Lyrical writing: 5 tips for crafting richer prose

Lyrical writing: 5 tips for crafting richer prose

Lyrical writing is writing that is song-like, poetic, or deeply evocative. Here are 5 simple tips to write in a more lyrical style:

1. Think about the sound of each sentence

A paragraph is often lyrical because of the patterns made by elements such as:

  • Rhythm: the pattern formed between words’ syllables and stresses (which syllables we emphasize in speech)
  • Cadence: (the rising and falling of speech patterns – this is even more so for tonal languages where pitch of a word partially determines its meaning)
  • Sentence length: The larger structures of how words and images are grouped add to the overall musical quality of a writer’s prose

Two poetic devices relating to the sounds words make as we read them aloud are assonance and alliteration.

‘Assonance’ refers to the patterns and repetitions of vowels. For example, if a departing character were to say, when asked if they’re leaving the next day:

“Aye, away again, early at daybreak.”

The repetition of the long ‘a’ sound has a slightly plaintive quality.

Similarly, ‘alliteration’ refers to the pattern made by consonants.

For example, in the famous war poem ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ by Wilfred Owen, the alliteration of plosive ‘t’ and ‘p’ sounds in the description of gunfire mimics the hail of bullets:

Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.

Wilfred Owen, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, available here.

Lyrical writing makes use of elements such as these in a way that is expressive, pleasing to our ears.

2. Take notes on lyrical prose and poetry

Read examples of lyrical writing in both novels and poems and write out sentences that strike you as particularly lyrical.

Take for example this poem by Polish poet Czesław Miłosz, ‘At Dawn’:

How enduring, how we need durability.
The sky before sunrise is soaked with light.
Rosy colour tints buildings, bridges, and the Seine.
I was here when she, with whom I walk, wasn’t born yet
And the cities on a distant plain stood intact
Before they rose in the air with the dust of sepulchral brick
And the people who lived there didn’t know.
Only this moment at dawn is real to me.
The bygone lives are like my own past life, uncertain.
I cast a spell on a city asking it to last.

Czesław Miłosz, ‘At Dawn’ (translated by Czesław Miłosz and Robert Hass)

What gives the poem its nostalgic and lyrical qualities, besides subject matter (a walk with someone at sunrise)?

  • Sound quality: Miłosz uses alliteration such as the soft sibilant ‘s’ repeated in ‘The sky before sunrise is soaked with light’
  • Strong and evocative visuals: Miłosz uses words like a paintbrush – we see the ‘rosy colour’ that ‘tints’ buildings
  • Emotional use of time: The various ‘befores’ and ‘afters’ of the poem create some of the lyrical quality – for example the poignant idea of a destroyed city’s dust rising in the air
Lyrical writing - Christopher Paolini quote | Now Novel

3. Use strong visuals

Many lyrical pieces of music conjure visual images. For example the French impressionist composer Claude Debussy’s piano piece ‘Poissons d’Or’ (‘Golden Fish’) evokes the darting and shimmering of fish in its trills and swift changes in mood and rhythm.

Many authors create lyrical effects like Debussy, by creating subtle or overt shifts of tone, phrase, and cadence as sentences build.

Consider the lyricism and visual strength of this description of a forest in Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces:

The forest floor is speckled bronze, sugar caramelized in the leaves. The branches look painted onto the onion-white sky. One morning I watch a finger of light move its way deliberately to me across the ground.

Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces (1997), p. 12

Michaels strongly evokes the senses. The lyrical description of the colours in the forest floor give way to the mysterious ‘finger of light’.

The lyrical effect is amplified by:

  • Specificity: Each object has a particular colour, texture. The forest floor is ‘speckled’ bronze and we can almost hear the crunch of leaves underfoot in ‘sugar caramelized’
  • Flow: The long sentences flow in satisfying cadences of assonance and alliteration (the succession soft ‘f’ and ‘sh’ sounds of the first sentence, for example evoke a sense of quiet undergrowth)

4. Show what narrators see with emotion

Lyrical writing is descriptive, in the same way a ‘tone poem’ (a piece of music meant to evoke a scene or image, like ‘Poissons D’or’) is descriptive.

Lyrical writing doesn’t tell us, ‘This story is about golden fish’. Like Debussy’s piece, it shows us something (such as the movement of a fish through water).

Lyrical writing may give us good subtext about what a character is feeling, in the details they observe.

For example, an elated character cresting a hill on a tough 5-day hike might say:

And at last, we were there – the summit beneath our feet and the valley’s aquamarines, deep greens and chalky grays scaled down into a hushed and sunlit miniature far below.

Here the use of time (‘at last’) and the sense of space and separation and note of triumph (‘we were there’) together create the a scene that suggests the triumphant feeling and the pleasure of a new perspective for the hiker.

5. Find lyrical sentences’ meter or rhythm

When you’re aiming for a lyrical writing quality, making a diagram of a sentence’s rhythm is a useful way to focus on how each word contributes.

Take a line from the Czesław Miłosz poem above, for example:

The sky before sunrise is soaked with light.

If you were to draw an asterisk above every unstressed (not emphasized) syllable and a forward slash above every stressed (emphasized) syllable, you’d have the pattern:

Example of rhythm and meter in lyrical writing | Now Novel

Say this pattern of stressed/unstressed syllables (in poetry we call this ‘meter’) aloud. Use an abstract sound, e.g. ‘Ta’:

‘Ta | TA ta ta | TA ta ta | TA ta | Ta‘.

From writing the sentence’s meter this way we can see it has a pleasing symmetry – two triplets of ‘long, short, short’ with a shorter pattern on either side.

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