they can’t do it, etc, etc. And though I know prose writers often opt for simplicity rather than flowery, harder-to-understand prose, there are still things you can do, even as a genre writer, to increase the efficacy of your words.

NOTE: This is what I study academically, but I’ll try to keep the linguistic terminology out of it as much as possible, as that’s not what’s important. A “natural ear” for this kind of thing is probably what a lot of people call “talent”. We’ve all met them: those writers who effortlessly write beautiful, flowing, rhythmic prose. They are most likely employing these techniques subconsciously. It’s not something I can teach, per se. I’m not even sure I know how to do it myself. I can only show you how to be aware of it so that you might see your own work differently.

For this exercise, I’m using an excerpt from the first draft of my incomplete, unedited fantasy novel. I am posting the entire paragraph so that you can have some bearing as to what’s going on in the piece, but I decided, for the sake of time and space, that I’ll only focus on one line.

She dreamed of fire. Not just of the fire as it sang over burning snow, but of the souls who danced among the embers in its wake. They glistened like ice and rubies, their celestial bodies alight but not charring, cloaked with flames that stained the shadows red. They circled her where she lay—nestled in a cushion of cold and unable to move—and hummed their timeless elegy: Let us burn. Let us burn. All that burns will return.

I’ll analyze this line: “They glistened like ice and rubies, their celestial bodies alight but not charring, cloaked with flames that stained the shadows red.”

The beauty of any writing usually relies on the way it uses poetic devices. When we consider prose from the viewpoint of phonetics, this beauty is enhanced via well-timed, alternating patterns of both similar and differing sounds. In other words, though I repeat similar phonemic patterns (sound or letter combinations), the key is to know when to deviate from and alternate the repetitions by playing on their differences, thus acquiring the basis of their rhythm.

So let’s take the first part of the sentence:

They glistened like ice and rubies, their celestial bodies alight but not charring . . .

The most notable vowel is the strong /i/ in “like” and “ice” and “alight” and the way it combines with the /s/ sibilant consonant (the /c/ is also pronounced as a sibilant, so it counts). I alternate the pattern by arranging the /s/ so that it’s placed, at times, before the long /i/ vowel and sometimes after.

The word ‘rubies’ is important. From the semantic standpoint, it conveys color, which thus employs one of our senses (sight). The sound of the words theoretically adds another layer to our sensory perceptions as well as to our understanding of a word’s meaning. “Rubies” chimes with “bodies” via the /ies/ rhyme as well as the voiced stop consonants /b/ and /d/, and both are two syllables in lengths, which perhaps subconsciously binds them together semantically. Also, the word “rubies” at the beginning of the sentence alliterates with the /r/ phoneme in “red” that appears in the final clause. Both represent a similar color and belong, more or less, to the same semantic field.

celestial bodies alight but not charring

The repetition of /l/ and /t/ here softens the sentence. By softening the sounds, I soften the existence of the thing I’m portraying. They are supposed to be ghost-like, celestial, transparent, spirits (take your pick of words), and the sounds arguably reflect that (this debated concept is call sound symbolism). If we consider the /s/ and /al/ sound combination, then we can see that I’ve placed it in such a way that it comes at the end of the first word and then repeats at the beginning of the last word, thus acting in liaison with the /s/ in “bodies”: celestial bodies alight. This is what creates my rhythm. I repeat the sound pattern after breaking it up with the short /o/ vowel in “bodies.” The short /o/ keeps the sound soft in the sentence and merges well with the schwa-like /a/ in “alight” when it combines with the dental consonant /l/ (dental just refers to the placement of our tongue, which in this case is against the back of our teeth). This repetition of soft sound combinations don’t sharpen until the hard /i/ in “alight,” which is a necessary deviation from the softer rhythm in order to maintain the flow of the sentence. If I were to constantly repeat the same soft sibilants and dental consonants, the line would lose both its tempo and the attention of my reader.

Now look at the final clause: cloaked with flames that stained the shadows red.

Here I have shifted the patterning again, this time with two specific internal rhymes. You’ll notice that I start the clause with the long /o/ in “cloaked,” then I switch to the long /a/ in “flames.” Instead of repeating that part in the same pattern, I perform a chiasmus (a reversal of the pattern) by inverting the sounds. I repeat the long /a/ in “stained” and then I return to the long /o/ in “shadows.”

The pattern is thus: /o/ /a/ <–> /a/ /o/

Then, as previously mentioned, with the /r/ in “red,” I link the entire clause to the first one by making it alliterate with one of the first words in the overall sentence: “rubies.”

They glistened like ice and rubies, their celestial bodies alight but not charring, cloaked with flames that stained the shadows red.

Another interesting facet of that line is in the consonants. If the chiasmus pattern helps maintain the rhythm with vowels, then the rhythm of the consonants is upheld via the use of consonance (successive repetition of the same consonant within a word) and alliteration (repetition of consonants at the beginning of the stressed syllable or at the beginning of a word).

cloaked with flames that stained the shadows red.

As you can see: the strong final /d/ or /t/ (both are dental consonants) at the end of several words creates a certain prosody, the placement of the nasal /m/ or /n/ after the hard /a/ vowel sound illustrates another form of internal rhyme, and the repeated /s/ sibilant is an important link, not to just this small portion of the sentence, but to the entire sentence as a whole. Also, the hard /cl/ followed by a softer /fl/ combination and the /th/ in “that” and “the” and “with” work as important alternations to the hard/soft combinations, thus further connecting the words.

So, if we were to quickly highlight the possible sound patterns and connections of the entire sentence, the coloration would look something like this (I’m not even sure I have enough colors):

They glistened like ice and rubies, their celestial bodies alight but not charring, cloaked with flames that stained the shadows red.

There are, of course, more patterns, but I wanted to offer a basic analysis so that perhaps it could interest you in your own work. These are not things you should pay attention to while you’re drafting, not unless you want a giant headache, but they are things you can keep in mind if you’re debating one word over another, or if something sounds “off.” Say your sentences out loud, think of how you pronounce things and the way certain sounds are able to work in cohesion. All of this can form a stronger, more poetic, and more captivating narrative.

Have you tried this before? Do you see patterns in your own writing? How do you hear the words you write? I’d love to hear how you guys approach this topic (and if this was helpful at all)!


4 thoughts on “How to Write Poetic Prose: The Sound of Words

  1. Pingback: How to Write Poetic Prose: The Sound of Words | The Sarcastic Muse
  2. I write poetry and I always seem to ‘hear’ things even more than I see them, so I completely understand and appreciate what you are doing here. In my case, it does happen subconsciously, I’ve seldom stopped to analyse it, but it certainly gives you more options in prose as well if you know how to use this powerfully. Thanks for this!

    • Thanks for taking the time to read my overzealous, academic ramblings! 😛 I was once talking to my advisor about my chosen poet’s repetitive choices, and I asked him, “Do you think she was aware of any of her choices?” And he threw his hands in the air and said, “Intuition! It’s all intuition!” I think poets are wonderful examples of auditory writers. Most are keenly aware of the sound of words, whether they are conscious of it or not. And since many modern-day poets have moved away from traditional verse or rhyme, they rely more than ever on these “hidden” and intuitive poetic choices. Even without the rhyme or meter, a free verse poem still has a distinct rhythm, which relies entirely on these repetitions and sound combinations. Thanks for commenting!

  3. Pingback: Repetition, Repetition: Effectively Repeated Words | The Sarcastic Muse

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