Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Pronouns vs Names





By Mikey Rakes

When to use pronouns and when to use names can be tricky in any fiction writing, but with same-sex stories, editing can become critical. This is one of my pet peeves and something I also struggle with as a writer of male on male erotic thrillers. Sometimes I have to put myself in the reader's seat to understand where the confusion can come from and sometimes I'm surprised how even accomplished writers can fall into some pronouns pitfalls.

Many writers have an all-encompassing view of their world and who is moving around in that special space. On occasion, we forget the reader can't see the big picture. Editing is something we'd all like to have someone else do, but as writers it is our responsibility to make the manuscript the best possible product before we send to our editors. Unless you're writing and publishing, of course, in which case: it's all you, baby!

A prime example of a bit of a mix up came from a book I just finished reading, where the author started the paragraph with Character #1 doing something and in mid-paragraph changed to the 'he' pronoun, but although confusing, the ‘he’ was clearly Character #2.

Sex scenes are tricky, too. He came. He jacked him off. He felt sooo good inside of him. Which him? Him one or Him two? Or how about this one: ‘She exploded all over her fingers.’ Is this a masturbation scene? There was a Heather and a Sarah at the beginning of the paragraph, so who exploded on whose fingers? This type of ambiguity has a tendency to confuse the reader and pull them from the scene you worked so hard to write.

Poor pronoun placement can kill a sex scene. I hear all of you right now: but we can't be using their names ALL THE TIME! No, you can't, but you can use them more freely than usual when writing same sex stories. It's important your readers know who is whom seamlessly, so they aren't having to think about it. How you construct your sentences and paragraphs can help tremendously. If you start out a paragraph where Randy is nuzzling Jonas's cock, don't jump to Jonas enjoying it without establishing Jonas’s experience in a new paragraph.

Randy nestled his nose into Jonas’s wiry pubic hair and inhaled deeply. He loved the musky scent of his man after practice, just after wetting down in the shower, but right before any soap hits his luscious skin. Those moments on his knees, the water rushing over his head, and his lover's cock caressing his cheek are what Randy tucks away into his memories locker. In his mind, he knew this affair wasn't destined to last. He'd savor what he could and be happy in the moment.

Here we are clearly in Randy's focus. But what if we took the same paragraph and added a little bit:

Randy nestled his nose into Jonas’s wiry pubic hair and inhaled deeply. He loved the musky scent of his man after practice, just after wetting down in the shower, but right before any soap hits his luscious skin. Those moments on his knees, the water rushing over his head, and his lover's cock caressing his cheek are what Randy tucks away into his memories locker. In his mind, he knew this affair wasn't destined to last.  He'd savor what he could and be happy in the moment. He slipped his dick inside his mouth.

The last line sounds a little funky, eh? We know it's Randy. Or we think we know it's Randy, but are we sure? We have to deduce that Randy slipped Jonas's cock inside his (Randy's) mouth. But what if our next sentence is: Jonas sucked him hard. Now how do we feel about it? About the pronouns? The names? Are we sure we know what is happening? Are they now in a sixty-nine?

It may seem that I'm making this out to be something odd, but I've read many stories that are far worse in terms of pronoun usage and keeping the characters straight. Look at the paragraph as it stands now, before editing:

Randy nestled his nose into Jonas’s wiry pubic hair and inhaled deeply. He loved the musky scent of his man after practice, just after wetting down in the shower, but right before any soap hits his luscious skin. Those moments on his knees, the water rushing over his head, and his lover's cock caressing his cheek are what Randy tucks away into his memories locker. In his mind, he knew this affair wasn't destined to last. He'd savor what he could and be happy in the moment. He slipped his dick inside his mouth. Jonas sucked him hard. He rocked deep into his throat, almost triggering his gag reflex before pulling back out. He was in heaven.

See how easily the scene can get out of control? In the writer's mind it's clear, but on the page? Yeah, not so much. So how do we clear it up? Edit. Edit. Edit. One edit isn't enough, but we all get sick of reading the same thing over and over. So, take it in chunks. Break up your editing into small, easily manageable segments, such as just the sex scenes (I like doing the fun stuff first). Just remember, sex scenes aren't the only place where your pronouns can get muddled.

Also, remember that it's okay to use the character's names. Just don't overuse them. Take a look at the revised paragraph.

Randy nestled his nose into Jonas wiry pubic hair and inhaled deeply. He loved the musky scent of his man after practice, just after wetting down in the shower, but right before any soap hit his luscious skin. Those moments on his knees, as the water rushed over his head, and his lover's cock caressed his cheek were the memories Randy tucked away every time they were together. In his mind, he knew their affair wasn't destined to last. He'd savor what he could and be happy in the moment. Calloused fingers grazed his chin and Randy looked up into his lover's lazy gaze. The lust in those heavy lidded eyes made Randy understand what Jonas wanted. Randy wanted it too. So he allowed Jonas to tilt his jaw open and slide his dick inside. The taste of Jonas in his mouth was heaven. Randy sucked him hard and Jonas's hips jerked, rocking him deep into Randy's throat. Jonas almost triggered Randy's gag reflex before he pulled out to glide his cockhead along his tongue. God, I love being on my knees for Jonas. For Randy, being used was a part of the turn on, and from the sounds coming from Jonas's throat, he enjoyed using him.

We didn't give up on using the pronouns, but attempted to place the names in such a way as to keep the picture clear. Deep first person thoughts can be useful as means to keep things straight as well. Used sparingly, they can be quite effective for conveying strong emotion.

If you read your work out loud, or have a program that reads it for you, it can be helpful in determining what sounds best to your reader's ear. I don't know about other folks, but I see and hear the words of the books I'm reading in my head. Sort of like watching a movie with subtitles: if the subtitles are messed up, it throws the experience all outta whack for me.


When you begin writing, focus on simply getting the story on the page, and worry about the mechanics later. Remember, however, that you don't want your reader pulling back at a crucial moment. Sex scenes are more than a way to titillate the reader. They must help to move the story along and expand the reader’s knowledge of the characters involved. Sex scenes enable the reader to understand your characters and grasp their normality. We all realize when we first fall in love the reality is...we fuck like bunnies. Sex is a part of life. In the case of same sex couplings, in our writing, we must be hyper-aware of the use of pronouns. Help the reader understand what he/she is doing to him/her, and your readers will love you for the extra effort they may never realize you've made. Make it seamless, baby.

3 comments:

  1. All good advice, Mikey! And the examples make it clear as a bell. Pronouns can make the read an ambiguous affair in any genre.

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  2. Excellent post, Mikey. I'd add that don't always need to use the name to replace pronoun. You can use a descriptive noun phrase, as you've done in your example paragraph with "his lover". As is the case with names, this approach can be overused, but it's another strategy that can help.

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  3. A neat summary of a tricky issue! I remember reading a couple of scenes which were like trying to unpick the scene of a particularly lascivious game of twister. My word, that was fiddly. Great use of examples!

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