Lyrical Flashes in Fiction

Partly because I write poetry in addition to fiction, I often feel an urge toward lyricism and figurative language, and I consider the lyrical moment a part of my voice as a writer. But whether in fiction or poetry, similes and metaphors must be true to the speaker. Now, I have a distaste for omniscient narrators in my fiction, so there the speaker, it’s safe to say, is never me. The poeticisms that come to my mind may therefore not align with those that might come to the minds of my characters, so one challenge then becomes how to endow other, different voices with my own lyrical intuitions.

When working with lyricism, as with all writing, one must choose words carefully, since every simile and metaphor directly or indirectly says something about the speaker. “Dorothy chopped the carrots into little orange coins” describes meticulousness, and might imply someone conscious about money. It reveals a very different character mood and personality than “Dorothy chopped the carrots like rat’s tails,” which describes aggression, and conveys disdain for beings considered lower than oneself. Still a third character would be illuminated by “Dorothy chopped the carrots like a stylist would cut hair.” This describes a perhaps artful care, in which the object of the action is noticed. There is nothing perfunctory, resentful, or distracted here. It implies Dorothy is completely conscious of herself and her surroundings.

To help choose appropriately, I try to make my lyrical moments informed, or partly determined by a larger knowledge base about the character’s mood, personality, and situation. But sometimes, if they feel right when written on impulse, they teach me something about the character, and what they reveal then becomes new knowledge which deepens the character and so enriches the story. Either case achieves the goal of keeping the poetic language true to the speaker’s voice.

What’s more, I often find that when all of a character’s poeticisms are true to them, unifying themes sometimes arise. Say we choose the last of the above examples, and that in addition to cutting carrots like a hairstylist, in a different scene “Dorothy watched the lines in the road flash by in silence, like faraway lightning.” What do the two similes have in common? Her awareness, her way of noticing the world, naturally, but more so that this very attention to her environment has weight. Likening the road lines to faraway lightning to me suggests contemplation. Dorothy deeply involves herself in everything she does. She takes no action unconsidered. She values purpose and direction.

This can now become a major part of her character, and of the story. Other lyrical moments can be adjusted to reflect this so that as a whole the poeticisms unite to strengthen both the themes and also the characters in the story. If the lyric flashes amidst the prose thus serve not one but two important functions, I can avoid the trap of using poetic language solely for the sake of itself. Whenever I use a simile or metaphor merely to prettify the words, essentially showing off, I always end up having to cut it in revisions, because it fails to add anything worthwhile. But if I can make such language serve the story in multiple ways, my hunger for using the poetic in fiction can in the end lead to a more deeply explored work.


Taking Explanations to the Chopping Block

I wrote before about shunning abstraction to evoke as much as possible. The sentence “Dorothy felt like one of those pickets her dad left in the yard for patching the fence,” is by no means a bad one. As I said earlier, it evokes a lot, with clarity and concision. But it still has the attribute of explaining to the reader. Any sentence that begins “Dorothy felt” spells out a conclusion. I find it best to allow your readers the benefit of presumed intelligence, and so to let them draw any conclusions in a story. 

In such sentences, I see the explanation resulting from an internal situation of the writing. Only Dorothy can tell that “Dorothy felt.” If I re-situate the writing outside of Dorothy’s mind, I must limit my choice of details to what an observer of Dorothy could notice. This gives readers not what Dorothy feels, but rather how she expresses it through her actions. In the previous discussion I suggested that she is “sulking on her back steps,” and then gave the subsequent sentence describing the pickets themselves. The word sulking to me sounds closer to an explanation than an image, so I’m going to throw it out in favor of visual details which evoke the same thing. And does Dorothy herself really think “I feel like one of those pickets”? That might be just melodramatic enough to make the reader remember she’s fictional.

“Dorothy sat hunched forward onto her knees. She looked out at the pickets her dad left in the yard for patching the fence. They had turned gray and warped when it rained, and she thought he might throw them out before he ever got to using them.” 

Dorothy’s posture shows that she sulks. What she notices about the pickets, and her pessimism about their future, shows her mood. But despite that the first two sentences have become less explanatory and more evocative through their external situation, I feel that the original sentence had an energy to it, keeping the sentences flowing, which may have been lost in the revisions. I can bring it back most easily by cutting any possible words and choosing more compelling ones for what’s left. Right now I have three sentences and forty-seven words. 

The word forward in the first sentence does nothing. Where else would she hunch? The same with out in the second. They go. Turned in the third sentence is weak. I replace it with grayed, making use of words already there: “They had grayed and warped….” She thought moves back inside her head, and tells us nothing we don’t know. Throw them out is uninteresting. I replace throw with pitch and cut out: “He might pitch them…” Might looks paltry before pitch, and since the pickets have warped, their uselessness is certain. He would pitch them. He ever got to is unnecessary. “He’d pitch them before using them.” Using is also weak. We can cut “patching the fence” from the second sentence (along with the now pointless for), and put it in place of using them

That makes the last two sentences into: “She looked at the pickets her dad left in the yard. They had grayed and warped when it rained, and he’d pitch them before ever patching the fence.” They look small enough to be one sentence. We can cut she looked at because it is already understood, and we can cut they from the third sentence, and join the two. 

“Dorothy sat hunched onto her knees. The pickets her dad left in the yard had grayed and warped when it rained, and he would pitch them before ever patching the fence.”

Now we have two sentences and thirty words, without an explanation among them. A lot of work for a small section, but if I can say what I mean in seventeen words fewer than before, the energy and strength of the writing will shoot up. Added or subtracting words will become impossible.

The Difficult Truth of Revision

I recently had the privilege to attend a small Q&A session with poet Claudia Rankine. She said (and I paraphrase from memory), “A first draft is like going to the store to buy some clay. Now you have something tangible to work with, and you can begin the real work of sculpting it.” 

This is the best way I’ve heard so far of explaining my current attitude toward revision. It goes completely contrary to the way I wrote some years ago. Back then I didn’t bother writing anything down until I had it worked out perfectly. A “first draft” was the typed result of long and laborious thinking until I’d freed a story in my mind from any holes. A “second draft” entailed simple edits to make sure I’d accurately conveyed everything. I worked mostly line by line, changing a sentence or two here or there. To look at the entire piece as an unrefined, shapeless lump would undermine all of the work I had done. What would have been the point of writing the story to begin with if it was going to morph into something completely different? 

There could be a lot of point, it turned out. Say there’s only one good scene in a first draft. This is exactly what happens to me most of the time. I can call it a mediocre story and move on, or I can throw out everything except the good scene. I’ll keep maybe one page (or one paragraph) out of seventeen pages, and ask myself what it is that makes this one section right. Using whatever answer I have, I write my second draft, where I’ll have maybe two good scenes. Again, I throw away the rest like so much excess clay. If I keep drafting, eventually the story starts to take shape, and things I hadn’t seen before begin to surface. Stephen King refers to stories as “fossils that we unearth,” and this metaphor works especially well if we imagine our early drafts as being the dirt in which we dig. 

To tell the good scenes from the bad ones, I usually let the story sit, and try to push it from my immediate memory. This helps give me a reader’s perspective, where I’m less invested and so can more easily recognize what’s well-sculpted and what’s still a raw slab. The trick is being able to believe every draft is “the right one” while I’m making it, but then being willing to go back later and say, “This isn’t it. But this paragraph here is right, and now I’m one paragraph closer.” 

It may sound depressing to write ten times as much as I save, but I certainly don’t write well one hundred percent of the time. Ten percent sounds about right, and I’m happy if nobody sees the majority that’s tossed. Really good first drafts are miracles. If I eventually get a story that’s good for the whole way through, it’s worth as many versions as it takes to get it there.

Shunning Abstraction

As a writer, I try to evoke as much as I can with every sentence. Since fiction is my main suit, I’ll use that genre here to explore the process of evocation. To show how it works, I think it helps to start out with a sentence that hardly evokes anything and then see how alterations can bring it up to a level where the reader really sees and, I hope, feels something.

“She was sad.” It doesn’t get much less evocative than that, does it? The sentence is completely abstract. This is one of the first things I learned as a writing student: abstractions evoke little or nothing.She” could be anyone, “was” states only that something happened in the past, and “sad” is about as general and (in my opinion) bland a word as you can get. The sentence lacks imagery, character, and originality, all of which I feel are necessary for my writing to evoke anything meaningful.

Names evoke more than pronouns, so let’s name the she “Dorothy.” Now we have “Dorothy was sad.” At this point we get the feeling it’s a specific person, but we don’t get much else. If Dorothy really was sad, how would she say it? Would she say “I’m sad”? She might, but maybe she would just as soon say something much more interesting. We could say “Dorothy felt like she’d been hit by a truck.” While home to a number of other problems, the comparison is now certainly much less abstract. We have a specific image that the writer clearly intends to evoke extreme pain, and I think pain is usually what people are trying to get at when they say sad.

But we’ve all heard some version of this metaphor before (you can substitute “train,” “bus,” or other common vehicles as you like), and, more importantly, the cliché doesn’t reveal anything about who Dorothy is or how she thinks. It’s in-your-face and over-the-top. While melodrama might in theory be a characteristic of Dorothy’s thinking, I think it more likely that it’s just the writer’s desire to get a rise out of the reader that gives extreme comparisons such as this one their allure. So let’s get away from the writer’s instincts and get to Dorothy’s. How does she express her sadness in a way that reveals her uniqueness as a person, and which evokes the life she has to have lived to get to this point?

Well, let’s say she lives in a city, and would probably base her comparisons on her experiences growing up there. Say she lives in a cheap apartment with her parents, and their backyard is small and cramped, and the fence around it needs to be repaired. Her parents could be blue-collar workers who haven’t had time lately to do everything that needs to be done, so an extra slat or two for the fence have been just lying in the yard waiting to be used. And maybe Dorothy is sulking on her back steps this very moment, and using what she sees in front of her to express the way she feels.

“Dorothy felt like one of those pickets her dad left in the yard for patching the fence.” The sentence may be five times longer than it was before, but the advancement in evocation is more than worth it. Now we get the sense that Dorothy feels not simply pain, but also neglect; she feels forgotten and of little importance. In addition, the sentence places her in a larger picture both in terms of family and of setting. Its function has moved beyond simply describing the character’s feelings, and now begins the work of grounding her in a fictional reality. A crucial result of this is the questions evoked by it; the sentence begs for another. “They had turned gray and warped when it rained, and she thought he might throw them out before he ever got to using them.” Suddenly the reader is brought into the story, and the sentences are moving, leading inevitably from one to the next.