How to Write Euphonically
By Nic Swaner
Warning: This tutorial is half-learned and half-self-taught. I may use improper terms and techniques that I have found that just work (for me). If you study phonaesthetics, feel free to correct me.
More and more I see young writers try their hand at poetry and prose, and what follows is a seemingness to forget and forego the artistic side of writing. While your writing could be bogged down in the dust and details, it could just as easily be euphonious, or beautiful-sounding. But how do you write euphonic literature? Doesn't it just happen, and don't I have to be specific or the reader will have no clue what I'm talking about? No, and no. Writing euphonically is a painstaking process in which you will have to have an ear for syllable sounds and an idea of the roots of words. But it is definitely worth it, as I will show you.
Speaking of roots of words, to pend is derived from hang. Quick! In 5 seconds think of 5 words that also have the root word pend in them. Got those words down? Didn't cheat did you? Here are mine: Pendulum, dependent, pendant, append, and pendency. Quick! Use them all in a sentence! You got 5 seconds.
Alright, here's mine: The pendency of a pendulum and a pendant is dependant on what we append.
It's a tongue twister isn't it? So that's an easy way to make one. What you're hearing when you say that sentence aloud isn't exactly cacophony (the opposite of euphony), but it definitely isn't pleasant to hear. But watch what happens when I switch two words.
The dependency of a pendulum and a pendant is pendent on what we append.
Somehow, this sentence is just smoother (more on that later on). But what if I just took away most of the sentence and limited it to two to three similar sounding words? Let's see.
It is pedantic to think that depending on the pendulum will play any role in our fate.
As you may have noticed, this sentence is much more readable than the others, though not by much. Now give me an honest answer: do you know why? There are multiple elements at play here, and we will address each one individually.
Table of Contents
Hard and soft consonant sounds
Long and short vowel sounds
Types of meter
Consonance in literature is defined by the repetition of the same consonant two or more times in short succession. An example using the letter L would be:
Lily licked the lollipop while looking at the lake.
Note that consonance and assonance are not to be confused with alliteration, which is two or more words that begin with the same letter. With consonance and assonance the consonant and vowel sounds can be located anywhere within the word.
That being said, similar and subtly hidden consonants spread out through your sentence can help the words flow better. But inject too many and you will let the reader know what you are up to. With that out in the open, there are four things I want to discuss that I feel are most important regarding consonants, and they are all my own wild and personal theories, so agree with them if you like, and feel free to disagree on points, if at all.
- Appropriate number of consonants
- Impact and placement of consonants
- Consonant Combinations
- Hard and Soft vowel sounds
How many of the same consonants do you want in a sentence? Is five of the same consonant sounds too much or too little? Well, let's break it down even further and discuss the first two points.
My rule for alliteration is never more than three of the same consonant/vowel sounds, and for good reason too. The reasoning behind that is that sounds at the beginning of a word have more of an impact in a reader's mind that the rest of the sounds in the word. It's also very easy to pick up on a pattern of alliteration. Let's take a look at part of a stanza from a poem of mine:
In the qualm of stillness the trees traded birds
Robins, swallows, whippoorwills, and cardinals.
If you squinted hard enough at the sullen shrubbery,
You could spot the caterpillar creeping to the underside of the leaf.
In line 2, we have a repetition of the letter S, which is part of a smaller family of consonance known as sibilance. There are five S sounds located within the line, but they are not all adorned at the front of the word. Instead, we find most of them on the end of the words where they are located because of the words being plural. This is a cheap trick I employed, but it works nonetheless, though it has its flaws, like if your next word starts with the same letter, the words may blend together when read, and may be hard to pronounce or discern. This can be heard between the first and second word when reading line 2 aloud.
But as to how many of the same consonant sounds are appropriate in the same sentence or line, my theory again is never more than three at the beginning of a word, but as far as letters further on in a word should be limited, I try to not go above five, but even then it can be difficult to work that many into a sentence, depending on the letter. By doing this we are masking the presence of the consonants while using them to create a more harmonizing sentence.
To further mask your use of consonants in short succession, sometimes it is appropriate to add another consonant into the mix. In line 2 we also see repetition of the letter L, but it is not used nearly as much as S. The letter N and W are also repeated. As more consonant sounds are added, their use should diminish, meaning one consonant sound is used more often than others, then not as much, then less than others, then consonant sounds that are only used once in the sentence. Thankfully, this usually comes about naturally in writing.
Hard and Soft Consonant Sounds
'Hard and Soft consonant sounds' is a theory of mine that goes as follows: there are two types of consonant sounds, and each should be used at different times, depending on the meter and other consonant sounds present. A quick Google search will tell you there are more than 2 consonant sounds, but again, this was just something I noticed over time and have since developed into my style. I define Hard consonant sounds as sounds that cannot be made consistently with your mouth (indicating a pause after them when said). A soft consonant sound can be made continuously. I have tried to contain as many consonant sounds as I can think of, but there is bound to be something I haven't thought of. The following Hard and Soft consonant sounds are listed in alphabetical order:
Hard Consonant Sounds
B, BL, BR, D, DR, G, GL, GR, J, K, KL, LM, KR, KW, KS, P, PL, PR, SL, SM, ST, R, T, W,
Soft Consonant Sounds
CH, F, FL, FR, H, L, M, N, S, SH, TH*, THH**, V, WH, Z, ZH,
*TH as used in the word theory. **THH as used in the word this. THH vibrates, or hums.
Now, all we have to do is examine an excerpt of writing material to determine when and where which sounds are appropriate. Let's reexamine the excerpt from earlier:
In the qualm of stillness the trees traded birds
There's something about this line that doesn't quite fit, and to me, it sticks out like a sore thumb. It has never sat well with me, and I believe it never will. If you are meticulous over your word choice, it should be obvious. The third word, qualm, doesn't quite fit. If I take it out however
In the stillness the trees traded birds
In my opinion, this is a much more pleasant sentence at the cost of ruining the meter, but it doesn't convey a crucial part of my poem, which is a sense of foreboding. So it's time to finally put this to rest; I need a consonant choice that fits the mood and meter. And to find a word, let's determine why qualm does not fit within the sentence. The word qualm consists of two hard consonant sounds: KW and LM. Since we can tell the word doesn't quite fit, it could be because of the hard consonants, so we can search for other words which have softer consonants. I ultimately settled on the word 'hushed' to replace qualm.
In the hushed stillness the trees traded birds
Hushed has two soft consonants followed by a hard consonant, which seems to help balance the word out, and ultimately, the sentence.
Assonance is the repeated use of a vowel sound, whether at the front of the word or not. It is assonance which creates the phenomenon known as rhyme. So let's cut to the quick. We have long and short vowel sounds, which follow the similar rules as hard and soft consonant sounds. Long vowel sounds are more pronounced than their short vowel counterparts. Examples:
Long Vowel Sounds
A, E, I, O, U, OU
Bait, Beet, Bite, Boat, Butte, Bout
Short Vowel Sounds
a, e, i, o, u,
Bat, Bet, Bit, Bought, But
You can use this knowledge to your advantage when writing, in much the same way consonance is applied.
As I mentioned before, assonance is vital to rhyming. Let's use the words cat and mat as our two rhyming words. When used together in two lines, the rhyme is fairly obvious, like so:
Please don't wake the cat;
Wipe your shoes on the mat.
I could go on and on with that rhyme scheme of at and all I will sound like is Dr. Seuss. To optimally use rhyme, try using variations on the ending of a word. Instead of mat, let's try mast.
Please don't wake the cat;
Wipe your shoes on the mast.
It's still quite obvious, but the rhyme isn't as harsh as it sounded originally. The way I see it there are several aspects that make up a rhyme:
- Vowel Sound
- Consonants Involved
- Syllable length
Different vowel sounds provoke different emotions, and some are not as common as others. It can be subjective, as personally, I avoid the long A sound as much as possible. To me, it doesn't sound pleasant when repeated two to three times in a line, it sounds like an unbearable presence in the sentence. The vowel sound is essentially the root of your rhyme, so when choosing a word to rhyme with, you should always choose the same root vowel sound. Matching up the consonants is not a priority, and is not recommended either. So if we have the short a sound as our root vowel sound, then we will need to choose words that also have that same vowel sounds.
When choosing your rhyming word, look at the consonants of your first word. This will help you determine the best consonant sounds to rhyme with. For example say our word is castor. We could choose the word master to rhyme with; however, that creates a perfect rhyme, and it is my personal belief that perfect rhymes attract too much attention, and overusing them is frequently seen in many writers' works.
To avoid this, look for words that have similar sounds in their consonants. Castor is similar to the words pasture, cracker, and even luster.
Also, the more syllables you can match up with perfect vowel sounds and similar consonants creates a smoother and more pleasing read. Enter another example:
I figure when I make it to the heavenly gates
They'll be working on my car and playing seventy-eights.
~Buck 65 Wicked and Weird
The rhyme scheme here spans up to half of the lines:
make it to the heavenly gates
Also the more syllables you work with, the easier it is to cheat and add in passive syllables that don't affect much, such as seen in the first line of the example compared to the second (make it to the compared to playing).
Some more advice: pick words that have a lot of weight and pull in the connotations department. Meaning, pick up a word that details something in specific, don't throw around generic words like love, happy, sad, or eyes (Seriously, that word is misused). Alternatively, you could use relationship, euphoric, gloomy, or iris. So, for writing's sake, be as specific as possible when writing, don't offer a summary of how you feel in one sentence; capture a snapshot of the way you're responding to how you feel. In other words, show, don't tell.
There really is no set way to show and not tell, it's all up to the writer's style and technique.
I will go over this one quickly, as it is not utilized as much in modern poetry, but some knowledge on the subject will benefit the reader when trying to evoke emotion.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.
I normally don't quote Shakespeare as I am really not all that fond of his work, but this is a truly wonderful example of manipulating meter to get your mood across to the reader.
The meter used in the example is trochaic tetrameter, which when broken down means this:
Trochaic A stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable.
Tetrameter the line has a total of 4 meters, or 8 syllables.
Two syllables form a poetic meter, and the meters in total determine part of the type of meter.
Here's a quick rundown on when and where to apply which kinds of meter:
Iambic consists of unaccented syllable followed by an accented. This is the normal rhythm of human speech.
Trochaic consists of an accented syllable followed by an unaccented. This type of meter sounds unnatural and wicked.
Dactylic consists of an accented syllable followed by two unaccented syllables. Sounds similar to both Anapestic and Trochaic meter.
Anapestic consists of two unaccented syllables followed by an accented syllable. This is most often used in limericks and creates a "bouncy" feel.
Spondaic consists of two accented syllables.
Pyrrhic consists of two unaccented syllables.
Etymology comes in very handy when trying to find similar sounding words. If you know your etymology well enough, you will be able to strip down words to find other words as well as creating your own words that have a plausible meaning.
Etymology is the study of the history and origins of words. As far as I know, there are three basic parts of a word: prefix, root, and suffix. IT is up to the writer to combine these three parts of a word to their advantage to find similar words or create new ones, as mentioned before.
To find similar words, look up the etymology of the root part of the word, which is what we did in the intro to this tutorial.
To create new words, take a root word, usually something basic, then find a prefix or suffix that fits the context of your word. I have used this to create words such as paintless, and effortful, etc. Doing this pushes the limit of your writing ability and helps you become more familiar with how words were formed to begin with and how to forge new words for the future.
For suggestions to add to this tutorial/guide, please comment. Thanks to all who have viewed, read, favorited and commented on my work, it is much appreciated, this is my way of giving back to the community. Written by Nic Swaner. To claim otherwise is plagiarism.