But why is the purple prose gone?
In the Kele Moon Reading Group on Facebook, the question was asked by the lovely Soleil, why do romance novels use the words they do? Particularly the harsh words, like cunt and cock.
It’s a valid question.
And it made me think, not just about why cock is the new normal, but also how difficult it is for new authors to wade their ways into the scary waters of sex scene writing. It would take twenty posts to unpack it all, that’s how difficult it is, but for now, let’s just talk about the dirty words.
In literary criticism, purple prose is prose text that is so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw excessive attention to itself. Purple prose is characterized by the excessive use of adjectives, adverbs, and metaphors. When it is limited to certain passages, they may be termed purple patches or purple passages, standing out from the rest of the work.
No other genre is more well known for purple prose than romance. Laugh if you like, but remember, these were detailed love stories written by women for women in a society that was still uncomfortable with women openly discussing sex.
And in a lot of ways, still is. . .
Until the last few decades, it was an industry standard that softer, more flowery wording be used to describe sex in romance novels. Lots of things were left to the readers imagination under the guise of a thousand shimmering stars falling down on the sweaty heroine while her enemy/lover pressed her into the mattress, buried deep in her warmth.
And here’s the thing, I never minded purple prose. I have a good imagination. My brain knew exactly what was going on, but as society changed, so did the romance genre. Women were no longer blushing bright red the moment it got too descriptive. Movies were dirtier. Music was dirtier. Love stories got dirtier too.
More woman started to seek sexualized fiction that stepped away from the flowery stereotype. The softer, more prose riddled romances began trimming their over the top descriptors but still kept things vague, while erotica went out of its way to be as blunt and dirty as possible.
Enter erotic romance, a blend of the two. Heartwarming happy endings with dirty words and handcuffs—just to keep things real.
I knew from my first romance convention that erotic romance was my promise land. I liked the gritty realism it offered, but I still had to teach myself how to use the word dick without hating it. I always rather liked the word cock, but pussy, ugh, I would actually flinch over it. Luckily, I desensitized fast, as most do. I used it because I knew it was a requirement, and eventually grew accustomed. Now I can say them just about anywhere, and I’ve shocked more than a few new authors because of it. I trained my mind to be comfortable with industry standard labels for body parts, and in some ways, it was good for me as a woman to stop scandalizing my body parts. We don’t laugh at all the different labels for feet.
Either way, it was one of those accept it or change genres situations.
Erotic romance publishers would turn down a manuscript cold if an editor sensed purple prose floating in the waters. That was part of erotic romance’s gig and they were very hard core about it. When I started, the genre was brand new, only a niche market, but they wanted those dirty words. That’s what made them different.
Say what you will, it did work. . .
With the massive success of Fifty Shades of Gray, and the stream of other huge erotic romance successes that followed in the market, the standard of blunter words in the romance genre became more and more common, rather than just on the outskirts.
The funny thing is, nothing changed much, really. The stigma had a different face but was essentially the same. People still make fun of the sex scenes in romance, only now it is for the exaggerated use of cock and pussy, as opposed to the silky steel swords, and quivering love tunnels.
The fact is, writing sex is hard, and writing multiple, highly detailed scenes is even harder. Rarely are the characters talking while they’re dancing the horizontal tango, and if they are, they’re doing it wrong.
It’s all action, like a fight scene, only it’s movement that also needs to convey deep emotions. Readers are supposed to feel it, deeply, to the point that they have goosebumps on their arms while they devour every word.
How does one do this without being cheesy or using words that makes people laugh?
Basically, you don’t. If you plan to write romance, know that sex is deeply personal. Someone will laugh at you. A readers’ views on sex could be drastically different from yours. What is normal to you, could very likely be uncomfortable for them, and people often giggle at what makes them uncomfortable.
And from a strictly technical stand point, there is only so many ways to say things. He’s touching something, we have to know what it is, so it needs a label.
Pussy, cunt, vagina, twat, hole, clit, muff, trim, snatch, sheath, soft spot, moist center, etc. . .
And these are the nicer ones!
Also, remember, you don’t want to use the same three words over and over again in a scene. If your scene is two pages long and you’ve used pussy five times, that is at least three times too many.
The trick I learned early on when I found myself in a writing market that used words I wasn’t always comfortable with, was to make sure the sex scenes read authentic to my characters. Instead of being uncomfortable with the use of the word pussy, I started making sure whatever character was saying it or thinking it was someone who would actually do that.
If your biker hero is going to think about her love tunnel, you better make sure he’s sensitive enough to say it to his buddies later on, otherwise you’ve taken a wrong turn. (PSA: This is a joke. NEVER use love tunnel!)
Character authenticity is the key here.
Try to be aware of where these characters come from. Really contemplate how they would talk about sex. What are the words they would think in their mind?
Is the heroine shy? Is she sheltered? Is she sexually adventurous? Is she a feminist?
Is the hero suave, and likely to taper harsher words around the heroine? Is he blunt? Would he say things shocking on purpose? Or maybe even on accident, trying to be cool but failing spectacularly by saying all the harshest words and shocking the woman he adores?
You can have fun with it, I know I do!
Another thing to keep in mind. If you are aiming for the erotic romance fanbase, know that they will expect a certain level of bluntness to their sex scenes and will be disappointed if they don’t get it.
The same goes for the tamer end of the romance market. My book Defying the Odds is what I consider a sweet romance, but at the time I was with a publisher that did not allow the softer, less descriptive sex scenes. The cover and theme appealed to a group of readers who hadn’t read my other erotic romance novels, and they noticed. A lot of them complained about all the sex. They didn’t know I had a fan base that probably would’ve been really disappointed if I started fading to black for most of my sex scenes.
I always hate to limit new authors by suggesting they adhere to industry standards when they are first starting out, but in this case, do know where your heat level is. Honor where you are personally comfortable writing and know that whatever heat level you’re at, from fade to black, all the way up to whips and chains, there’s a readership for you.
Honor your truth. Honor the characters you are writing, and do not make them harder or softer to fit in a genre they don’t belong in simple because you think there’s more money there.
Read other books at the heat level you’re comfortable with, and start paying attention to what sexy words they are using.
If you are planning to write for a publishing house, be aware each imprint has guidelines on sex scenes, heat levels, and descriptive words. It’s their house. All books are slaves to their rules, and it will get rejected if they feel the heat level doesn’t match up. Not to say anything bad about working with publishers. There are a lot of upsides, but lack of creative control is one of the downsides. They brand their books so readers who buy a new novel from one of their authors knows ahead of time what they are getting.
Can we really blame them? No one wants to go into Victoria Secrets and find granny panties. Unless you’re E.L. James, they aren’t changing their rules for you, no matter how brilliant you think your book is.
Now with self-publishing, a lot of authors can simply go their own way. They have no house rules on heat levels and verbiage to follow. If that’s the case, still know your characters. Be aware of how they think and use words they would.
Either way, don’t be afraid of being made fun of, because honestly, if you are, stop writing romance now. We live in a society that is still learning to be comfortable and confident discussing sex. We’re getting there one sexy word at a time, so either accept the giggles or switch to writing cozy mysteries until then.