How to Be a Singing Writer

Not all good writing is lyrical, and not all lyrical writing is good. So why bother pursuing this style?

Because it’s fun, that’s why. Because it lets us writers play at being musicians in the mind of the reader. Because poetry might not be your thing, but poetic prose is and always should be your thing. Music in your writing lets you sing, even if your actual singing voice can curl wallpaper and make housecats howl.

What Is Lyrical Writing?

sunset
Credit: Tom Bech

I’ve heard the phrase “lyrical writing” applied to a vast variety of writing styles, but I think the one thing all these voices and styles have in common is a relentlessly discerning authorial ear; these writers care about how their words sound when they mash them together. The end result of this kind of writing, always and without fail, is intensity.

Here’s the best example, to my mind, of lyrical writing, of words deeply heard and even more deeply felt. This is from a novel I talk about entirely too much, but its presence here is entirely warranted.

It was growing dark on this long southern evening, and suddenly, at the exact point her finger had indicated, the moon lifted a forehead of stunning gold above the horizon, lifted straight out of filigreed, light-intoxicated clouds that lay on the skyline in attendant veils.

Behind us, the sun was setting in a simultaneous congruent withdrawal and the river turned to flame in a quiet duel of gold….The new gold of moon astonishing and ascendant, the depleted gold of sunset extinguishing itself in the long westward slide, it was the old dance of days in the Carolina marshes, the breathtaking death of days before the eyes of children, until the sun vanished, its final signature a ribbon of bullion strung across the tops of water oaks.

–Pat Conroy, The Prince of Tides

The subject matter, a sunset in the South Carolina lowcountry, might be foreign to you (as it is to me), but phrases like “old dance of days in the Carolina marshes,” and “strung across the tops of the water oaks” have a distinctive rhythm driven by their anchoring consonants—the “d” sounds in “dance of days” that changes key softly into the muted tones of “m” and “sh”-es. The “ribbon of bullion” has a parallel sound, ribbon to bullion that creates a pleasing echo, while “tops of water oaks” is bookended by hard “t” and “k” sounds, with a swaying “w” in the middle for contrast. The vowel sounds lace these consonants together like the wires between brightly colored bulbs on a set of Christmas lights.

street cellist
Credit: joansorolla, flickr.com

How Can I Be a Lyrical Writer?

Short answer: Listen to how your words sound together, and strike anything that just sounds off.

Long answer: Pretty much the same as the short answer. Realize that some words sound better together than other words, even if they all mean the same thing. Ponder the most popular “beautiful phrase” discussed today: cellar door.

Now, there are a lot of words for that portal that leads to the underground floor in your house. Like:

  • Basement door
  • Cellar
  • Cellar stairway
  • Basement steps
  • Basement entrance

But cellar door has a special set of consonants: Soft “c”s and “r”s that slide into each other comfortable, lit by a long “o” and a lightweight “e” and “a”. As a result, the phrase “cellar door” has an easy rhythm, and it sounds better than, say, “basement door.”

banana peel
Credit: corrinely, flickr.com

Lyrical Lameness to Avoid

If you decide to make lyrical prose part of your writer’s arsenal, or if it’s already crept into your everyday writing style, make sure you consider a few common mistakes made by the singing writer that can take your words from tuneful to tone-deaf.

Purple prose can happen to even the best of writers. These overly emotional, maudlin and sappy turns of phrase get handsy with your reader’s emotions. Instead of inviting your audience to react to your writing, it beats them over the head with your personal narrative until they’re too dazed to feel anything.

Reactionary, rigid writing that divorces sound from meaning. Consonance (like the “r”s in the preceding sentence) can be a powerful way to make music with your words. Alliteration and other sound-picture techniques also have their place. But what role, exactly, does the word reactionary have in the bolded sentence above? If you said “None,” you’re right. I chose it because it had an “r” sound, and seemed a pretty bombastic way to start the line. Don’t do it this way; choose words that marry meaning and music to express all facets of the point you’re trying to make—both the heard and the felt parts.

 

What are your tips for lyrical writing? How can a writer learn to be more musical? Share your insight in the comments.