If you spend some time studying the elements of music, you’ll most often find that lyrics—as a component of the compositional process—are missing. Lyricism? Well, related as it is—and I’ll endeavor to show how it is connected—Lyricism is only sometimes referred to, and usually comes as a function of other parts of music, or rather is expressed through the use of those other components of music.
I could likely write a separate essay on each—lyrics and lyricism. But because I think they’re related, I’m going to have a go at combining them. It’s my damn article series, after all.
Okay, so I’m going to start by defying one of my own cardinal rules of what not to do in essay writing, which is to use some dictionary definitions. But in this case, I think the exception proves the rule:
And to summarize a bit, across a lot of other definitions, we come to the idea of being poetic; of precision of language; of strong use of metaphor, simile, etc. So with all this as a framework, let’s start talking about these parts of music and how they can help you both understand and create good fiction.
At their most basic level, lyrics tell a story. In music, the most obvious purveyors of this sensibility are the singer/songwriters—usually a guy or gal armed with an acoustic guitar, much like we might imagine a good ‘ole bard. The music of this genre is usually rendered with heartfelt words. Consider “I Will Follow You into the Dark” by Ben Gibbard.
These songs typically touch some common human experience that make them resonant with many of our own feelings. It’s not hard to see the linkage between that and good fiction, right? These musicians take care in how they string words together to paint a picture, and the same can be said of writers whose work is considered lyrical. In fact—and not to put too fine a point on it—many writers’ words literally sound like song lyrics. Their prose carries a kind of sing-song cadence and quality of word-choice that results in an easy flow that makes the reading effortless and (dare I say) musical.
I remember in my college days, I took an entire course on the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne. At the end of the semester, we each had to do some involved (outside our comfort zone), creative project to wrap up how well we now “got” Hawthorne. I wound up playing the part (literally! dressing up and writing my own script) of Matthew Maule. Several of us put together a strange video where we each sat in front of the camera and gave our reasons for or against buying the House of Seven Gables. Kind of like a nightmare realtor’s reel from the 1800’s, if such a thing could have existed—ooh, I just had a steampunk novel idea (writing that down). Anyway, while I was doing all this, some other smart undergrad took a few sentences of Hawthorne and rearranged them on a page into more of a poem construction. When this guy (who never had to dress up and act the goof like I did) presented the first few “poems,” none of us had any idea that they were just sentences from Hawthorne novels. But broken up the way they were, they sounded flat out brilliant. Such was an epiphany for me. Writing really could be lyrical.
Now, before going further, I should say that not all song lyricists take a considered approach. I’m sure there are lyrics to songs you know that don’t seem particularly lyrical, right? To ground us in this reality, let me share a few:
“Lucky that my breasts are small and humble so that you don’t confuse them with mountains.” Shakira
“There’s an insect in your ear. If you scratch it won’t disappear.” U2
“Relentless lust of rotting flesh to thrash the tomb she lies heathen whore of Satan's wrath I spit at your demise." Slayer
“Leaving was never my proud.” REM
"Young, black and famous with money hangin' out the anus" Puff Daddy
“Coast to coast, L.A. to Chicago." Sade
“I look at the floor, and I see it needs sweeping. Still my guitar gently weeps." The Beatles
"Making love to a vampire with a monkey on my knee." Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band
"Sometimes you're crazy and you wonder why I'm such a baby 'cause the dolphins make me cry.” Hootie and the Blowfish
“But I ran out of places and friendly faces. Because I had to be free. I've been to paradise but I've never been to me.” Charlene
"It's just another Sunday, in a tired old street. Police have got the choke hold, oh, but we just lost the beat." Starship
"I am, I said to no one there. And no one heard at all. Not even the chair." Niel Diamond
"MacArthur Park is melting in the dark/ All the sweet, green icing flowing down/ Someone left the cake out in the rain/ I don't think that I can take it/ 'Cause it took so long to bake it/ And I'll never have that recipe again/ Oh, no!" Donna Summer
“Get it on. Bang a gong. Get it on.” Marc Bolen
“Wish you could touch me with the colors of your life.” Clay Aiken
“Together we’re one separated we are two.” Millie Vaniili
"We'll make it work so we can work to work it out." Michael Buble
"Let the carbon and monoxide choke my thoughts away." Hall & Oates
“I met him on a Monday and my heart stood still. Da doo ron-ron-ron, Da doo ron-ron.” Shaun Cassidy
“Why you sleepin' with ya eyes closed?” Destiny’s Child Featuring Timbaland
I’m going to add pretty much anything by Simon and Garfunkel. Hell, this is another list that could go on forever. The underlying point is that when you marry great lyrics to great music, the result is a response to the art that is unequaled by books, paintings, sculpture, film, etc. I mean really, passionate as you are about any of those things, do they touch you in the same way as your favorite music. Okay, there are always exceptions, sure. But there’s a visceral reaction to music that most people I talk to about this—and it’s a favorite topic of mine, you can be sure—readily acknowledge.
And, if I may, it comes both in the consumption and creation of music. I’m close to this since I also make music. In fact, as I write this, I’m listening to a composition I’m writing. Love it!
What has all this to do with fiction, you ask? Well, despite there being nothing audible about a book—save audio books, themselves—the language on the page can (and should) be evocative of the best music, or in other words . . . lyrical.
I did another straw poll on novels that do this well. Here’s what folks had to say:
I’m throwing in Pat Rothfuss’s THE NAME OF THE WIND. And, what kind of writer would I be if I didn’t mention Shakespeare. Obligatory, you cry! No, really. I do love Shakespeare. I didn’t at first. But now, I kind of marvel. And then I have to say, also, Mr. Stephen King. King gets at this through such amazing voice. He has a turn of phrase that makes me go right along with him into whatever dark corner he decides. The creep.
Okay, so now think about this. Songs have a kind of structure that other art forms mostly don’t. In large part, it boils down repetition. I’ve written about this before in other articles in this series. Here, the neat thing to consider is how the lyrics in a song that come during a verse, or bridge, or especially a chorus can (or should) carry a desired effect. In song-terms, a chorus, for instance, is usually intended to provide some release of tension that’s been built from prior verses and bridges and such. It drives a point home, and is usually the most memorable part of the tune.
Similarly, in fiction, think about your climactic scenes, right? If you’re reading this you likely know about try/fail cycles. If not, quickly, it’s the engine of most narratives, wherein (did I just write wherein?) your character is trying to do something and must fail several times before the book’s end. This provides the story some tension and drama. The fail part is often at least somewhat climactic, meaning there’s been some build up for us to see if our hero’s going to succeed at this or that. The big SUCCEED at the end of the book is our final climax. Of course, not all writers choose success for their main character at the book’s end, but we’ll not talk about those cynical buggers.
So, a chorus can be something like the repeated attempts of your character to achieve the object of his or her desire—the solution to your story’s central question and probably the main conceit of your book. Taken a step further, as a writer you may also find the literal repetition of some passage of language to have a powerful effect in your story. I did this in a short story once, where a midwife uttered some words over a mother giving birth to a child that would come stillborn; that mother goes on to become a midwife herself, and at the story’s climax, she repeats the words she heard during her own hour of duress. I had a lot of nice comments on the resonance of that for my readers.
Still, though, how do you choose the right words. As readers—and as writers, too—we often like to have words put to some feeling or experience that express it in a way we hadn’t considered before. You know what I’m talking about. You read something and say, “Just so.” Well, you say that if you have an English degree like I do. Probably, you actually say, “Hell yeah!” or “Damn straight!” or “Exactly!”
Part and parcel of this (you know, I should never have gotten that English degree), is reading something about a place or thing about which you have no personal knowledge or experience to ground your reaction, but you find yourself feeling like it’s absolutely right or true. I remember reading in one of Stephen King’s Dark Tower books a scene where a character kind of portals in to a vacant lot in New York City. The description was so impactful that I ran and made my mom read it. It just blew me away. I’d never been to New York, but I pined to go and see a vacant lot strewn with broken glass, ya know?
It’s transportative (“transportative” is a neologism, a new coinage, I made that crap up—but I like it better than transportive.) You understand my meaning, yes?
So, now I’m going to dig back into my vaunted collegial days and talk about actual poetry as a way to illustrate this. Bear with me—there be dragons back there.
I’m sitting in a poetry class one day, and we read “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Willams. It goes a little sumthin’ like this:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
This was extolled as one of the finest poems ever written. Later, I picked up my jaw. I was young and brash and argumentative, so I contended with this assertion. In response, the professor asked us all to think about what we saw when we read the poem and be ready to share it the next day in class. We went round—literally, because this prof was an old Berkeley guy, and made us sit in a big circle—and tell what imagery the poem evoked in our minds. This is where I realized that most of my classmates were only nominally invested in this poetry course. I don’t say that as criticism; I think we all took it because it was a required course, or something. And so, we got a lot of folks regurgitating the adjectives and nouns of The Red Wheelbarrow in a different order to give their mental and/or emotional picture of the poem. Then the prof—who I can best describe as a mudslide—gets to me. And I open my mouth without a damn clue, when I realize that when I read this little collection of words, I did see something kind of specific. Damn specific. And I just must have assumed everyone saw the same thing and that it didn’t amount to much.
Near as I can recollect, what fell out of my mouth—to my own minor astonishment—was this: “It’s not fire-engine red, or Coke can red, or hooker-hot lipstick red. It’s rust-red. The wheelbarrow is completely rusted. It’s been pushed up on its wheel-guard, so that the handles lean up high against the wall of a ramshackle shack; this keeps the rain from pooling in the bottom, which doesn’t make much sense, since it’s already rusted to hell. But the graveyard caretaker does it that way—leans it up against his caretaker shack in between the digging of graves. Because this wheelbarrow hauls around displaced grave dirt and such. And right now, the rain is kind of washing off some of the mud from the last grave he dug. And this caretaker—an old lonely guy who people never seem to see (I can’t even see him) keeps a few chickens, since his salary at the graveyard doesn’t amount to much, and the eggs help him get by okay …”
The class—no foolin’—is dead quiet when I stop talking. I think I hit a kind of trance as I was relating what I’d seen the whole time and just took for granted after reading this poem. Could be, they were a little scared of my interpretation—I was reading a lot of King at the time. I think more than anything, it was just: “Dude, the poem’s only sixteen words. How’d you get all that?” The answer is: I have no friggin’ idea. Except that I think a lot of us see stuff when lyrical words enter our brains. Could come as a poem, or as great lyrics to a song, or as prose that carries the sensibilities of poetry and lyrics—and it’s all lyricism, at least in my mind.
Now, a lot of writers have told me they expressly cannot listen to music with lyrics when they write, because the words interfere with their process. I get this. Then again, there are plenty of writers who can. Neither writer-type is better than the other. But with few exceptions, what I have learned is that most writers have an affinity for music—and not the inane-lyric kind—which also makes perfect sense to me, since I think the words and stories carried upon a tune remind them of the kind of prose they like and desire themselves to create.
Still, how do you do it? Well, this will be somewhat individual to the writer, right? But there are a few tools that I think can help. Things like:
To finish up, then—and for me—music is at its best when it’s married with great lyrics. Yes, that can be a matter of opinion, but if you start by excluding what we can all likely agree are bad lyrics, what we’re left with is a pool of relative awesomeness. Likewise, fiction is at its best when it’s lyrical. Lyricism in your fiction shouldn’t get in the way of story or comprehension, but neither should you grow lazy in the words you put down. Sometimes, fiction writers balk at this idea, and will decry it with chants of: “Purple prose!” Well, yes. Purple prose—overly florid writing—is not a good thing. That is decidedly not what I’m talking about here. Rather, language that flows well, where word choice and rhythm give the story added resonance. It could be there difference between your reader finishing your book, and remembering it.