What kind of writing style do I have? Do I even have one?
At some point or the other in your own writing life, you will have found yourself gazing off into the space, a far-off look on your face, wondering if you’ll ever write like Ernest Hemingway or Anne Lamott.
You wouldn’t be the first, and you won’t be the last.
Developing a writing style comes with much practice and that could take years. But playing around with style and experimenting with it only takes a few hours. If you ask me, one of the best ways to try and develop a writing style is to have fun with it.
Enter lyrical style.
Nope, you don’t need to be a songwriter or lyricist to do that. Nope, you don’t need to write lyric poetry either. All you need is your writing spirit, and of course, your ability to have fun. Think of it as a creative writing exercise.
In this article, I’ll take you through what lyrical style in prose writing is all about, detail some simple ways of using it in your writing, and provide some great examples of lyrical style in prose writing.
What Is Lyrical Style In Writing?
Good prose writing comes in various shapes, sizes, and styles. When prose is written in an evocative, poetic, and rhythmic manner, it is known as lyrical style.
As a style, it’s often thought of in regard to lyric poetry, but it can be utilised in many types of writing. It often has a beat to it, or a tongue-twister quality, or at least a descriptive poesy to evoke a certain emotion in the reader.
It’s why we can still recall several verses from Shakespeare’s sonnets and Keats’ odes, if not the full poems. For prose to have the same impact it requires the author to hone that craft with a sense of joy and expertise in equal measure. If you can recall, word-for-word, a specific line or a few lines or an entire paragraph from a book, then, chances are it was the lyrical style that stuck with you.
Examples Of Lyrical Style
A key element in this style of writing is harnessing beat, structure and length from words, phrases and sentences. This is done by consciously deciding the rhythm, cadence, and length of the sentences. There’s a chance rhythm might vary depending on your own dialect of English, especially if your mother tongue or commonly spoken language is not English, as rhythm depends on how stressed syllables are used (which varies with how English is spoken).
Rhythm is common in lyric poems (and poetry in general), of course. But it’s quite rare in prose. When authors do manage to pull it off, they pull it off with such flair that you’re bound to remember their lines for ages to come. Contrary to what you might think, it doesn’t have to be a romance novel you’re writing to use lyrical style to great effect. Ernest Hemingway does this to elaborate on the setting for his novel A Farewell To Arms – the roar of World War I in an otherwise idyllic Italian village:
The plain was rich with crops; there were many orchards of fruit trees and beyond the plain the mountains were brown and bare. There was fighting in the mountains and at night we could see the flashes from the artillery. In the dark it was like summer lightning, but the nights were cool and there was not the feeling of a storm coming.A Farewell To Arms by Ernest Hemingway
This is arguably the simplest use of rhythm and pacing without resorting to ornate language. The rhythm, in fact, adds to the dread the reader feels for the dwellers of the village. And if you were to rearrange the lines into verses, they’d read much like lyric poetry:
The plain was rich with crops;
there were many orchards of fruit trees
and beyond the plain the mountains were brown and bare.
There was fighting in the mountains
and at night we could see the flashes from the artillery.
In the dark it was like summer lightning,
but the nights were cool
and there was not the feeling of a storm coming.A Farewell To Arms by Ernest Hemingway
Cadence is how words are grouped together – as standalone phrases or joined by conjunctions and accentuated by punctuations. If there’s one author who does this with flair, it’s Anne Lamott. In her New York Times bestseller Bird By Bird, she writes:
Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul.Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott
Two things stand out here, right away. One: how Lamott uses cadence to evoke a certain emotion in the reader. Two: how that usage amplifies the meaning of her prose. The first sentence is short, giving the reader that sense of isolation. The second sentence conveys the expansiveness she’s talking about, by way of using the conjunction ‘and’ twice, and the colon. The double ‘and’ expands the sentence, while the colon opens up a gateway for something phenomenal – feeding the soul. In this instance, Lamott has essentially garnered expansiveness from her use of lyrical style in prose writing. What makes this sweeter is that the prose is all about writing itself and what it’s capable of evoking in us!
Length Of Sentence
Sentence length is, of course, in reference to the number of words you choose to put before a full-stop. Believe it or not, Barack Obama, former President of the USA is quite the prolific writer himself and uses lyrical prose to great effect in his memoir A Promised Land. As can be expected, politics is a prominent theme in the book, and yet, where he intends to move the reader, he capitalises on the length of sentences (particularly long sentences) as the carrier of that impact. In describing a trip to The Great Wall Of China, he writes:
The day was cold, the wind cutting, the sun a dim watermark on the gray sky, and no one said much as we trudged up the steep stone ramparts that snaked along the mountain’s spine.A Promised Land by Barack Obama
If that isn’t a lengthy sentence, then I don’t know what is. The only thing as lengthy as that sentence is perhaps how time seemed to drag for Obama on that trip! The sombre weather, the grim locale and the silence between Obama and his co-travellers all add to what must have been one long hike up the mountain.
Repetition Of Sounds
The length of the sentence is not the only thing adding style to Obama’s prose, though. I’d be surprised if you didn’t notice the repeating sounds of ‘d’, ‘t’, and ‘s’. It actually helps add that touch of witty sense of humour we know Obama to have. This leads us to the next aspect of lyrical style – sounds.
When it comes to the repetition of sounds, there are three poetic devices – assonance (or repeated vowel sounds in multiple words), consonance (or repeated consonant sounds in multiple words), and alliteration (or repeated consonant sounds at the beginning of multiple words).
Repeating consonants and vowels in a verse or even a whole stanza isn’t a new thing for poets and repetition is particularly prominent in lyric poetry. If anything, it’s expected. When writers of prose do it, however, it’s often a conscious move. Using poetic techniques/devices like assonance, consonance, and alliteration can bring beauty to prose. In fact, the inherent beat they create is highly effective in drawing readers’ attention to a particular piece of description, adding a bit of theatrics to the ordinary.
Take this extract for instance:
He looked exactly as much as usual—all pink and silver as to skin and hair, all straightness and starch as to figure and dress—the man in the world least connected with anything unpleasant.The Wings Of Dove by Henry James
This is a line from American-born British author Henry James’ novel The Wings Of Dove. I, for one, am carried away by how ‘as much as usual’ maintains a kind of tempo with ‘with anything unpleasant’, and ‘skin and hair’ with ‘figure and dress’. The innate rhythm is obvious, just as the character’s “properness” is evident from his dressing sense. James’ use of assonance here, with varying ‘a’ sound, makes the reader picture a prim – perhaps even prude – person.
How To Use Lyrical Style In Your Writing
It sure is fun to incorporate lyrical style into your own writing; it makes writing almost musical and creates sentences that resemble song lyrics. Bear in mind though, that the lyrical quality doesn’t come from sounds alone. The visual you create using this technique is just as important; if anything, the sounds are meant to aid you in amplifying the visual. So, don’t lose sight of the sacred rule – show, don’t tell.
If you use alliteration and consonance but end up telling the reader what to feel, then, then all the poetic and lyrical quality would be futile. Don’t tell the reader Mr. Numpty felt foolish. Show the reader how Mr. Numpty found a feather on his stroll, thought it lucky, and took it for a sign, until he looked further ahead to see several flocks of birds.
As invigorating as it might be to play with lyrical prose writing, be cautious of making it too purple. Purple prose is basically writing which is so excessively ornate that it takes the reader away from the story and fixates them on the ornate description. It is essentially an overdose of adjectives, adverbs, metaphors and poetic devices that take away an intelligent reader’s joy in experiencing the story. Imagine asking someone for direction and that person instantly bursts into a mode of singing the direction. The singing might be great, but it might not let you gather the directions you need. You’d be lost between the keys and notes!
Here’s a popular example of purple prose, an extract from the 1830 novel Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton:
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton
Why tell us that it was a dark and stormy night, when the rest of the description shows just that? Why say violent gust of wind, when gust already conveys how violent the wind must have been? Why say fiercely agitating, when agitating by itself does the job? And why, oh why, do we need to be told that the scene is set in London; I mean, why else was this scene written anyway!
Now, let’s look at lyrical writing with metaphors that could easily have turned purple but didn’t, because the author knew where to pull the reigns. Sandhya Menon’s When Dimple Met Rishi is a young adult fiction debut; and yet, the restraint Menon shows in this writing is commendable:
His eyes reminded her of old apothecary bottles, deep brown, when the sunlight hit them and turned them almost amber. Dimple loved vintage things. She followed a bunch of vintage photography accounts on Instagram, and old apothecary bottles were a favorite subject.When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon
Do you see the difference between purple prose and lyrical writing? On a scale of Ernest Hemingway to Edward Bulwer-Lytton, you want to fall closer to the former, where lyrical prose is concerned. Less purple, more lavender. In essence, grandiose, flowery, and sugary are all fine, and might even be necessary when the scene or setting calls for it, but redundancy is not.
Descriptions of nature are a common pitfall for purple prose; we writers tend to get carried away by the majesty of the landscape and the opportunity to use sensory language. Sometimes, it’s the character’s grand introduction that becomes entwined with purple prose. Nearly every writer, especially in the beginning of their career is bound to write purple prose, and even think it reads great. But that’s absolutely okay; it’s a learning curve, almost a rite of passage. If your prose is purple at the drafting stage, then let it be purple. At the stage of editing, though, make sure to rewrite and adjust the tint to a softer hue. Let your writing breathe.
Top Tips For Writing Lyrically
- Weigh the importance of the passage before deciding on its rhythm, cadence, length of sentences and repetitive sounds.
- Think of how you want to use different punctuation to evoke different emotions in the reader.
- Don’t overdo alliteration, consonance and assonance, unless you’re aiming to sound silly on purpose.
- Purple or lavender, at the draft stage, make sure not to take yourself too seriously. Have fun with lyrical writing and let your words flow.
- At the editing stage, ensure you read your work with the hawk eyes of an editor. Weed out the redundancies, hysterics and melodrama.
- Read James McCreet’s column ‘Under The Microscope’ in Writing magazine every month. He dissects 300 words for style and also suggests rewrites.
- Read contemporary poems, if you don’t already. Our modern poets have a great flair for pulling off lyrical style, without overdosing the reader on beauty. You could also look at lyric poetry in particular for some inspiration.
Benefits Of Lyrical Style In Prose
No writer uses lyrical style exclusively throughout their story. That would be an overkill, turning the writing purple. The idea behind using lyrical style in prose is to try and spruce up your own writing, all the while having a bit of fun. Lyrical prose writing is simply one of the many tools in a writer’s kit of creativity.
Here are some of the ways in which you can benefit from trying lyrical prose in your writing:
- If your writing has a hard quality, then you might want to occasionally change it up with a bit of lyrical style where the text allows it.
- When a character is not easily likeable, but you’d like your reader to stick up for them, you could ease the reader in, using lyrical prose to introduce that character.
- Lyrical writing works very well when you want to use irony in your story. It adds a layer of emphasis on the subtle humour you’re trying to pull off.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Do You Write Prose Beautifully?
If you’d like to write evocative prose, then learn to view every sentence as a story, in and of itself. And yet, you can’t let it take the reader away from your actual story. Knowing how to let your writing breathe is just as important. It’s a balance, one that you can learn to maintain through rigorous rounds of self-editing.
What Is Lyrical Writing?
When prose comes with rhythm, cadence, repetition of sounds and conscious sentence lengths, it makes for lyrical writing. Cadence is my personal favourite, a lyrical writing technique I’m practising consciously. I love how sentence structuring and punctuations can play a major role in evoking the emotion the text itself attempts.
What Is Purple Prose?
Purple is known as a colour of royalty, and as its name suggests, purple prose is the excessively grandiose or ornate quality of descriptive writing. It is often ridden with an overdose of metaphors, redundant adjectives and adverbs, and verbosity. It tends to remove the reader from the story, and instead indulge them in the extravagant beauty of the language itself.
Jericho Writers is a global membership group for writers, providing everything you need to get published. Keep up with our news, membership offers, and updates by signing up to our newsletter. For more writing articles take a look at our blog page or join our free writer’s community.