Is it possible to mechanically construct lyrical prose?

Here’s a recent post at Well Storied: Three Tips for Crafting Lyrical Prose

Tips are all very well, but this gave me pause. Can you teach someone to write serviceable prose? Sure. Can you actually teach someone to write lyrical prose? Um. Can you provide three tips that make an actual difference? Um …

Well, I am skeptical, but let me see.

Tip 1: Use different types of repetition. The author is talking about alliteration, consonance, and assonance.

Hmm. The first thing that sprang to my mind was none of the above. I thought first of repetition of words, and the book that sprang to mind was The Silver Chair by CS Lewis. In that one, Lewis might have gone a little overboard with repetition of certain words, such as “moonlight” and “silver.” He might not agree that he overdid it; I read in Planet Narnia that Lewis specifically liked repetition of words as a way of achieving lyricism in prose.

CS Lewis also used plenty of other techniques, including alliteration, as here in The Screwtape Letters : “Was he not unmistakably a little man? A creature of the petty rake-off, pocketed with a petty joke in private and denied with the stainless platitudes in his public utterances.”

Tip 2: Set your syllabic style. The post appears to mean, stick either to shorter words or longer ones.

That seems weird to me. Though the author of the post does say, “Now, this doesn’t mean you have to use the same syllable count throughout your entire short story; instead, you just have to keep some syllabic consistencies within certain sections of your prose.”

… No, that still seems weird to me. I guess I would think of this as part of the style, but only part, and not necessarily worth focusing on especially. Word choice is surely at least as important as number of syllables.

Two syllable words that anybody would use:

Christmas, special, garden, midnight, happy, future, Monday, water.

Two syllable words that not just anybody would use:

adjure, ersatz, verdant, feckless, ribald, inure, nuance.

Number of syllables actually has little to do with style. I mean, I guess it’s a contributing factor to style, but pulling it out as one of three factors on which to focus seems, yes, weird. It seems to me that it would have been better to say Set your style and discuss that, as opposed to focusing on number of syllables.

Tip 3: Consider sentence structure.

The author of the post says: “A short, punchy sentence conveys abrupt truth, sureness, and practicality. A long, flowing sentence, however, can usher in a lyrical feel and a sense of elasticity.”

Here I agree. However, I’d roll that into “style,” and I’d add that it’s important to note that a short sentence only has maximum punch if it’s surrounded by longer sentences. Let me see . . . no, nothing here about how varying your sentence length could be important.

Pretty sure that three fairly simplistic tips are not going to guide anyone from serviceable prose to lyrical prose. Pretty sure that ten tips won’t do it either. I think what might is reading a bunch of novels written with lyrical prose. After reading ten or so, maybe that would be the right time to ask yourself what the authors are actually doing and begin to dissect sentences.

So, fine —

Ten authors who write lyrical SFF, in no particular order

1.Patricia McKillip

2. Guy Gavriel Kay

3. Ursula K LeGuin

4. Jane Yolen

5. Catherynne Valente

6. Peter S Beagle

7. Gene Wolfe

8. Joy Chant

9. Rachel Neumeier

10. ____________________________

Who else? Pick someone to fill in the blank.

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13 thoughts on “Is it possible to mechanically construct lyrical prose?”

  1. McKinley?

    Really coming back to say: having thought of Mckillip I poked Amazon to see if she had anything new. And… Amazon offered up The Karkadan Triangle by Peter Beagle and Patricia McKillip. It’s apparently two stories, not a collaboration, and is Kindle only.

  2. Be warned that Lord Dunsany is known to have funny effects on writers who read him. . . . “the First Terrible Fate That Befalleth Unwary Beginners in Fantasy” as LeGuin put it. (But even non-beginners can feel it.

    But a marvelous writer.

    Two techniques not mentioned:
    1. Willingness to structure your sentences atypically.
    2. Metaphors and similes — which is the absence that surprises me.

  3. Yes, it is possible to mechanically construct lyrical prose.

    GOOD lyric prose on the other hand. . . .

  4. Connie Willis Domesday book. Her humor books are too ridiculously frantic to count as lyrical.

    Also, Jay Kristoff Nevernight chronicles, tho you wouldn’t like it as it is grimdark.

  5. Maybe Greer Gilman. I loved Moonwise and remember it as lyrical. But haven’t looked at it recently. Although she’s got a couple shorter works available on Kindle. She can certainly sling Elizabethan style prose around, and some of it is lyrical. Unfortunately I got halfway through the one I tried and realized I didn’t care, so dropped it.

  6. Those are good techniques to mention, Mary. Now that you’ve pointed them out, I can’t understand why “metaphors and similes” were not in the original post.

  7. A couple samples to look at:
    ‘Will there be bears?”
    “There will be two: white bears, as soft and heavy as a snow, as fell as January, one beyond the other, like the mountains on the edge of Thule. They have waked. There is old fire in their bellies; yellow moonlight in their seeking eyes; blood only in their minds.” And leaning close, he whispered. “They are for a prince to tame.”
    All there were silent, gazing out where nothing was.”
    Greer Gilman, Exit, Pursued by a Bear (which I actually DNF, but it was still available, so..)

    IN many ways it is simple. The only ‘fancy’ word is Thule. What makes it lyrical is the way the words are chosen and put together. The similes contrasting softness and the state of being fell; specifics -old fire, yellow moonlight.. that imply more than is written; the rhythm of the lines. Short, long, short. short. middling to wrap up. The sequence of adj noun, adj noun, verb noun, then the plain noun of ‘blood’ which startles.
    Checks original post and decides this passage is using consonance, too. All those long ‘o’ sounds.

    “The first notes fell like silver ribbons of rain, like blown petals, bright falling leaves. He played those things until his breath warmed the pipes, and they fit into his hand like another hand holding his. The room slowly darkened; Hollis’s breathing wove into his piping, his heartbeat. ” McKillip, Song for the Basilisk
    Similes again! And, maybe metaphor – what would it be called, the phrase “he played those things” meaning the rain, petals, leaves the notes were like? Rolling writing flowing lyrically and carrying the reader along.

    Can this sort of thing be mechanically constructed? i don’t think so, not effectively. You need the correct words, the proper rhythm and I don’t know how it could be taught except by experience.

  8. Good examples. It’s hard to see how anyone could expect to come up with phrases like this except by the “feel” of the language.

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